One of the most contentious hot-button topics in law enforcement today concerns the use of force by police, underscored in recent years by several highly publicized cases, such as the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breanna Taylor in Louisville, Michael Brown in Ferguson and, more recently, Tyre Nichols in Nashville. While incidents that result in the death of civilians may receive national, even international attention, there are many more less-than-lethal events where the use of force has generated significant attention and scrutiny from local citizens, the media and governmental entities.
In the 2016 book Shooting to Kill, Oxford University professor Seumus Miller defines the law enforcement officer’s role in terms of “protecting the legally enshrined, justifiably enforceable, moral rights of citizens from violation by fellow citizens, and the use of coercive, including lethal, force in pursuing this end.” The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) describes the use of force as “the amount of effort required by police to compel compliance by an unwilling subject.”
There are about 800,000 sworn LEOs in the U.S., including municipal police, county sheriffs, state troopers and federal law enforcement agents. In its 2020 report, Overview of Police Use of Force, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) states that situational awareness is essential, and all officers should be trained to judge when a crisis requires the use of force to gain the necessary control of a situation. Officers may receive some guidance from their individual agencies, but there are no universal regulations governing when officers should use force or how much should be used.
How prevalent is it?
For all the attention and inquiries that this issue has generated, the U.S. lacks a single authoritative database that details and tracks all use-of-force incidents, making it difficult to examine the actual prevalence, along with the specific reasons for or consequences of the use of force.
A 2022 report from the Institute for Public Research at the Center for Naval Analyses noted that recent social movements calling for police reform in the use of force have highlighted the lack of data collected or publicly available on such incidents, accompanied by a lack of transparency and consistency on disciplinary processes and protections put into place. While the FBI attempted to launch a definitive database to track police use of force in 2017, voluntary reporting of such events by this nation’s 18,000-plus law enforcement agencies was insufficient; only about 14% responded, leaving the FBI’s database essentially ineffectual.
Jason C. Johnson, head of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, told ABC News, “The lack of ability to have reliable and comprehensive data on police use of force is one of the biggest things that is hampering law enforcement’s objective, which is really to gain trust of the community. It is critical that we have thorough, comprehensive data about police use of force.”
There are a number of alternative databases recognized as reliable and valid, such as the Pulitzer Prize–winning Washington Post Fatal Force Database, which has logged every deadly shooting in the United States by a police officer in the line of duty since 2015 and includes the federal IDs of the police departments involved. This database has recorded nearly 8,000 fatal police shootings since its inception, uncovering an overall upward trend in the shootings and disputing federal records indicating that fatal shootings by police have been declining nationwide since 2015. In 2021, the Post logged 1,047 fatal shootings, up 5% from the 994 fatal police shootings counted in 2015. A subsequent Post investigation found that the FBI undercounted fatal police shootings by more than half. In 2020, the Post database received recognition from the NYU School of Journalism as one of the top 10 works of journalism of the decade, and in 2022, the database was honored with a Peabody Award.
Statista provides another reliable and valid database tracking police use of force. Over 2,000 universities rely on Statista, including Harvard, Stanford and Yale, as well as hundreds of industrial concerns around the world. Like the Post database, Statista also asserts that the trend of fatal police shootings in the U.S. seems to be increasing, with 1,096 fatal police shootings in 2022, up from 1,048 in 2021.
Warriors or guardians?
Broadly speaking, the use of force by LEOs becomes necessary and is generally allowed only under specific circumstances, such as in self-defense or in defense of another individual or group. However, there is no single, universally agreed-upon definition of the use of force. Officers may receive guidance from their individual agencies, but no universal set of rules governs when LEOs should use force and how much. The IACP points out that situational awareness is essential, and officers should be trained to judge when a crisis requires the use of force to regain control of an event, but that training is not consistent from agency to agency.
One individual who has influenced the discussion concerning police use of force is Dave Grossman, a nationally prominent trainer and the author of Bulletproof Mind, who has endorsed the concept of LEOs as “warrior cops.” A retired Army ranger and former West Point instructor, for the past two decades he has conducted thousands of training events for law enforcement agencies in all 50 states. “If you properly prepare yourself, killing is just not that big a deal,” Grossman has said. “Are you prepared to snuff out a human life in defense of innocent lives? If you can’t make that decision, you need to find another job.”
Grossman’s critics include University of Nebraska criminal justice professor Samuel Walker, who has characterized his training as “okay for Green Berets but unacceptable for domestic policing.”
In the 2013 book Rise of the Warrior Cop, veteran New York Times journalist Radley Balko describes how a series of policies and relentless declarations of war against vague enemies like crime, drugs and terror have blurred the distinction between cop and soldier. Balko documents how a creeping battlefield mentality has isolated and alienated many American police officers and put them on a collision course with the values of a free society. “Over the last several decades, America’s cops have increasingly come to resemble ground troops. The consequences have been dire: the home is no longer a place of sanctuary, the Fourth Amendment has been gutted, and police today have been conditioned to see the citizens they serve as an ‘other’ — an enemy.”
“[LEOs] are taught that they live in an intensely hostile world. A world that is, quite literally, gunning for them,” writes Seth Stoughton, a law professor and former police officer, in an article for the Harvard Law Review. “Death, they are told, is constantly a single, small misstep away.”
In 2021, Brookings Technologies, renowned for its emergency vehicles and related products, issued a report comparing the mindsets of the warrior cop with the guardian cop. “The warrior mentality … often see police forces in military terms: they are soldiers fighting an enemy force, namely crime, as they try to uphold the law. The guardian mentality puts emphasis on protecting community members.”
Wherever one comes down on the warrior/guardian debate, one thing is certain: The use of force is uniquely intrinsic to police work and will always be. That said, some 30 years ago, the United Nations Human Rights Commission, in its Eighth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, issued what it entitled the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials: “Law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms … Law enforcement officials shall not use firearms against persons except in self-defense or defense of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury, to prevent the perpetration of a particularly serious crime involving grave threat to life, to arrest a person presenting such a danger and resisting their authority, or to prevent his or her escape, and only when less extreme means are insufficient to achieve these objectives. In any event, intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”
This same concept is reflected in the recent Department of Homeland Security update on the use-of-force policy following an executive order by President Biden in March 2023: “LEOs may use force only when no reasonable, effective, safe and feasible alternative appears to exist and may use only the level of force that is objectively reasonable in light of the facts and circumstances confronting the LEO at the time force is applied.”