In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Police Use of Force

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Data Sources
  • Defining and Measuring Use of Force
  • Prevalence and Frequency
  • Perceptions of Force
  • Improper/Justifiable Force
  • Lethal Force
  • Nonlethal Force
  • Controlling Abuse of Force

Criminology Police Use of Force
Tammy Kochel, Tyrell Spencer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0166


Bittner 1970 (cited under General Overviews) asserts that the role of police is inextricably tied to their unique capacity to use force against members of the populace. Yet, in order to maintain legitimacy, police must use coercion sparingly. Use-of-force policies, court decisions, and training provide guidance to personnel on its use, but discretion in the field and differences in organizational and situational contexts result in varied application of force. In the early 21st century, data on police use of force are not routinely and systematically gathered; thus, little is known about the nature and prevalence of its use. However, scholars have made inroads in outlining a strategy and important issues for measurement. Since the late 20th century, scholars have described a continuum of force that ranges from verbal coercion to deadly force, which helps guide research addressing the factors that influence decisions to use force during encounters with citizens. Some factors that available research supports as contributing to use-of-force decisions include administrative policies, suspect race and demeanor, community demographic and political characteristics, and officer characteristics.

General Overviews

Whereas the Bittner 1970 description of the role of police in society outlines the unique authority of police to use force, a number of edited volumes deal with the range of issues associated with this authority and its application, such as Alpert and Dunham 2004, Kuhns and Knutsson 2010, and Paoline and Terrill 2011. Other works have synthesized the empirical results of a diverse body of literature on police use of force. Sherman 1980 summarizes the research through the 1970s, Riksheim and Chermak 1993 compares studies pre- and post-1980s, Adams 1999 provides the state of knowledge in the 1990s, and Klahm and Tillyer 2010 covers literature, 1995–2008. Pate and Fridell 1993 looks at a fairly extensive US national survey of police agencies on use of force. See also Lersch and Mieczkowski 2005.

  • Adams, Kenneth. 1999. What we know about police use of force. In Use of force by police: Overview of national and local data. By Kenneth Adams, Geoffrey P. Alpert, Roger C. Dunham, et al., 1–14. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.

    Provides an overview of the state of knowledge on police use of force in the 1990s. He concludes that police use force infrequently, that the severity of force is typically low, and that officers typically use force when suspects resist arrest. He also offers a synopsis of suspect, situational, and officer-characteristic effects on use of force.

  • Alpert, Geoffrey P., and Roger G. Dunham. 2004. Understanding police use of force: Officers, suspects, and reciprocity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511499449

    Discusses the history of use-of-force research and gives findings from Miami-Dade (Florida) and Prince George’s County (Maryland) police departments. Compares officer and suspect accounts, among many other topics.

  • Bittner, Egon. 1970. The functions of police in modern society. Washington, DC: US National Institute of Mental Health.

    Theoretical discussion of the nature and role of police. Links the functions of police to the expectation that police have a unique authorization to use force.

  • Klahm, C. F., and Rob Tillyer. 2010. Understanding police use of force: A review of the evidence. Southwest Journal of Criminal Justice 7.2: 214–239.

    Narrative summary of published literature (1995–2008) of the antecedents of use of force by police. Intended to update Riksheim and Chermak 1993. Examines suspect, officer, and encounter characteristics.

  • Kuhns, Joseph B., and Johannes Knutsson. 2010. Police use of force: A global perspective. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

    Edited volume containing articles by well-known scholars on police use of lethal and nonlethal force in a variety of countries, including the United States, India, Poland, Brazil, Sweden, Great Britain, Australia, and China.

  • Lersch, Kim Michelle, and Tom Mieczkowski. 2005. Violent police behavior: Past, present, and future research directions. Aggression and Violent Behavior 10.5: 552–568.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.avb.2004.10.002

    Summary of the theoretical and empirical literature on excessive force and violence by police. Presents psychological, sociological, and organization theories; officer, citizen, and situational characteristics; and mechanisms for controlling violent behavior as well as recommendations for future research on police use of physical force.

  • Paoline, Eugene A., III, and William Terrill, eds. 2011. Special issue: Police use of force: Varying perspectives. Journal of Crime and Justice 34.3.

    Special issue on a variety of topics on police use of force by scholars known for their research in this area.

  • Pate, Antony M., and Lorie A. Fridell. 1993. Police use of force: Official reports, citizen complaints, and legal consequences. 2 vols. Washington, DC: Police Foundation.

    Reports the results of a 1992 national survey of 1,111 law enforcement agencies in the United States by the Police Foundation. Survey addressed the use of physical force by police, including availability and enforcement of use-of-force policies, complaints, discipline, and record keeping.

  • Riksheim, Eric C., and Steven M. Chermak. 1993. Causes of police behavior revisited. Journal of Criminal Justice 21:353–382.

    DOI: 10.1016/0047-2352(93)90019-J

    Narrative review of studies pre-and post-1980 on the factors influencing use-of-force and other decisions. Documents the number of studies that review individual, situational, organizational, and community characteristics and study findings.

  • Sherman, Lawrence W. 1980. Causes of police behavior: The current state of quantitative research. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 17.1: 69–100.

    DOI: 10.1177/002242788001700106

    Summary of the quantitative research on police use of physical force, among other behaviors, up through the 1970s. Explores individual, situational, organizational, community, and legal predictors. Finds that most studies only addressed bivariate relationships. Calls for improved measurement and multivariate studies.

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