« Improving Police Department Practices

Policy 14: Use of Force

There is no single national standard governing police use of force. The Supreme Court established a discretionary standard of “reasonable” use of force in 1989’s Graham v. Connor, stating that law enforcement interactions with suspects must be “judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than 20/20 vision of hindsight.” From a legal perspective, this benchmark makes it difficult to prosecute officers who use force to subdue a suspect, since the standard is so subjective.


This standard must be better defined and enforced in order to limit use of force cases. Further, police departments must adopt a culture of accountability and community partnership, implement processes to collect disaggregated data on use-of-force incidents, and be trained on implicit bias, de-escalation tactics, and procedural justice.

In Practice:

As part of a comprehensive consent decree reached in 2012 between the Department of Justice and the City of New Orleans, detailed principles and standards regarding use of force are mandated for the New Orleans Police Department, including de-escalation tactics, prohibitions on neck holds and head strikes, and limitations on firearm use.
The Las Vegas Police Department implemented a tactic called “No Hands On,” prohibiting an officer pursuing a suspect from being the same officer to physically apprehend him or her. The strategy was implemented in the context of a series of reforms, including training on treating people with respect and dignity at all times, reality-based training that used actual scenarios where department members had struggled, and refresher training to help officers act effectively with mentally ill suspects. Use-of-force reports in Las Vegas dropped from 1,400 in 2005 to 842 in 2012 and 734 in 2013.

The Miami-Dade Police Department established an early warning system flagging problem behavior by officers. Early warning systems are made possible by data collection practices that force departments to track stops and outcomes. Regular reports tally use of force complaints by citizens, and when an officer reaches a particular threshold, his or her supervisor may refer the officer to other services such as counseling, stress reduction, or additional training. Prior to implementing the system, only 4 percent of officers in the early warning study cohort had zero use of force reports. Following implementation, 50 percent of officers in the cohort had zero reports.

Best Practices:

State and local jurisdictions can adopt policies that decrease the use of force and encourage the de-escalation of violent situations. Use of force policies should require police departments to:

  • Develop a comprehensive use-of-force policy that outlines how and when force may be used, with a clear values statement affirming that officers should use minimal force to subdue an individual.
  • vDevelop clear reporting, investigation, discipline, and accountability procedures and policies regarding use of-force incidents. Policies should be clear, concise, and open to the public.

  • Develop policies that allow officers to intervene when other officers are using force that is not objectively reasonable and proportional to the risk presented.
  • Implement proven training programs— including programs on implicit bias, procedural justice, and fairness in policing—designed to deescalate and minimize the use of unnecessary force and death, especially with vulnerable populations (people with emotional or cognitive disabilities, pregnant women, youth, and people with limited English proficiency).
  • Maintain detailed records on the use of force and related injuries—disaggregated by race, ethnicity, age, gender and other demographic characteristics—and make this data immediately available to the public.
  • Implement early-warning systems to detect problematic officer behavior predicting a likelihood of using excessive force.
  • Require training on and use of de-escalation techniques.