Use of Force Ambrose Bierce, a social critic known for his sarcasm and wit, once described the police as 'an armed force for protection and participation.' In this pithy statement, Bierce identifies three critical elements of the police role. First, by describing the police as 'armed,' their ability to coerce recalcitrant persons to comply with the law is emphasized. Because police carry weapons, it follows that the force they use may have lethal consequences. The capacity to use coercive, deadly force is so central to understanding police functions, one could say that it characterizes a key element of the police role. Second, the primary purpose of police is protection, and so force can be used only to promote the safety of the community.
Police have a responsibility for safeguarding the domestic well-being of the public, and this obligation even extends in qualified ways to protecting those who violate the law, who are antagonistic or violent toward the police, or who are intent on hurting themselves. In dealing with such individuals, police may use force in reasonable and prudent ways to protect themselves and others. However, the amount of force used should be proportional to the threat and limited to the least amount required to accomplish legitimate police action. Third, the concept of participation emphasizes that police and community are closely interrelated. Police are drawn from the community, and as police they continue to operate as members of the community they serve.
The community, in turn, enters into a solemn and consequential relationship with the police, ceding to them the power to deprive persons of 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness' at a moment's notice and depending on them for public safety. Without police, the safety of the community is jeopardized. Without community support, police are dispossessed of their legitimacy and robbed of their effectiveness. This three-element definition of police makes it easy to understand why abuse of force by police is of such great concern. First, there is the humanitarian concern that police are capable of inflicting serious, even lethal, harm on the public. Second, there is the philosophical dilemma that in 'protecting' the whole of society, some of its constituent parts, meaning its citizens, may be injured.
Third, there is the political irony that police, who stand apart from society in terms of authority, law, and responsibility, also are part of society and act on its behalf. Thus, rogue actions by a few police, if condoned by the public, may become perceived as actions of the citizenry. Recent developments in policing have elevated concerns about police use of force beyond ordinarily high levels. In particular, community policing, which is becoming widespread as a result of financial incentives by the Federal Government, and 'aggressive' policing, which is becoming widely adopted as a solution to serious crime problems, have come to the fore as perspectives of choice by policing experts. Community policing emphasizes the role of the community as 'coproducers' of law and order in conjunction with the police.
Communities naturally vary in attributes, and they vary in how they are defined for the purposes of community policing. Consequently, some communities look to add restrictions on police use of force, while others are satisfied with the status quo, and still others seek to ease current restrictions. Regardless of the community's orientation on this issue, community policing means increased levels of accountability and responsiveness in key areas, such as use of force. Use-of-force concerns also are reflected in the attention the media give to possible instances of police abuse. An accumulation of alleged abuse-of-force incidents, widely reported in the media, encourages overgeneralization by giving the impression that police brutality is rampant and that police departments across the Nation are out of control. For example, Human Rights Watch states, 'Allegations of police abuse are rife in cities throughout the country and take many forms.' Whether measured by use-of-force reports, citizen complaints, victim surveys, or observational methods, the data consistently indicate that only a small percentage of police-public interactions involve the use of force.
Expanding and contracting definitions of 'police-public' interactions also work to affect use-of-force rates but in an opposite way from definitions of force. Broad definitions of police-public 'interactions,' such as calls for service, which capture variegated requests for assistance, lead to low rates of use of force. Conversely, narrow definitions of police-public interactions, such as arrests, which concentrate squarely on suspects, lead to higher rates.