What is the "Force Continuum" used by Police to determine proper escalation of force in arrests?

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belarafon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Police Officers are expected to use force during their daily operations. When dealing with police, people fear arrest and/or damage; this is not a legal or properly defined criteria, but it is commonly understood that a police officer is allowed to use a certain amount of force in arrests, and fear of this force contributes to the efficacy of police presence.

To avoid legal retribution in cases where police force might be deemed excessive, there are Standards of Escalation -- called the Use of Force Continuum -- by which an officer should abide. Different parts of law enforcement have different standards. The most common representation of the Use of Force Continuum is the "stair step" graph, in which each level of force occupies a higher step matching the level of subject resistance.

A typical escalation of force might involve:

  1. Officer presence -- this discourages criminal action as explained above.
  2. Soft hand contact -- this includes disarming and handcuffs.
  3. Pepper spray -- this falls under non-lethal defense.
  4. Hard hand contact -- this includes strikes and joint locking to subdue the subject.
  5. Non-lethal damaging weapon -- this includes baton, riot shield, and improvised weapons.
  6. Warning of deadly force
  7. Deadly force -- firearm or other deliberately deadly force.

This sort of escalation is intended to be used in direct response to a subject's level of hostility, but there are many cases of police skipping steps and using unnecessary force. These charts are used both by police training and by civilians to understand expectations when dealing with law enforcement.