The problem of police using excessive and unwarranted force is well-known and not new. Such cases occur quite frequently and always bring about much publicity. The majority of people agree that police officers should use force in certain circumstances but there are a lot of factors that determine what these circumstances are. The cases of police using excessive force are highly undesirable because they discredit police and make people doubtful about the law and justice. Moreover, the widely-known cases of excessive force used by the police may cause riots which are usually connected with killing or injuring people, damaging property and causing material losses. A bright example of such events is the recent riots in Baltimore where people reacted to the death of Freddie Gray who was taken to the police custody. The case of Gray is the most recent case, but, unfortunately, not the only case connected with the excessive use of force by police. In this paper, other similar cases will be discussed. To prevent such tragic events from happening in the future, more research on the factors that encourage police officers to use force have to be carried out. Current report will try to describe these factors based on different types of research and a number of widely known cases of the excessive use of force by police. Moreover, in this paper the general rules of police use of force will be investigated and the possible ways of improving the situation regarding this issue will be suggested. The research on the issues of excessive and unwarranted police use of force is important because it might help to prevent such cases from happening in future.

General Information about the Issue of Police Use of Force

Firstly, the problem of the excessive force used by the police is a very acute and complicated problem. People often face the problem of the excessive and unwarranted police use of force but are seldom aware of their rights and do not know where to go with complaints about it. The existence of such issue is proved by various kinds of research, for instance, the report made by Hickman:

During 2002 large State and local law enforcement agencies, representing 5% of agencies and 59% of officers, received a total of 26,556 citizen complaints about police use of force. This corresponds to an overall rate of 6.6 force complaints per 100 full-time sworn officers. (1)

The figures are quite frightening but there is also one more thing that leaves room for speculation. According to Hickman: Among those complaints having a final disposition at the time of data collection, about 8% were sustained, meaning there was sufficient evidence of the allegation to justify disciplinary action against the subject officer(s) (1). Thus, it can be seen that police officers could also be brought to court and in this case, it is necessary to know, under what circumstances they are allowed to use force to differentiate the cases where police officers disobey the law and are considered to be perpetrated from the situations when the usage of force is necessary.

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According to International Association of Chiefs of Police, the majority (approximately 70%) of cases where the police officers used force in 1999-2000 involved the usage of physical force; while the use of chemical force was also quite frequent (approximately 25%). Moreover, according to the project, the most common injuries that the suspects get are minor injuries.

The Use-of-force Continuum

Firstly, it is known that police officers carry guns and are taught to use force under special circumstances. According to the article Police Use of Force composed by National Institute of Justice, the most general rule of police use of force is the case when officers are permitted and even obliged to use force for the purpose of self-defense and in order to defend other individuals. Furthermore, the extent of force used by police could also be different. Obviously, it is unfair to judge equally the cases where, for example, verbal restraint is used and the cases where lethal force is applied. For this reason, according to the rules of police use of force, there is such aspect as the use-of-force continuum. According to it, there are five levels of force used by police officers. The first level is the officer presence. In some situations, the mere presence of a police officer can prevent some individual or individuals from committing the crime, assault or damage of the property. The level of police officer presence does not suggest any usage of force and verbal threatening; the behavior of the officers has to be polite and professional. The second level is called verbalization. Officers who use this level of force are expected to gain control over an individual or a situation using some voice commands and polite requests. These might include the request to show ones documents to the police officer or short and strict commands like Stop!, Dont move!, etc. The third level involves the usage of the bodily force. Police officers may use different ways of physical force such as grabs, holds, punches, kicks, etc. The fourth level is the level which involves the usage of the so-called less-lethal methods which include the usage of batons, projectiles, special riot gear, electrical devices, and chemicals. The less-lethal methods are considered to be unable to kill a person but may sometimes cause serious injuries as in the case of Timothy Nelson which will be described later. And the last, the fifth level of force implies the usage of lethal force such as firearms. Officers are taught to use all five levels of force. They are also taught to distinguish what level of force is needed to be used in a particular situation and how to switch quickly from one level to the other if necessary. The officers also have to make sure that the person towards whom the force was used did not receive any injuries and this person should be provided with medical aid if necessary. Very often the usage of lethal force or even bodily force in the cases of some minor crimes when the behavior of the perpetrator or a suspect does not pose a threat to the others lives and health is considered to be an excessive use of force by police. There are a lot of such cases and the majority of them got much publicity. This paper will mention some of them to shed light on the circumstances under which the police use of force is considered excessive.

The Famous Cases of Excessive Force Used by the Police

One of such cases is the case of Graham vs. Connor, which took place in 1989. Graham was a diabetic who felt sick and went to the local shop with a friend to buy some juice because he needed some sugar to mitigate the symptoms of the disease. Graham dropped at one of the shops but it was too crowded and the friend quickly left. The police officer Connor saw the friend leaving the shop quickly and suspected him of stealing something. He stopped Graham for investigation. Connor and other police officers did not respond to the Graham and his friends claims that Graham was a diabetic and did not allow him to take some medicine. They assured that Graham did not violate the law and released him but according to the Graham vs. Connor et al.: Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit:

At some point during his encounter with the police, Graham sustained a broken foot, cuts on his wrists, a bruised forehead, and an injured shoulder; he also claims to have developed loud ringing in his ear that continues to this day. (1)

Although, the courts verdict was that the officers were not guilty, they definitely exceeded the amount of force needed in that situation. It is unclear why the officers used the bodily force towards Graham who did not resist as simple verbalization would be enough. Moreover, they did not even try to provide Graham with medical aid even though he suffered not only from injuries caused by the police but also from a sugar reaction.

Fortunately, some progress takes place in the field of police use of force according to another famous case that is the case of Nelson vs. The City of Davis which happened in 2004. In this case, the courts verdict was more just. Nelson was a student who attended a big party. The party resulted in many minor violations of law such as illegal parking, underage drinking and making noise which attracted the attention of the police. The officers commanded students to leave the party and they did not resist but the main problem was that the officers did not instruct Nelson and other students that were going to leave but instead began to shoot them with pepper ball guns. One pepper ball hit Nelson in the eye which caused multiple injuries to his eyesight. According to the Nelson v. City of Davis Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the courts verdict in this case was the following: U.C. Davis shooting, that the use of a pepperball gun against a non-threatening individual committing a minor crime, even in the context of a large disturbance, was

unreasonable (17).

Factors that Influence the Amount of Force Used by the Police

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One more possible example of excessive use of force by police is the notorious death of Freddie Gray. Although it is probably a rash to be sure that the police officers used force during the Grays arrest, this case is very important for understanding the issue of police use of force because firstly, there cannot be denied the fact of Grays death and the situation, when a person died after being taken to the police custody, which was not normal. And secondly, the mere suggestion that Gray died because the police exceeded the permitted amount of force provoked such a considerable response among common people and in Baltimore in particular that it allows suggesting that the case of Gray is not the only of such cases. All these factors prove the importance of research on the issue of police use of force in order to prevent such cases in the future.

It is not easy to decide what amount of force is necessary in this or that situation. There are a wide range of factors which may influence the decision including the suspects resistance, the mental state of a suspect, the level of education of a police officer, the experience of the police officer and others. Some of these factors are crucially important while others make less impact. According to the report Use of Force by Police conducted by National Institute of Justice, the police officers often use force while making an arrest and the frequency of the force usage increases significantly when the suspect is resisting the arrest. According to the report, in 97% of cases when the police used force during an arrest, the suspect was resistant to accept it. The only problem connected with the suspects resistance is that the officers should always use the adequate amount of force. For instance, if the suspect is unarmed and committed or attempted to commit a minor crime, it is unreasonable for a police officer to use firearms. One of the examples of such situation is the case of Tennessee vs. Garner. Garner who was suspected of a home burglary tried to escape from the police officer who commanded him to stop. Garner disobeyed the command and was shot by the officer. It is a rather controversial question whether the officer acted right when he shot an unarmed Garner who was not posing any threat to anyone. Another example is the famous case of Plumhoff vs. Rickard. Rickard was stopped for some minor violation but his inadequate behavior resulted in high speed chase which ended with the death of Rickard and his passenger who were shot by the police officers.

The case of Rickard suggests that the mental state of a suspect is closely connected with the extent of resistance they reveal. According to the report Use of Force by Police: Overview of National and Local Data by Adams et al., the police officers use force more often while dealing with those individuals who are unable to fully control their behavior because of different factors such as alcohol or drug abuse, problems with the mental health or simply because of stress and fear. Such individuals are unable to respond adequately to the commands of police officers and often use weapons to protect themselves from the police which also often results in tragic accidents. The possible solution might be in the increased amount of attention paid to these aspects during the educational process of the police officers. They have to be ready for the resistance of not only armed and dangerous criminals but also those individuals who are under pressure and whose behavior is relatively unthreatening.

Research also proves that some personal factors including race, ethnicity, gender and age do not influence the frequency and amount of force used by the police officers. Nevertheless, according to International Association of Chiefs of Police, male police officers are more likely to use force than female ones. Besides, according to the project, male officers use physical force most frequently, while females prefer using chemical force. However, there are other characteristics that affect the police use of force. These are the level of education and experience. Various studies prove that the police officers with higher education are less likely to use force. According to Galvan:

The Effect of Higher Education on Police Behavior," funded by the National Institute of Justice and conducted by Michigan State University, found that officers with degrees are about 12 percent less likely to use force than officers with a high school education or less.

Galvan also states that although currently only 1% of police department staff in the US require the college degree, the number of officers with higher education is currently increasing and this might bring positive results. The connection between the experience and the use of force is not so obvious. Different studies suggest different answers to the question whether or not the level of experience of a police officer influences their use of force.

Other factors that influence the use of force might include the definite circumstances of a given situation, departmental attributes and the crime rate across the region. The frequency of police use of force often depends on the policies which are different in different police departments. Thus, the frequency of police use of force is not equal in different departments all over the US. The possible solution might be to create a single national document that would regulate the police use of force in all police departments in every state. The use of force also depends on the crime rate of a particular region: in the areas with low criminal rate, the usage of force by police is not typical, while in the regions where the criminal rate is high, police uses force much more often.


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To sum up, police often uses force and in the majority of cases the officers have a right to do so but there are also some cases when the police exceed the amount of force needed to protect themselves and other people and such situations usually get much publicity. The cases of the excessive force used by the police are a very acute and undesirable problem which could lead to various negative consequences such as the recent events in Baltimore. For this reason, research on the issue of police use of force is vitally important. The cases where the police officers are considered to be perpetrators sometimes could be very tricky and the knowledge of rules concerning the police use of force is needed to investigate and solve such cases.

There are five levels of force that could be used by a police officer. The first level is the mere presence of a police officer which is considered to be the way of affecting the behavior of a suspect. The fifth level is the most serious one. This level implies the usage of the lethal force. Between these two levels there are three other levels: the verbalization, the usage of the bodily force, and the less-lethal force. The police officers are taught which level to choose in this or that situation and they have to be ready to switch to the next level if the previous fails to be effective. However, the important issue about the levels of the force used is that it has to correlate with the crime and the possible danger that a criminal could pose during his arrest. The amount of cases where the police officers use excessive force might be lessened if they would be better taught about the levels of the force used and the circumstances under which certain level of force have to be applied. Otherwise, individuals who are suspected in committing minor crimes get serious injuries as it was in the cases of Graham and Nelson.

There are a lot of factors that influence the officers decision about the amount of force that has to be used. The most influential factor is the suspects resistance. It leads to the police use of force in the overwhelming majority of the situations. Another important factor is the mental state of an individual. If a suspect is drunk or his behavior is affected by drugs or mental illness, it increases his risk of him becoming the victim of the excessive use of force by the police. In order to avoid the tragic accidents of police use of force, as shown by the cases of Garner and Rickard, the police officers should be explained what levels of force are allowed to be used towards those individuals who are unable to control their behavior.

Such factors as age, race, ethnicity and gender do not influence significantly the frequency and amount of force used, although some more research on this issue would be useful along with the research upon the level of experience of a police officer and its relation to the use of force. One factor that definitely influences the frequency of the use of force is the level of education. Various researches prove that the officers with higher education are less likely to use force. The increased number of educated officers in all police departments might lead to the reduced amount of force used by the police. For this reason, it might be beneficial to establish the rule of compulsory college degree for all individuals who want to become police officers.

Other factors that might decrease the amount of police use of force are the establishment of a policy which would represent an official document and be used not only for a single department but for all departments across the country. The reduced crime rate might also contribute to solving this problem because in the areas with the low crime rate, police officers are less likely to use excessive force.

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