6 use-of-force facts that will keep officers and their jobs safe

Failure to understand the first five of these use-of-force facts could cost you your job — failure to understand the sixth could cost you your life


By Tim Barfield, C1 Contributor

In my experience as a police officer, supervisor, and use-of-force force instructor, I have come to understand a number of important facts about use of force. I believe that if more officers understood how important these facts were, they would become better versed and knowledgeable about the subject for their or their partner’s sake.

In my teaching — and in conversations with other use-of-force instructors — these six topics repeatedly come up. Failure to understand the first five could cost you your job — failure to understand the sixth could cost you your life.

Cop killer Ronell Wilson is forced against a wall when he refuses to be handcuffed before leaving a recreation room. (Photo NY DOC)
Cop killer Ronell Wilson is forced against a wall when he refuses to be handcuffed before leaving a recreation room. (Photo NY DOC)

1. The Use of Force Never Looks Good
If you have to use force in the line of duty, no matter what choice you make, it will never look good. One of the tools I’ve used for years is to analyze video from dash cams to body cams and everything in between. 

What a great way to see the choices people make and the precipitating facts leading up to the incident. I am not saying I know all of the facts, but studying videos of officer-involved incidents certainly can help you understand what works and what doesn’t. This is not just about technique but there are body language, speech, attitude and pre-assault indicators to learn from. 

Do what you need to do — it will never look good.

2. Too Many Officers Fail to Read and Train
Too many officers fail to read and train in use-of-force issues. Too few officers attend martial arts classes. Many also fail to read about or train use of force if it is not on company time. 

Do not wait on your department. Remember, at three o’clock in the morning if you are involved in a physical confrontation, you can blame anyone you want but it’s you out there, not them.

3. Most Officers Don’t Know Graham v. Connor
I’ve found that when it comes to use-of-force incidents, officers that do use force almost always do the right thing. Knowing the law is crucial. Graham v. Connor is probably the best use-of-force case that could have been selected by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Where officers that do use force get into trouble is that even though they do the right thing (within the law) they can almost never defend it because they are not versed in the law. 

Become familiar with Graham v. Connor because you may need to defend yourself with it.

4. Too Many Wardens and Administrators Don’t Know the Law
Too many students tell me that the very people who should be prepared to defend and support their officers when called upon to stand in the gap between good and evil don’t know the law. 

It’s difficult to understand how any officer could graduate from a corrections academy and not have a thorough understanding of Graham v. Connor. It is even more difficult for me to understand how the leader of an organization who must know the law to protect his officers can fail to understand the law. 

5. Prosecutors Too Often Lack the Moral Courage to Apply the Law
Prosecutors, who should certainly understand the law, are often too politically involved to apply the law correctly or they don’t understand it. Whichever way they choose to defend their bad decisions to prosecute, officers should never trust a prosecutor who cannot clearly explain the Graham v. Connor decision before they seek a review.

6. Failure to Use Appropriate Force Can be Deadly
Driven by whatever factors cause an officer to react in use-of-force incidents, more officers and suspects are hurt by a failure to use sufficient and reasonable force than by those who use unreasonable or “excessive force.” Posturing and failure to choose a force option when reasonable often leads to more injuries to officers and suspects alike. 

Force will never look good, you have to read and trained to defend your actions, understand Graham v. Connor, and after all that, do not fail to use the appropriate level of force. 

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