Varying degrees of force can be used be people to protect themselves and their property, or by law enforcement officials to subdue a subject. It's permissible to use reasonable force. However, excessive or extreme force is unlawful. Because deadly force is sometimes necessary, it's not always unlawful.
Force is defined as violence or power directed at a person or object. Constructive force consists of threats or intimidation used to prevent resistance or gain control over a person. Actual or physical force means force that consists of a physical and often violent act.
Reasonable force, also known as legal force, means the use of force that's appropriate for protecting yourself and your property, while not being excessive.
Unlawful or Excessive Force
Unlawful or excessive force is physical force directed at a person that's unreasonable or unnecessary under the circumstances. For instance, using a weapon, such as a knife or gun, against someone who has only attacked you with his bare hands would be considered unnecessary, and therefore, unlawful. The use of such force is a criminal offense and can also give rise to a civil tort claim.
Deadly force is defined as an action that creates the risk of death or serious injury. Deadly force, while extreme, isn't necessarily unlawful or excessive. Deadly force is permissible in circumstances of self-defense when retaliating against some else's use of deadly force. For example, if someone punches you, you cannot shoot him; however, if someone's holding a gun on you, you have the right to protect yourself by firing first.
Use of Force in Law Enforcement
The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) studied the use of force in law enforcement in 2001. In that study, reports the U.S. Department of Justice website COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services), force was defined as "the amount of effort required by police to compel compliance by an unwilling subject." Attempting to restrain a suspect requires most police officers to use some kind of physical force. Most officers have five options available in exercising force: physical (with some part of the officer's body), chemical (pepper spray, but not mace), electronic (taser), impact (night stick) and firearm.
No legal definition exists to determine whether a police officer's use of force is reasonable and necessary or excessive and unlawful. Most times, if a police officer reasonably believed that the force used was necessary, the use of that degree of force will be deemed acceptable. However, police officers occasionally use improper force. Force is considered excessive when police officers use more force than necessary to restrain a suspect. If the force used is so extreme that there's no justification for the officer's actions, the use of such force is considered unlawful.
Police officers are constantly being trained about the use of force and specific techniques to minimize the use of required force. As more non-lethal methods of restraining suspects are discovered, the incidents of excessive and unlawful force should decrease.
- Black's Law Dictionary, 3rd edition; Bryan A. Garner, ec.; 2006
- COPS: Use of Force
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