Thesis: Use of Force in Law Enforcement

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¶ … Force in Law Enforcement

The controversy swirling about Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a respected Cambridge professor who happens to be an African-American, and Sgt. James M. Crowley, a police officer who arrested him at his home after someone called the police and said someone was breaking into it, is just one example of the wavering gray area which officers have to tread when deciding when to use force or not. When harangued because of his mistake, the officer took offense and the conversation became heated, setting off a controversy which reached the White House. President Barack Obama made the remark in a news conference that the police acted "stupidly" and the incident became a national issue. The New York Times reflected that "Police departments issue their officers Kevlar vests to stop bullets, and thick helmets and even shields to protect them from bottles and bricks. But there is nothing in the equipment room to give an officer thicker skin" (Wilson & Moore, 7/24/09).

The article goes on to inform the reader that training makes the difference between an officer who is thin-skinned and allows offensive language to wound him and an officer who ignores such remarks. "The line of when to put on handcuffs is a personal and blurry one, varying among officers in the same city, the same precinct, even the same patrol car," Wilson and Moore remind the reader. In Los Angeles, one officer said that facing bad language and taking it was a part of his job, that a police officer doesn't always hear what he or she wants to hear when arresting or ticketing someone. A person is not at their best when confronted this way or involved in a conflict when officers arrive. Other officers in Brooklyn disagreed, saying that they prefer to remain in control of a situation, and do not like to lose face in public. Still, the officers agreed that when it is the officer who is the source of the conflict, then the officer should leave. A detective declared that an officer cannot lock up everyone who is technically abusive, that "you've got to know which battles to fight" (Ibid.)

The profession of law enforcement is one of the most misunderstood professions. The general public both reveres and fears the police officer and the movies and television warp the concepts and duties of an law enforcement office so much that it is difficult to tell what is real and what is not, what can be trusted and what must be avoided. Unfortunately, from the officers' points-of-view, the way they regard their jobs and the way they regard the citizens they have sworn to protect, there is much to misunderstand as well. The modern-day law enforcement agency is attempting to dispel any myths and facades which have grown up around the model peace officer and offer valuable training and knowledge to new recruits and young officers which will help them realize their true mission and duties, as well as their responsibilities toward their fellow citizens.

In order to carry out their responsibilities, officers must be trained in the use of deadly weapons and other defenses. They also learn the proper terminology, language, and problems that misunderstanding the terminology might cause in the community. They learn their legal limits and their rights, as well as how they can carry out their duties in a legal manner. They learn about documentation of their actions and duties, and how valuable this paper documentation can be in the workings of the concerned community. They learn how positive interaction with members of the community, the media and the press can improve their job.

Reporting on the use of force is one of the ways of controlling risk in the carrying out of an officer's duties. Knowing what the standards for using reasonable force, knowing what pitfalls may await them by studying the mistakes of the past and applying this knowledge to their own reporting and use of weapons in the line of duty, is part of a young officer's training. Learning the standards for force reporting and learning how to make a report with complies with the standards helps improve officer safety on the job.

New weapons for subduing criminals and keeping officers safe in the line of duty have appeared. The Taser is a new weapon which already has a history and therefore can only be used in certain circumstances. The Taser is a handgun-sized device which has occasionally proven to be lethal, but can also be used to stun an unruly suspect with 50,000 volts of electricity from up to 18 feet away. Officers may also use the baton, a flashlight, stun guns, pepper spray and mace. Seldom used are tear gas and rubber bullets. Lethal weapons such as rifles and handguns are part of the arsenal which an officer must learn to use only as a last resort. Lethal and even the less lethal devices are sometimes misunderstood, and an officer must know what the public thinks when one of these is used.

During a law enforcement officer's career, it is almost certain that a question will arise concerning whether to use any of these weapons and, if so, how much reasonable force is needed when arresting criminal suspects. Because an arrest and the subsequent investigative detentions are considered seizures of persons and property, the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution must govern them. However, part of this paper will discuss whether it is actually necessary and reasonable to use force, as preventative measures against crime have changed the statistics.

In most urban and suburban areas, however, the use of deadly weapons and force is still an inflammatory issue. If police are still shooting unarmed suspects as often as they once did, then new training methods and new policy procedures are not working. The basic understanding of the officers' rights and limits must be better understood. Enforcement officers must have and show probable cause in order to make a valid arrest. The manner in which arrests are carried out must not only be justified at their inception, but the level of force that may be used, must be considered "reasonable."(Hall, p. 1)

The word "reasonable" continues to come up and be debated in all courts of law, as the Constitution and other codes state that force may be used if it is constitutionally reasonable to arrest suspects considered dangerous or to defend life when necessary.

The Constitution puts forth a standard of "reasonableness" in the Fourth Amendment, saying that the word is not conducive to "precise definition," but that each individual case must be viewed separately. Seen from the perspective of a reasonable law enforcement officer at the scene, cases are considered, not with hindsight, but in consideration of the fact that split-second judgments must often be made "in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving-about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation" (Graham, pp. 396-397).

In deciding the circumstances that govern reasonableness in using particular levels of force, the Supreme Court has shown that it depends upon "the severity of the crime;" "whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others;" and "whether the suspect actively is resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight" (Hall, p. 1). Recent cases may reassess law enforcement officers' applying force when making arrests.

Chapter Two -- History of the Use of Force in Law Enforcement in the United States

In decades past, police psychologists have attempted to screen out officers who might be at risk for using excessive force in the course of their duty through pre-employment identification of violence-prone candidates. However, psychologists serving police complain that they more often are called in to counsel in response to incidents of excessive force use, rather than trying to prevent it (Scrivner, p. 1).

But a psychological profile for officers at risk for violent tendencies is emerging and new ways of behavior monitoring, better training, and ways for dealing with job stress, attempting to alleviate much of the incidents of violent behavior on the job. The psychological profile for an office at risk involves analyzing the candidate's decision-making and problem-solving abilities, as well as the kinds of interaction the candidate has with others. These areas are important for producing an office who will be involved in community policing.

Because of the use of force and the effect that violence has upon the human psyche, psychologists have played a large part in the downturn of violent incidents in statistics in the United States. Since the 1960's, police psychologists have had a place in the operations of large police forces, expanding their duties quickly beyond screening to the broader range of support services, such as helping officers cope with job stress, training officers in human relations and stress management. They did debriefings after traumatic incidents, used forensic hypnosis, conducted lie detection tests and assisted in negotiations in hostage or barricaded situations. But they always were… [END OF PREVIEW]

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