Managing Police Use of Force

ARTICLE | Jul 20, 2016

The use of force is the core role of the police. Think about it for a second. Just about everything the police do involves the use, threatened use, or implied use of some type of force. From their simple presence, to firing a weapon, force is the central element of the police officer’s job.

Watching the news these days exposes you to steady coverage of police shooting unarmed people. Based upon the frequency of the coverage, you would think the police are constantly gunning down members of the public on a routine basis. In actuality, use of deadly force by the police is extremely rare.

Most officers go their entire careers without ever firing their weapons except during training. While no national statistics are available on police firearms discharges, the New York Police Department (NYPD) in 2015, for example, recorded 35 incidents of firearms discharges during “adversarial conflicts” that year.

That translates to less than 1 firearm discharge for every 1,000 members of the NYPD. Managing use of force, however, is probably the most critical job your police department can do. One bad incident can cost a community financially, as well as in terms of an erosion of trust.

Even a lawful and proper use of force can sometimes look bad when it is portrayed on video and in the media. As the expression goes: “Sometimes lawful, looks awful.”

Key Questions to Ask

Is your department prepared? Do you hire the right officers, and are they equipped with the right equipment, training, and supervision to use force properly? How does the department respond to use-of-force incidents after they occur?

Does—or should—the community have a say in how all of this gets done? These and many important questions should be front and center in your discussions with the police department. The answers can mean the difference between life and death.

Guiding Principles

In March 2016, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) published a report entitled Guiding Principles on the Use of Force. In the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, PERF understood that this topic needed greater scrutiny and embarked on an 18-month inquiry into police use of force.

PERF convened two separate conferences involving hundreds of police officials from around the world. It commissioned a national survey of police chiefs, conducted three field studies on effective training and tactics (Scotland, Northern Ireland, and New York City), and conducted numerous focus groups with various police officers from around the country.

The product of this work was the Guiding Principles report ( Thirteen of the principles involve changes in policy, 11 involve training, 4 involve equipment, and 2 involve training for 911 call takers and dispatchers. All of them are related to using the minimum amount of force necessary and to de-escalate incidents to the greatest extent possible.

Negative Feedback

Police groups around the country immediately criticized the report. Characterized as a knee-jerk reaction to a series of isolated and sensational incidents, the PERF report is said to view cops as bad, their tactics bad, and their training bad.1 The reality, it is argued, is that the police are the best-trained and most-respected part of government, and the PERF report only threatens to undermine the safety of police officers by advocating for unrealistic and unmanageable policies.

Can the PERF report be of value to your department and to your community? The lawful use of force is entrusted to the police. It seems that trust is being questioned and recommendations are offered to manage the use of force and restore or build that trust.

Do you know where your department stands on these important issues?


Endnotes and Resources

1Lance LoRusso (March, 22, 2016). “PERFectly Wrong: Why LEO “leaders” need to stop apologizing for the use of force.” Law Enforcement Forum. Also see:

You may also be interested in