Use of force by police officers has always been an area of significant risk and, therefore, a source of training and policy investment for law enforcement organizations. Police officers face tough decisions and time is not always on their side, as often they must take swift action in the face of direct threats.

Use of Force Affects Everyone

The authority that is granted to officers to use deadly force requires their ongoing accountability to our communities, both as public servants and as members of those same communities. In today’s policing environment, any time an officer engages in deadly force, it raises significant community focus and concerns regardless of whether the shooting is subsequently found “justified” or not.

Shift in Legal Boundaries

In recent years, there has been a shift from defining the framework for use of force incidents from what are permissible legal boundaries for an officer’s actions, to what the community believes is the appropriate use of force within a given situation. Consistent with this shift in focus is the recognition that not every threat faced by an officer is equal. Police departments have instituted crisis intervention training and have provided other types of force instruments in an effort to minimize the use of deadly force in certain situations. However, the decision framework that officers are trained in and then implement often remains focused on eliminating the threat faced, rather than assessing the overall situation. Options remain force focused, albeit with the inclusion of less lethal tools rather than just firearms.

Multiple Decisions, Short Time

A variety of criminal and social issues are present when police officers respond to calls for service and are faced with a threat. Officers need to be trained to operate within a multi-decision framework to respond to the range of threats encountered, rather than solely a force escalation model. Once there is a use of force decision by an officer, the range of options that follow become significantly narrowed – as there is a force-directed outcome through use of the force escalation models trained in many police academies.

The Police Executive Research Foundation (PERF) has joined the discussion about what should be the driving concerns for policies and practices around police use of force. Their approach, consistent with that of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and other experts, suggests that using a decision-making framework and focusing on de-escalation can help lessen the need for use of force in many situations. These practices need to be included in police policy, training and accountability.

At the core of these calls for a qualitative approach to use of force is a need for a fundamental shift in the culture of policing. Since 9/11, we have seen a focus on the militarization of law enforcement in response to the threat of terrorism. The tide is turning back to the foundation of community-oriented policing practices, with engagement for and by the communities that police departments serve. Viewing police officers as guardians of their communities rather than warriors is a concept that needs to be embraced in order to further develop and regain trust in the residents they serve. Providing the appropriate framework for decision making in a complex environment, rather than a use of force escalation model, is a start to regaining that trust.