5 Common Use-of-Force Myths Debunked

Even though this article is directed to law enforcement, it equally applies to any self-defense deadly force encounters.

by Duane Wolfe
The Warrior's Path
Nov 17, 2014

Too many administrators, chiefs, mayors, city council members, community activists, and members of the media are unaware of Graham v. Connor, let alone the four-pronged test of ‘reasonableness’

With the Ferguson case still in the headlines, I’ve had the opportunity to read a lot of articles and comments from cops and police trainers regarding use of force. All too often I read comments on use of force by people who still believe in these five use-of-force myths. Let’s debunk those once and for all. 

Myth #1: Officers must use a minimal level of force to overcome the suspect resistance. 

If you follow this line of thinking, a suspect using 100 pounds of force to resist arrest, should only allow you to use 101 pounds of force to overcome it. 

I can guarantee you that even if it did work, a defense attorney would later argue that the force was “excessive” and you could have accomplished the task with 100.5 pounds of force. 

Officers have a responsibility to quickly and effectively take a suspect under control.

Myth #2: You may only use one level of force above a suspect’s level of resistance. 

This idea fails to take into account the multiple, changing variables that can occur during any use-of-force situation. What do you do if your plus one chosen level of force doesn’t overcome the suspect’s resistance? According to this model an escalation would put you outside the bounds of appropriate use of force.

Myth #3: Presence and verbal commands are the two lowest levels of use of force. 

In most models that I am aware of, officer presence and verbal commands are included as the lowest levels of use of force.

To put it simply, if it does not involve contact with a suspect, it is not a level of force. Ever heard of a case where officers were sued for unreasonable use of force because there were too many officers on scene or because of what an officer said?

Myth #4: Force continuums work, or even make any sense.

Myth # 1,#2 and #3 are the children of this ill-conceived concept. Whether the use-of-force formula is a wheel, ladder, pie or any other configuration, it will fail to deal with all of the factors needed to determine what level of force is reasonable. If you are currently using one of these models ask yourself these questions:

  1. Does it specifically allow for a use of a higher level of force for an officer who is: smaller than the suspect, not as strong as the suspect, older than the suspect, or outnumbered? 
  2. Does the formula allow for a sudden change in tactics if an officer becomes injured or exhausted? 
  3. Does it factor in individual suspects’ known or perceived skill levels?

If you are honest, whatever formula you are using doesn’t even come close to being able to determine the exact level of force that would be appropriate. Making that perfect decision is so difficult that the Supreme Court of the United States has stated proper use of force “is not capable of precise definition or mechanical application”. 

That pie, ladder, or wheel is an attempt at “mechanical application.” I have heard some people explain that their model is simply a reminder of the use of force options. I doubt the officer will have it with them on the street. I doubt they will have time to look at it and I wouldn’t want to work with a cop who had to carry a reminder of their use-of-force options in their pocket. I would hope that their training and the tools of arrest and control on their duty belt would be the only reminders they’d need.

Myth #5: That ‘Excessive Force’ is really a thing.

A use of force is not judged by the court to be excessive or not. There is no Goldilocks “just right” level of force for any use of force situation. The court will decide whether the force was “reasonable” based on a three-pronged test:

  1. The severity of the crime(s) at issue
  2. Whether the subject poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officer(s) or others
  3. Whether the subject is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight

That judgment must come from the perspective of a reasonable officer at the scene with no 20/20 hindsight. If five officers would say the force was reasonable, it should be judged reasonable. If five officers would say it was unreasonable, it is judged unreasonable. If four officers would say it is unreasonable and one officer was to say it was reasonable, it should be ruled as reasonable. 

Unfortunately, too many administrators, chiefs, mayors, city council members, community activists, and members of the media are unaware of Graham v. Connor, let alone the four-pronged test of ‘reasonableness.’

If you as a police officer are unaware of the Graham v. Connor case, your knowledge and training have been lacking and potentially setting you up for failure if you attempt to make use-of-force decisions based on a model other than the SCOTUS decision. If you are a use-of-force trainer and are unaware of this case, you should not be training officers.

When it comes to use of force, we must first make sure that our training contains the necessary information in order to guide our actions in training and in application. That foundation must include the understanding of what constitutes reasonable levels of force. We need to eliminate the belief — and worse yet the use — of training that advocates a plus one or minimal level of force guidelines. 

A use of force that is too low can result in officer and suspect injury, caused by failing to effectively control a suspect’s actions in a timely manner. It is your responsibility to have the ability to make good, reasonable use-of-force decisions when it counts, as well as using force quickly and effectively to insure your safety, the public’s safety and yes, the suspects safety as well.

About the author

In February 2014, Duane Wolfe retired from his career as a Minnesota Peace Officer after more than 25 years of service (beginning in 1988). During his career he served as patrolman, sergeant, S.R.T., Use of Force and Firearms Instructor, and is currently employed by the Parkers Prairie Police Department. He is also a full time instructor in the Law Enforcement Program at Alexandria Technical College, Alexandria, Minnesota. Duane has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Criminal Justice from Bemidji State University, and a Masters Degree in Education from Southwest State University. Duane has previously published articles on Calibre Press and IALEFI and served on the Advisory Board for Lt. Col. Dave Grossman's book, On Combat.

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