What Is Excessive Force?

When do a police officer’s actions to subdue a suspect become illegal? Two recent cases have raised questions of “excessive force.”

Philadelphia police were videotaped Wednesday beating and kicking a suspect who engaged in a chase and a shootout with officers. (You can watch that video.) Another videotape released Wednesday showed police in Lawrenceville, Ga., punching and kicking a drunken driving suspect. (You can watch that video, too.)

There’s no concrete definition of excessive force. Police have to use force to subdue suspects every day. Reasonable levels of force are guessed by cops on the street, second-guessed by police review boards and sometimes tested in civil lawsuits and criminal prosecutions on a case-by-case basis.

Excessive force is a slippery metaphor: experts say it’s any force beyond what’s necessary to arrest a suspect and keep police and bystanders safe.There are some moves, like choke holds, that are altogether barred in certain jurisdictions.

“‘Excessive’ will have different meanings in different jurisdictions,” says Mark Henriquez, project manager for the National Police Use of Force Database Project at the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Judgment Call

Very few incidents of force result in charges of excessive force, says Henriquez. From 1994-98, his project documented 147,362 incidents of police-related force and 6,163 complaints, only 654 of which were sustained by review boards. That’s only .44 percent of force being considered excessive, he says.

But Alison Collins, who wrote a report on police brutality in the U.S. for the group Human Rights Watch, has different numbers. She says the Justice Department receives “12,000 complaints every year of law enforcement abuse,” fewer than 50 of which result in convictions — often the fault of the legal system, not the complainants, according to her.

It’s generally up to cops to weigh whether they’re being threatened, whether bystanders are being threatened, and what force the suspect is using to resist arrest, experts said. The goal is to get a suspect to “comply” — to be subdued enough not to resist arrest.

“The instant compliance is obtained, anything beyond that becomes excessive ... [but] each time a defense to an arrest is offered, the officer has the ability to exercise whatever the minimum force is in their mind to counter [it],” said James Powers, chief of police of Fredericksburg, Va. and head of the IACP’s use-of-force committee.

Many police use a “force continuum” to guide their actions, Powers said: first polite requests, then demands, then chemical sprays, then physical force (ranging from grabbing, punching and kicking to the use of batons), then lethal force. Officers should only use the level of force that’s being used (or is threatened to be used) by suspects against the officers, Powers said.

Heat of the Chase

All-too-human police officers can lose their heads in the heat of a chase, Collins says. Stressed and full of adrenaline, they can get angry, she said.

“The issue in Philadelphia and in Georgia are similar situations; this whole post-chase adrenaline and anger situation that happens with a lot of police officers ... your heart gets racing, you get scared, it’s very, very tense, and that’s when a lot of abuse happens,” she said.

Police chief Powers said police get training to keep their heads cool, and that in excessive-force situations, the individual officer, the department’s training program and the officer’s supervisors may all be held responsible.

That’s not enough, said Collins and Van Jones, executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in San Francisco and a critic of policing practices. They’re calling for independent prosecutors and more powerful civilian review boards, saying police with close ties to the legal system don’t think they’ll be caught or convicted if they use excessive force.

Both Collins and Jones noted that the Philadelphia case is highly ambiguous, and that police often have to use force to detain violent suspects. It should be up to a judge to determine whether that crossed the line into “street justice,” according to Jones.

“Police officers are human, but you can’t have officers acting too similar to suspects they’re apprehending,” Collins said.