On the Use of Force by Police

‘The best possible guarantee against ill-treatment is for its use to be unequivocally rejected by police officers themselves.”

[Report to the Government of Montenegro on the visit to Montenegro carried out by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) from 15 to 22 September 2008 CPT/Inf (2010) 3 at paragraph 16.]

Let’s talk about force and how we react to it. We Americans value our independence, free thought, and chaff at being told what to do – especially by the government. Yet most of us (white) Americans have little contact with police in which physical force is used. There are few people, besides police, in our society who have the legal right to put their hands on you and against your will or to take your life – the application of state-sanctioned violence

That’s why police need to be particularly cautious and controlled when physical force legally needs to be applied – from a handgrip that says “you are to come with me” to firing a lethal weapon at another person.

We Americans love our independence. During the Revolutionary War our nation created a flag that carried the words “Don’t Tread on Me”?  It was used by Continental Marines. Today, the state of New Hampshire carries the state motto “Live Free or Die.” Yes, we Americans love our freedom and independence. Don’t tell us what to do – we want to be able to do what we want when we want to do it!

And that’s precisely why the use of force by the government is a particularly sensitive matter and should be the concern of everyone – not just immigrants, poor people, or those of color.

During my policing years, I have always taught to my officers the importance and sacred honor of their ability to use physical force in carrying out their duties. I also shared this with many community groups — YOU have given us this trust. Therefore, the nature of public trust should be imbedded into modern police of use of force policies and its training. Trust is also one of the recommendations of the 2015 presidential task force on policing.

“Use of physical control equipment and techniques against vulnerable populations… and others—can undermine public trust and should be used as a last resort.”

It is important that these documents become part of policing’s so-called “body of knowledge.”

The use of physical force by police is a sacred, public trust and needs to be used judiciously, cautiously, wisely and as a “last resort.” Within the European Union, participating countries must adopt the police use of force standard which is “absolute necessity.” That is the question that must be asked in all use of force encounters – was it an absolute necessity!

The full text of Article 2 from the European Convention on Human Rights and Policing is as follows:

1. Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law. No one shall be deprived of his life intentionally save in the execution of a sentence of a court following his conviction of a crime for which this penalty is provided by law.

2. Deprivation of life shall not be regarded as inflicted in contravention of this article when it results from the use of force which is no more than absolutely necessary: (a) in defence of any person from unlawful violence; (b) in order to effect a lawful arrest or to prevent escape of a person lawfully detained; (c) in action lawfully taken for the purpose of quelling a riot or insurrection.

In order to manage the use of force; especially deadly force which undermines the trust and support of police which is necessary for them to be effective, police and their communities need to engage in a public discussion of current police policies and training and for police to report the ways in which they are responding to this public trust (and present the data to back up what they have to say).

But, ultimately, the control of force by police rests within the individual police officer who, as the opening quote to this post states, must reject the ill-treatment of others.

Ultimately, the improvement test will be when this nation reduces the number of citizens that are killed by police.

So far, since 2015, when outside sources started counting these deaths, there has NOT been a significant reduction in those numbers. (See the data which has been gathered officially by our nation, but by journalists.)

There is work that needs to be done.