Use of force is in the spotlight across the United States, challenging law enforcers. Policing tactics in different areas — metropolitan, suburban and rural — receive different levels of community support or pushback. With over 1 million people working as public safety officers in the United States at over 18,000 law enforcement agencies, there are many variants in the delivery of policing services and the crime environment itself.
The internet is chalked full of videos portraying police use of force, and many are brutal to watch. The application of force rarely looks pretty in real life or on a video. Activists have decried law enforcement as occupying forces overindulging in force. At the same time, police agencies have failed to be proactive in reporting force incidents, allowing an information void to grow.
According to a 2018 briefing report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the lack of training and lack of funding for training leaves officers and the public at risk. Critical training areas include tactical training, de-escalation techniques, understanding cultural differences and anti-bias mechanisms, as well as strategies for encounters with individuals who have physical and/or mental disabilities.
Repeated and highly publicized incidents of police use of force involving people of color and people with disabilities, combined with a lack of data and a perception that there is a lack of accountability for noncompliance, feed the perception that police use of force is unchecked, unlawful and unsafe.
Around 61.5 million people had an encounter with the police during the year prior to the survey, but only 2% of people experienced threats or use of force..
What is real?
In the first systematic study on force, The Police and the Public (1971) found the overall rate of unwarranted force to be low — only about 1% of all encounters with citizens. In 1982, the federal government funded the police services study; 12,022 randomly selected citizens were interviewed in three metropolitan areas. The study found that 13.6% of those surveyed had cause to complain about police service in the previous year (this included verbal abuse and discourtesy, as well as physical force).
The most detailed analysis of police shootings was produced by James Fyfe, a criminologist and expert on police practices. He concluded that the single most principal factor determining patterns of shootings is place of assignment. The findings showed that Black and white officers assigned to similar precincts fired their weapons at essentially the same rate; since new officers are assigned to less desirable, high-crime precincts based on the seniority system, younger officers shoot more often than older officers.
The most recent data on police interactions (2019), drawn from a Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) survey, shows that officers had contact with the public on more than 50 million occasions. This included a range of encounters, including traffic stops, people seeking information and individuals reporting crimes. The report found that those interactions led to fatal shootings about 0.00002% of the time. Around 61.5 million people had an encounter with the police during the year prior to the survey, but only 2% of people experienced threats or use of force.
What kind of force is being used?
Visualize the number of calls for service your agency receives daily, monthly and yearly. There are hundreds — thousands — of face-to-face citizen contacts occurring daily between the police and citizens. Published estimates today say 75 million police contacts happen monthly or 900 million per year. Most police-citizen contacts are resolved without incident, and when force must be used to gain compliance, it involves minimal to no injury in most cases. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) has published important use-of-force data:
- 1% of people who had face-to-face contact with police, resulting in a full custody arrest, involved a use-of-force incident.
- 80% of arrests in which police used force involved the use of weaponless tactics. Grabbing was most often used by police about 50% of the time.
- 2.1% of all arrests involved the police using a weapon (OC, taser, baton or gun). The most frequently used weapon by police was OC spray in 1.2% of the arrests.
- The police used firearms the least of any weapon in 0.2% of arrests.
In terms of the raw number of people fatally shot by police in 2021, California ranks 1st (156), Texas 2nd (105), Georgia 3rd (59), Florida 4th (51) and Colorado 5th (42).
Thanks to recent advances in data-tracking police-involved fatalities, we know that roughly 1,000 people are killed by police gunfire each year in the United States. We also know that Black people are disproportionally killed, as they make up 13% of the U.S. population and represent 25% of those killed by police. While roughly twice the number of white Americans are killed in actual numbers.
According to a 2018 briefing report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the lack of training and lack of funding for training leaves officers and the public at risk.
What about assaults on police: They are on the rise
Nationally, according to the FBI, in 2020 (the most current year available), 60,105 officers were assaulted while performing their duties. In 2019, the number of assaults totaled 56,034 (20.8% of these reported assaults involved a dangerous weapon, knife or firearm). These numbers are reminiscent of the peaks in assaults on officers in the 1960s and ’70s. After a 20-year decline, the new millennium has shown an uptick in assaults.
While the number of murdered police officers has increased, it has remained lower than in past decades. However, had ballistic vests not become a standard part of the uniform, the number of dead officers would have included over 3,100 additional lives lost (according to a report from the University of Colorado in 2018). If you took the average number of lives saved due to ballistic vests, it would equal about 80 additional lives that would otherwise have been lost every year. This would suggest that deadly threats to law enforcement have grown substantially.
Given the data available on the use of force utilized by the police, including deadly force, the average police officer has a 3.5-times greater chance of being killed by a citizen than a citizen has of being killed by a law enforcement officer.
The average length of police academy programs has more than doubled in the past decade, from about 300 to over 600 hours. In some cities and states, 900 or even 1,200 hours are the rules. As the time devoted to training has increased, the academies have added a number of important subjects to their curricula: race relations, domestic violence, handling the mentally ill and so on.
Many suggestions on how to improve the application of force by the police have included providing officers with access to mental health care, implementing improved disciplinary measures, requiring implicit bias training, improving community engagement through programs and initiatives, and defunding police departments to allocate funding to other community programs.
What has been missing is the ability to link classroom training with scenario-based experiences. Use-of-force simulators offer the ability for officers to combine classroom training with direct response applications in the safety of a trainer that ensures no one is hurt. It allows officers to practice their responses in a host of different situations using varying types of force response.
De-escalation training is also getting new support from the Department of Justice. With recent funding to support the rollout of a 16-hour course through the National De-escalation Training Center (NDTC) that offers the only Level 3 training (this embraces Level 1 — basic de-escalation tactics, Level 2 — crisis intervention training and Level 3 — personality assessment). This is an expanded skillset designed to diffuse situations before force becomes necessary.
Are the police overreaching in the application of force and deadly force? The numbers do not support that. Yet assaults on officers are rising.
When law enforcement agencies provide for the possibility of peaceful compliance, the public recognizes the legitimacy and authority of law enforcement, so de-escalation efforts may be effective. This makes the policing environment safer and the application of force less prevalent.