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A Revolution in Use-of-Force Policy and Training?

The Police Executive Research Forum's controversial use-of-force guidelines triggered opposing response from some officers and organizations.

March 07, 2016  |  by Greg Meyer


A battle is brewing among law enforcement leadership organizations about whether and how to change police use-of-force policy and training to be kinder and gentler. As the public, the media, and law enforcement professionals grapple with the persistent post-Ferguson issues, you on the street are surely scratching your heads.

In January, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, weighed in with "30 Guiding Principles" at its meeting titled, "Use of Force: Taking Policing to a Higher Standard." These guidelines for use of force and use-of-force training sparked a lot of conversation among officers and those who believe officers have a tendency to use too much force.

"There is a real mismatch between what community standards are, what the community expects, what they think the law should be, versus what the training and the law allows for," Vanita Gupta, the Department of Justice's assistant attorney general for civil rights, told the Washington Post. Gupta said a national conversation about police objective reasonableness was potentially "revolutionary."

PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler wrote in an e-mail to all PERF members: "In short, PERF's members are telling us that we need to take use-of-force policies and training to a higher standard than what is currently required by the court system. The Supreme Court's landmark ruling from 1989 in Graham v. Connor provides guidance on when police officers are allowed to use deadly force, but it doesn't provide guidance on how to avoid use of deadly force. In certain types of situations that occur thousands of times a year, police are confronted with persons wielding knives, rocks, or other weapons—not guns. In these cases, we are asking police departments to begin rethinking strategies and equipping officers with the appropriate training and tactics to defuse these potentially volatile encounters, in a way that ensures that both the officers and those they are dealing with may survive the encounter."

Some of the research that was used as the foundation of the PERF guidelines resulted from a trip to Scotland by several U.S. law enforcement leaders, to see how business is done over there. Scotland doesn't have a gun-crime problem, but they confront a lot of knives.

As if on cue, within 24 hours two police officers (one with the New York Police Department and one with the California Highway Patrol) were attacked and wounded by knife-wielding suspects.

The Wrong Track

No doubt some (perhaps many) PERF members agree with the organization's 30 Guiding Principles. But not everyone agrees with all of them. As a longtime PERF member and also a longtime member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), I and quite a few other PERF and IACP members I've spoken with do not necessarily think PERF is on the right track with some of its specific recommendations.

Here are a few comments I received in early February from police chiefs, trainers, and use-of-force experts:

  • "Why should my safety not be more important than anyone else's?"
  • "A smart cop reading through this bulls--- will salute smartly, smile, promise compliance, and then go out and do nothing, or as close to nothing as he can do without being fired or ruining his career."
  • "I agree with the stated concern of how to 'raise the standard' and still have a consistent standard that officers can understand… But I don't know how you change the standard for fast-moving situations where the officer is faced with a quick, threatening movement, even when the perceived threat turns out not to be a threat."
  • "I was sorry to see PERF not address training in basic skills."
  • "Much of the material is good, but it lacks that practical side that only comes from spirited, well-rounded, and educated debate."

Dissenting Views

The IACP quickly responded to PERF in an e-mail to its membership: "[T]he IACP is extremely concerned about calls to require law enforcement agencies to unilaterally, and haphazardly, establish use-of-force guidelines that exceed the "objectively reasonable" standard set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court nearly 30 years ago (Graham v. Connor). The creation of a multitude of differing policies and use-of-force standards throughout the United States would, undoubtedly, lead to both confusion and hesitation on behalf of law enforcement officers, which in turn would threaten both their safety and that of the citizens they are sworn to protect… As we move forward in examining law enforcement's policies and training procedures regarding use of force it is imperative that any reforms be carefully researched and evidence-based."

The next day, the Police Foundation released an infographic titled, "When Can the Police Use Force—and What Happens When They Do?" And in related remarks, the Police Foundation wrote: "Use of force is governed by laws at the federal and local levels, and its justification is dependent on the reasonable perspective of the involved officers at the very moment force was used—not on thoughtful, retrospective examination and questioning. Articulating and explaining this information to the public is critical because these incidents bring challenging and complex considerations that are often not apparent to the public. With this infographic, the public can be better informed about when the police can use force and how police are held accountable for use-of-force situations."

The Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs (ALADS) weighed in a few days later: "'Hands up, don't shoot!' This is not a new protest group chant, but what law enforcement officers might be required to do, backing away with their hands up when confronting a violent situation… [T]he PERF proposals continue to focus all responsibility for the use of force, including deadly force, on the deputy or officer and absolve of any responsibility the suspect whose actions necessitated the use of force. In virtually every single instance of the use of force, had the suspect simply complied with the commands of law enforcement, use of force would not have been necessary."

The ALADS statement also quoted Executive Director Jim Pasco of the Fraternal Order of Police: "We don't believe that we should just move headlong based on PERF having taken a trip to Scotland, that we should just turn policing in a country, God knows how many times bigger than Scotland, totally on its head. We're not going to stand by and let police officers be sacrificed on the altar of political correctness."

Steps Too Far

There is much that is easy to support in the PERF principles. De-escalation training, slowing down incidents where circumstances allow it, intervening when another officer is over the line with use of force, thorough incident investigation and review processes, training that reflects agency values, improved training on handling the mentally ill… These are examples of items that I believe most law enforcement professionals support.

But misstatements by PERF about the so-called "21-foot rule" and misstatements about officer-involved shootings following failed TASER attempts in imminent deadly force situations make one wonder if anybody who has actually faced deadly threats was involved in the drafting of the document. Further, the 21-foot rule isn't a "rule," it's just a poor label for a reaction time experiment, and it most certainly does not mean that you always shoot a knife-holding suspect that is less than 21 feet from you.

Then there's the baffling PERF suggestion that, "If an encounter requires a use of force, officers should start at the lowest level of force that is possible and safe. Officers should never do anything to escalate a situation themselves."

Pardon me. Use of force that is safe? Established law says no use of force is "safe." In Garrett v. Athens Clarke County, 378 F.3d 1274, 1280, n.12 (11th Cir. 2004), the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled: "Almost every use of force, however minute, poses some risk of death."

And officers should never escalate? Folks, when verbalization fails, you escalate. When soft-hands-on tactics fail, you escalate. And you don't fight to a draw, you fight to win, quickly, which necessarily means using more force than is being used against you.

Getting Past the Noise

All of this rancor among police organizations over use-of-force policy and guidelines comes about in a tumultuous time of increased second-guessing of officers, rising violent crime rates, prolific videos, Black Lives Matter activism, fired officers and police chiefs, criminal prosecution of officers, controversy about "de-policing," and even politicized Super Bowl half-time entertainment.

Much of the current noise surrounds the question of whether law enforcement officers should be "warriors" or "guardians." People seem to have different definitions of these terms, so we talk past each other. Someone must bridge the Warrior-Guardian definitional divide between police leaders and the police on the street. We can't have a good discussion until we are on the same definitional page.

According to the Random House Dictionary, the term "warrior" has two meanings. The first applies to the military at war. The second is applicable to policing: "The term 'warrior' is often associated with images of power, confidence, accomplishment, integrity, chivalry, honor and integrity… They are disciplined… They develop mental focus… They develop an attitude of persistence… They train."

Guardians adopt a service mindset over a crime-fighting mindset, using patience and restraint while maintaining the capability to use force when appropriate.

I happily recall that even in the tough parts of town, the majority of my incidents called for a Guardian mindset, and I'd like to think I delivered that service. Other situations called for guns or sticks or TASERs, and I'm not the one that made the call: the suspect's actions did! I also know that if my sister was taken hostage during an armed robbery, I'd want a Warrior to shoot down the thug without hesitation. And in that case, the officer would be a Guardian for my sister.

The trick is to know what type of response is called for in the moment. To know when to be kind and patient, and when to use force to protect someone. Dynamic training is what gives an officer the skills and confidence needed to turn that switch on and off. Force should be used sparingly, but when it comes it must be used effectively.

Lt. Col. David Grossman's analogy of the sheep, the wolf, and the sheepdog comes to mind. The sheepdog (you) protects the flock. When the wolf comes, the sheepdog turns on the switch and takes on the wolf.

As the use-of-force battle plays out among the various administrative combatants, please remember to follow your policy, your training, and the law. Be a Guardian, when you can. Be a Warrior, when you must. Be a Sheepdog. Be safe. Be worthy of your badge.

Greg Meyer is a retired Los Angeles Police Department captain who consults nationwide on police procedures and tactics. He is a longtime member of the POLICE advisory board.


Police Executive Research Forum Use of Force: 30 Guiding Principles

Police Foundation Use-of-Force Infographic

Comments (16)

Displaying 1 - 16 of 16

Chad Reynolds @ 3/8/2016 5:35 PM

Chuck Wexler the creator of this false narrative is a total fraud. He makes you believe he was a Boston cop but it is a lie! He has never once been in any life-threatening situation or altercation. He creates this garbage to keep the federal government pouring tax dollars into phony research to pay his $350,000 plus salary. Real cops that are PERF members should demand their membership dues be returned immediately !

Tom Ret @ 3/8/2016 6:57 PM

Departments are having trouble recruiting and is not hard for us who did the job
seeing why. The modern trend is conditioning the officer to do the least possible and get by or encourages them to leave the profession when they recognize that the risks far out weigh the rewards. The percentage of rookies will increase in many departments. Anyone who has been in police work should know that there is no substitute for experience and the bigger the percentage of junior officers, the more risk of something bad happening. Since it takes some time for a rookie to be able to effectively handle calls, agencies can't rectify these lost members overnight which leads to a less and less effective agency.

Pup @ 3/9/2016 12:52 PM

Do Not Apply for L.A.S.D. Our force policy, especially in the jails are so strict, it's going to cost a deputy(s) either their life or loss of a job. We are almost at a hands off policy to the point if a deputy touches a person, how minor it may be and for whatever reason, we shall report it, write paper and a supervisor shall conduct an investigation. It's not like in the 70's. You may ask why don't I retire? Answer is, I love what I do.

Leonard @ 3/11/2016 9:24 AM

It's disconcerting how so many that comment of this site lament any restrictions or serious evaluation of use of force. You somehow believe, misguidedly, that application of force equals safety. It doesn't and every self defense course I have taken, including Krav Maga will confirm that. All you need to do is look at police violence stats from this country and compare them to any major European nation and you will find our police are objectively more violent exercising their duties. Why? The first rule of policing and the misguided attempt to eliminate all risk from policing, the way officers are trained to be hyper vigilant, increased militarization, the increasing disregard of the public though failed policing policies such as zero tolerance, stop and frisk and broken windows. You want to be able to use force as you see fit and frankly the public doesn't support that supposition and your police leaders know it. Furthermore, your leaders know that our police....

Leonard @ 3/11/2016 9:50 AM

use too much force regularly and too quickly. There needs to be appropriate restrictions on the use of force. In Britain, even in their armed units, an officer must obtain permission before firing upon a subject. Here, it's the wild west and there is something intrinsically wrong with that. Too much reliance on the judgment of the individual officer is a recipe for what we're seeing today. No one, including myself, doesn't want an officer to use force when his life is in danger. But the threat has to be real and not a perceived threat. Shooting or killing a citizen based upon the latter is a egregious offense and should never be tolerated at any time.

Kevin @ 3/13/2016 1:42 PM


You obviously are not a law enforcement officer. You have no idea what you are talking about. Comparing our use of force stats to Europe is apples to oranges. Europe does not have the violent crime rate we do. One cannot eliminate risk in our profession. Try to minimize it certainly but you cna't eliminate it and I don't know anyone who advocates that. I also disagree that the public doesn't support the police. This whole anti-cop theme is media driven. Most law abiding citizens do approve of what we do.
And your point about having to get supervisor permission before using deadly force? Are you joking? These things commonly happen in a split second. Asking for permission equals being dead. You are so clueless you don't deserve to be taken seriously.

We don't have a police use of force problem in this country. We have a failure to obey the law and a failure to comply with lawful police commands issue!

Leonard @ 3/14/2016 12:06 PM

@Kevin: You are correct, I'm not law enforcement. And it's not apples to oranges. Even after you normalize for gun violence, our police act more violently toward citizens than your European counterparts. Your counterparts routine subdue suspects with knives, other sharp objects, rocks, etc whereas any one of those aforementioned objects can get you killed. It's a combination of factors (better training, more educated officers, real respect for life) but it really comes down to attitudes toward policing and how to engage subjects. Our police will actively escalate a situation and will often create the conditions where deadly force becomes an option. Euro police don't do that and they would rather deescalate. In fact, according to the PERF, there is a effort to bring many of the policing techniques from Britain to our shores and I hope they do. They appear to have a model that calls for constant evaluation rather that reaction. You should do some research and perhaps learn

Robert Hillsman, M.D. @ 3/22/2016 2:35 AM

For Capt. Meyer, please see the recent 4th Appellate Circuit opinion on use of Tasers for even more confusion for the 'officer on the street.' My former department, CO. Springs P.D. has suffered from the combined retirements and resignations of 51# from a police force of ~ 600#! That smaller community lost
an Officer ( + 5# injuries) in the Planned Parenthood shooting and has also had an earlier mass shooting incident also in 2015! Many of these recent resignations were from Officers with only 2-3 years on the job! We have hit the crisis point and can only hope that the 'silent' majority' awakens in time to save policing as a career. Here in L.V., NV. where I now reside there is a great emphasis on de-escalation options when possible, but as all current and former cops know the suspect often forces the situation, causing the immediate response of the Officer to save his/her life or the lives of those around them. Keep safe out there...(Former LEO turned trauma doc)

PJ @ 3/23/2016 10:24 AM

@ Leonard...You obviously have an axe to grind and I respect your right to grind that axe because I very much believe in the Constitution. By your own admission, you've never been a Law Enforcement Officer (=untrained). Your feelings do not match reality. Let me help: in 2012 the U.S. population was 312,780,968 (U.S. Census Bureau). NLEOMF cites more that 900,000 sworn peace officers in the U.S. in 2013. In 2012, 12.2 million arrests were made and 410 uses of deadly force (FBI). There is an even smaller number of unjustified uses of deadly force that the FBI does not account for, but often results in news stories and protests & prosecution. Do the math. Not even close to an epidemic. Now, your statement that a threat should be "real" instead of "perceived" before an officer uses deadly force is based on lack of training and personal feeling, not reality. The best decision are almost always made after the fact in the comfort of time and safety. We have a criminal prob. not a cop prob.

Bob @ 3/24/2016 8:44 AM

There is a lot here to digest and especially the differences in U.S. vs EU and especially UK law enforcement. But there is also a lot of difference in the public in the different countries and their laws and behaviors. As noted by several, the subjects Officers are trying to work with, control and possibly arrest, have a Big Role in the action.

Col. Dave Grossman's comments and training on serving and protecting the sheep from the wolf or wolves, and having to go "Game On" when the battle begins, is very true and no plan is perfect. Going from Level 1 to 2 then 3 and 4 of the degrer of force sounds great until you comsider the subject or subjects you are confronted by. You can go up the level of escalation slowly, or be confronted by violence you can't control and go directly to 3 or 4 quicker than any can predict.

IF the Officers can't be able to trust those who train, supervise and judge them, and want to live and go home to family safely, we may see more leaving the ranks. When you have no one to respond to your call for help, or they put hands up and back away from violent attacks and confrontations, who will you call for Help?

IF those commiting the crimes and violence won't obey the law and law enforcement, and those facing them and called to serve and protect our peaceful and respectful society, see no support and respect, we have major issues.

Law Enforcement only has force to stop violence. And they can't conrol the force and violence that they face & we expect them to be 100% right in.

Brandon @ 3/28/2016 4:26 PM

@ think you're smart, you think you know what you are talking about. Fact of the matter is you have no idea because you've never been the shoes of law enforcement. It's that not that you wouldn't do the job, you can't. Please, don't go away mad, just go away.

Sheriffs Explorer Sgt. @ 3/29/2016 1:45 PM

Leonard the use of force policy doesn't need to change. It works fine the way its set up now. I have yet to see even one Police shooting that cannot be legally and morally justified. Jim Pasco, director of the FOP, was right when he said "We're not going to stand by and let be sacrificed on the altar of political correctness". Folks, let's not let that happen.

MikeAT @ 4/1/2016 9:03 AM

I saw this from the linked report.

3. Police use of force must meet the test of proportionality.
In assessing whether a response is proportional, officers must ask themselves, 'How would the general public view the action we took? Would they think it was appropriate to the entire situation and to the severity of the threat posed to me or to the public?'”

I have a turd on PCP rushing me with a knife, all the people around me are screaming "Don't hurt him!" and recording it on their taxpayer funded cell phones and I'm supposed to worry about what others think. I may have a second to decide what to do while I'm praying to make it out to this alive. Hey chiefs, take a ride in the hood again!

GyMack @ 4/1/2016 4:06 PM

Leonard is probably a member of Black Lies Matter. He could in fact be a Lifetime PERF Member.
One thing is evident - he hates Law Enforcement Officers.

Marcus @ 4/2/2016 8:58 PM

Kinder and gentler? Oh I get it now when you harrass homeless guys or old laddies you'll just try to break a few bones instead of every single one?

Steven M. Harris, Attorne @ 12/27/2016 12:03 PM

The author wrote: "Established law says no use of force is "safe." In Garrett v. Athens Clarke County, 378 F.3d 1274, 1280, n.12 (11th Cir. 2004), the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled: "Almost every use of force, however minute, poses some risk of death.""

The Eleventh Circuit did not rule that as a matter of law. It was simply an observation, in a footnote, which cited to a K9 case discussing how deadly force is to be defined.

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