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When is Police Force Permissible or Excessive?

The media has recently taken an interest in the protests sprouting up across the United States, known collectively as the Occupy movement.  Videos taken at some of these protests of alleged police misconduct have been brought to the forefront through popular web-based social media.

This is a short segment featured on MSNBC’s “The Last Word” with Lawrence O’Donnell discussing alleged police brutality at the Occupy Wall Street protests.

The officers shown in a good number of these videos were operating under a mandatory set of expectations called the force continuum.  The force continuum dictates that an officer’s course of action be modified depending on the risk factors in which the officer finds himself or herself. The public may generally not be aware of the fact that the degree of force utilized for an arrest or crowd control is determined by the individual officer, on the scene, and has very little to do with how the person being arrested is acting. It is the officer’s perception that counts.

The continuum begins, at the first level, at the demonstration of police presence.  The first course of action, thus, is for an officer to assert, through gestures and body language, that s/he is ready and able to take action if the need arises.  The next level of the continuum is verbal commands; an officer can and should, if mere presence is not sufficient for the situation, utilize voice commands to try to abate the situation.  After verbal commands come what is called “empty hand control,” which is the use of bare hands to try to diffuse a situation, e.g., restraining a suspect or employing strikes without weaponry. This is also the stage at which handcuffs are used.

If the previous three tactics do not achieve the desired results, then police are permitted to employ non-lethal force, such as pepper spray, batons, or taser guns.  The continuum then calls for “lethal” force, depending on whether the officer’s life is at risk, or another person’s life is at risk.

The question which police officers are always forced to confront is what kind of force is necessary to diffuse the situation in the least harmful way possible? For protesters across the country, the force continuum has been employed in mixed degrees, largely appropriately and according to the procedural standards mandated by law enforcement agencies.

For more information about the force continuum, go here.

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