Captain’s Blog 6-16-15: Use of Force–When is it justified?
Hello everyone. This post is unusually long, even for me. I apologize for my wordiness, but the topic of today’s blog is a complex one and can’t be answered well with a sound bite.
The use of force by police officers has always been a controversial topic, made even more so now that videos showing use of force incidents across the country are in the news and on social media weekly. These videos, whether from bystanders or an officer’s body-worn camera, could help improve transparency and police accountability while also providing the best evidence for criminal prosecution of suspects. The videos are certain to contribute to the controversy surrounding officers using force because they will never be able to capture all the subtleties, perceptions and mindset of those involved in an arrest or confrontation.
I have worked for the Santa Rosa Police Department for nearly 23 years, and I’m comfortable saying that trying to arrest or detain a resisting suspect is scary, ugly, and sometimes chaotic. There is no use of force, even when it is reasonable and legally justified, that will look good to bystanders or on video. Many people have a strong emotional reaction when they see an officer or officers taking someone to the ground, using a baton, Taser, or other tool to gain compliance and make an arrest. We sometimes do a poor job of addressing that emotional reaction because we have to base our review and investigations strictly on the law and facts. With that in mind, let’s talk about the laws that give an officer the authority to use force, and what levels of force are justified in a given situation.
The Santa Rosa Police Department’s Use of Force Policy states that police officers may use force in the performance of their duties consistent with the California Penal Code:
- To prevent the commission of a public offense; • To prevent a person from injury; • To effect the lawful arrest or detention of persons resisting or attempting to evade that arrest or detention; • In self-defense or in the defense of another person.
The policy also specifies that justification for the use of force is limited to the facts known or perceived by the officer at the time the force is used. Our policy is based on the California Penal Code and decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court. Section 835a from the California Penal Code gives officers the authority to use force in certain situations and states the following:
- Any peace officer who has reasonable cause to believe that the person to be arrested has committed a public offense may use reasonable force to affect the arrest, to prevent escape or to overcome resistance. • A peace officer who makes or attempts to make an arrest need not retreat or desist from his efforts by reason of the resistance or threatened resistance of the person being arrested; nor shall such officer be deemed an aggressor or lose his right to self-defense by the use of reasonable force to effect the arrest or to prevent escape or to overcome resistance.
This law is important because it states that an officer may use force if necessary to make an arrest. This concept was reinforced by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989 when they handed down a unanimous decision in the case of Graham v. Connor . This landmark case dealt with whether an officer’s use of force was “reasonable”. The nine Justices acknowledged that the right to make an arrest or investigatory stop carries with it the right to use some degree of physical force or threat to effect the arrest or detention. The court also ruled that the justification for any use of force must be judged based on the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight
When determining whether to apply force and evaluating whether a particular use of force is reasonable, a number of factors should be taken into consideration, as time and circumstances permit. These factors include, but are not limited to:
- Immediacy and severity of the threat to officers or others. • The conduct of the individual being confronted, as reasonably perceived by the officer at the time. • Officer/subject factors (age, size, relative strength, skill level, injuries sustained, level of exhaustion or fatigue, the number of officers available vs. subjects). • The effects of drugs or alcohol. • Subject’s mental state or capacity. • Proximity of weapons or dangerous improvised devices. • The availability of other options and their possible effectiveness. • Seriousness of the suspected offense or reason for contact with the individual. • Training and experience of the officer. • Potential for injury to officers, suspects and others. • Whether the person appears to be resisting, attempting to evade arrest by flight or is attacking the officer. • The risk and reasonably foreseeable consequences of escape. • The apparent need for immediate control of the subject or a prompt resolution of the situation. • Prior contacts with the subject or awareness of any propensity for violence. • Any other exigent circumstances
The Santa Rosa Police Department’s policies are based on these laws and other case decisions. These are also some of the laws considered by the District Attorney’s Office and other officials when reviewing an officer’s use of deadly force for criminal liability.
Like I said above, no use of force looks good on video. We have all probably seen examples of officers across the country using force that was found to be excessive and unnecessary, but frequently what looks excessive to those who are not involved in the incident or investigation is found to be justified and reasonable based on the law of the land.
The Santa Rosa Police Department does not condone and will hold our staff accountable for the improper use of force. We also want to point out that public safety is a shared responsibility, and there is no legal right to resist or disobey an officer’s legal command. Officers don’t want to and are not required to get hurt, nor does the law does not require an officer to meet force with minimal or even equal force. Instead, the law states that our force must be reasonable based on the facts and circumstances known to the officer at the time.
For a more in depth look at our policies and practices, join us in the fall at our next Citizen’s Police Academy.
– Captain Craig Schwartz
If your interested in a Citizen’s Police Academy but don’t live in or near Santa Rosa, check your local law enforcement jurisdiction for the academy nearest you. They are worthwhile, I guarantee.