What Is Excessive Force?

ByABC News
July 13, 2000, 11:50 AM

July 14 -- When do a police officers 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.)

Theres 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 its any force beyond whats 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. Thats 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.

Its generally up to cops to weigh whether theyre 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.