Policing | Section 5.4

Fundamentals of Policing by Adam J. McKee

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Hazards of the Job

A major goal of nearly every police department in the United States is reducing the incidence of violence between police officers and citizens. From the perspective of the police executive, the successful accomplishment of that objective should have two major benefits. First, it should enhance the safety of police officers. Second, it should foster an atmosphere of cooperation and mutual respect between the police and the people they serve. The purpose of this chapter is to provide a basis for assessing a police department to determine, first of all, if its culture is conducive to reducing violent confrontations between the police and citizens.

A Conflict Management Approach

There is no magic formula or step-by-step guide that can ensure the maintenance of an orderly community. Every community has unique characteristics, and conflict resolution requires a knowledge of the intricacies of the community, its problems, concerns and priorities. A problem for the police is the recognition that many of the factors that contribute to community tensions and delinquency, such as poverty, unemployment, and the lack of education, cannot be addressed directly by the police. In spite of this, the police should be attuned to the concerns and changing priorities of their communities, and be willing to offer assistance in identifying and resolving sources of conflict that have a debilitating effect on the community.

One course of action police administrators should consider is developing a conflict management program. The primary purpose of such a program would be to serve as an alert system for tension-breeding incidents that are police related and which could create conflict and disharmony in the community. A conflict management program would include: continuous assessment of community tension, regularly planned outreach to the diverse communities and their leaders, department plans and procedures outlining the response to potentially violent situations with special emphasis on the continuum in use of force, and training of officers in conflict resolution skills and mediation. When the program is functioning effectively, the results should provide police leadership with more in-depth and timely information that will broaden communication with all parties concerned, contributing to the maintenance of order in the community.

In order for a program to function effectively, training in conflict management and resolution should be extended to all persons, police and civilian alike, who have expressed a willingness to become involved in such an experiment. Such an undertaking should be a first step in looking beyond the traditional methods of arriving at conflict resolution and may serve as the impetus for developing other more innovative approaches. In forming a conflict management program, police departments should recruit representatives from all segments of the community. Such a selection procedure would provide for a broad cross-section of viewpoints and capabilities which, in the end, can only serve to maximize the effectiveness of the program.

Negotiation Versus Confrontation

When the police are called to the scene of a potentially life-threatening situation, more often than not a confrontation not of their making confronts them. In the initial moments, the person or persons responsible for instigating the confrontation may appear to be in control. But as sufficient numbers of officers arrive, the inevitable decision on using force to end the confrontation is brought up for consideration. While no two situations are exactly alike, the merits of negotiation, mediation, and conflict resolution should be given their due. Police who employ force as an immediate response to a crisis situation are frequently labeled as reactionary—as opposed to being recognized as the power in control of the situation. In most instances, police departments that elect to employ mediation and conflict resolution and other communication skills instead of force are generally credited with reducing the level of tension.

Negotiation in a crisis situation generally affords the police an opportunity to carefully formulate a well-constructed response. Additional time also facilitates the strategic placement of key personnel, who by then will be in full possession of virtually all of the resources which appear necessary to bring about a successful conclusion of the situation.

In the final analysis, if all attempts at talking fail and the time for negotiating comes to an end, the police will be able to demonstrate that they legitimately attempted to use reason instead of force, and only altered their course of action when no other alternative reasonably existed.

Expert skills at negotiating, mediation, and conflict resolution are not natural talents that are automatically acquired by each new officer who enters the field of law enforcement.  Departments should ensure that classes in negotiation, mediation, and conflict resolution are contained within the curriculum of their in-service training and development programs. Recognizing that the decision to negotiate—as opposed to resorting to force—will not always be a viable option, the police department should at least indicate its preference for negotiation whenever possible.

Areas of Special Concern

To understand the causes, and to reduce the incidence of violent encounters between the police and citizens, it is necessary to identify situations that have demonstrated a high potential for violence. Unfortunately, data on police use-of-force situations are not collected on a national scale, and the research has been primarily confined to the use of firearms. However, through an empirical approach, it is possible to establish areas of police-community interaction that are of particular concern because of the friction which results. Some of those areas are discussed below, along with suggestions of guidance police agencies may consider providing to their officers. It should be emphasized that the list is not intended as comprehensive.

Use of Deadly Force

Of all the decisions a police officer is called upon to make, none has greater impact than the decision to use deadly force. Police in this country have been given the legal right to use force, up to and including deadly force, in order to maintain peace and order. Officers are often required to make that decision under highly stressful, split-second circumstances which leave little margin for error. The use of such force is justified in only the most extreme circumstances. The obvious reason for this severe limitation is the high potential for serious injury or death to the officer and other persons, innocent and guilty alike.

A 1999 Bureau of Justice Statistics study estimated that police in the United States make nearly 45 million face-to-face contacts with citizens a year. Only 1 percent of the citizens report being subjected to threat or use of force by police and the majority of cases involve levels of force at the lower end of the use-of-force continuum.

Recognizing that less-than-lethal force may still result in injury and community unrest, officers need to exercise discretion in the application of force in those situations as well. Establishing criteria for a continuum of force will enable officers to adjust their use of force to the seriousness of a perceived life-threatening situation. An example of such a continuum is the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Model: officer presence, verbal direction, soft empty hand, oleoresin capsicum, hard empty hand, intermediate weapons, and lethal force.

In addition, officers who are skilled in conflict resolution and persuasion may find ways to avoid higher levels of confrontation altogether. To determine the most appropriate policies on use of force for a given department and community, the department may benefit from a comprehensive review and analysis of each use-of-force incident. Such a review may help officers discern patterns in the incidents or officer behaviors that have important implications for the development of policies that reduce use-of-force incidents.

While police use of deadly force is a rare occurrence, its impact can be felt throughout the community and undermines public confidence in the police. Aside from the ethical and moral ramifications of taking another’s life, or leaving them perhaps permanently disabled, a police officer also faces the prospect of being held criminally liable if deadly force was improperly employed. People in today’s litigious society will frequently challenge the officer’s decision to use deadly force in a civil court as well. For all of these reasons, it is absolutely imperative that officers thoroughly understand their responsibilities, rights, and limitations regarding the use of deadly force.

From the police department’s perspective, a high standard of ongoing specialized training is essential in minimizing the risk that every officer faces in deciding to use deadly force in a particular situation. Such a training effort, which has traditionally concentrated on skills relating to firearms proficiency, should also address the various implications that are attached to an officer’s decision to use deadly force. Police agencies also have a special and fundamental responsibility to carefully formulate written policies on the use of deadly force which are clear and can be understood by every member of the organization.

When an incident of deadly force occurs, especially one involving the loss of life of a person of color, and when there is a perception of the excessive use of force, civil disorder or unrest is possible. The incident itself, and the events that follow, form a continuum of potential flashpoints or triggering incidents that may lead to civil unrest or disorder.  These flashpoints include:


  • The incident itself
  • The investigation of the incident
  • The community reaction to the incident
  • The announcement of the result of the investigation
  • The announcement of procedural court decision(s), sentencing, or jury verdicts
  • New incidents involving police or grievances

There are several variables that influence the reaction to an incident by the public, especially an affected community of color or tight-knit ethnic community. Among the factors impacting the level of public discontent and anger are:

  • Pre-existing conditions—the overall quality of race relations in the community, especially police-community relations
  • Nature of the incident itself—the type and nature of force used, especially if it was deadly force or was excessively brutal by community standards
  • The circumstances surrounding the incident, including the age and mental condition of the victim and the reaction of witnesses
  • Concurrent police action—the actions of the other police officers at the scene and the actions taken, or statements made by officers and the police chief
  • Media reporting of the incident
  • City leadership actions—what the mayor and other community leaders say or do
  • Initial community response—whether there is an immediate community reaction
    and escalating racial tensions

The CRS publication, Responding to Incidents Involving Allegations of Excessive Use of Force: A Checklist to Guide Police Executives, can be used as a reference by law enforcement executives dealing with use-of-force incidents.

Arrest Situations. More officers lose their lives in arrest situations than in any other circumstance. “From 1992 through 2001, 34.4 percent of the victim officers were involved in arrest situations when slain,” according to the FBI. Most of the police use-of-force situations would more than likely fall under the general category of resisting arrest. However, this area is the source of much controversy. The circumstances surrounding arrests have been the cause of major, recent police-minority group clashes in particular.

For most people, an arrest is an extremely stressful experience. And it can cause reactions that are highly unusual and out of character for the individual. For some, an arrest is viewed as a complete loss of freedom, and their resistance may include the use of firearms, which dramatically increases the possibility of a police officer using force.   Unfortunately, the data available does not identify specific types of arrest situations as being more likely to result in use of force by or against an officer.

Studies over the years, however, have provided an indication that some officers are more likely to use force in effecting arrests than others. Therefore, it appears an effort is needed to identify arrest situations where force is used and to determine if there are common factors present. If there is an indication that certain officers or situations result in force being used by or against officers, then approaches can be developed for dealing with those specific circumstances.

Responding to Disturbance Calls. Response to disturbance calls continues to be an area where police officers are exposed to potential assault and loss of life. While some express surprise at this, disturbance situations present clear dilemmas to police officers who must deal with them. They must intervene in disagreements between two or more parties, knowing little about the conflict, and often having very little real authority to address the underlying problems—unless one party has committed an offense.

Moreover, the parties involved in the conflict generally have an expectation that the police should side with them since they believe they are right. It is also not unusual for officers to end up in a position where both sides of the conflict direct their wrath at them, if it becomes necessary to make an arrest. These are the situations that result in force being used by and against the officer. Such situations are all the more volatile when officers are dealing with minority persons.

Over the past 25 years, greater attention has been devoted to enhancing the skills of police officers in this area. In the more progressive police departments, time has been allocated in recruitment and in-service training—to developing a better understanding of all types of conflict situations—with the emphasis on family or domestic violence. With that improved understanding of conflict management, this provides, officers are able to handle more of the disturbance calls, in a manner that avoids use of force and minimizes their own exposure to assault. All training must focus on certain major factors in officer assaults: the officer’s demeanor, attitude, and lack of skill in using proven psychological techniques to control the behavior of enraged disputants.

Officers must have an opportunity to identify, analyze, and openly discuss these factors.  In addition to training officers in conflict management, a greater focus has been placed on developing written policies and procedures. These not only provide guidance in the use of discretion, they set forth concepts such as the need to have at least two officers respond to disturbance calls. They provide the officers with alternatives to arrest and to resolve problems.

They also enable officers to use alternative resources, such as spouse abuse shelters to aide in responding to the situations. The combination of training and written guidelines helps increase the level of confidence an officer has in handling domestic situations. This minimizes the potential for resorting to force to settle the situation—which may not fit the problem that caused the disturbance in the first place.

Traffic Stops and Pursuits. Police officers make thousands of traffic stops daily. Like other human beings, they have a tendency to become complacent when performing tasks that become routine. These circumstances create an environment where basic procedural mistakes are made that may result in the officer being assaulted or using force to resolve a problem that could have been avoided. The dilemma faced by police administrators lies in ensuring that officers avoid mistakes without introducing a level of fear that causes officers to overreact to non-threatening situations.

While policies, procedures, and periodic refresher training are helpful, the resolution of this problem rests with the officers themselves and first-line supervisors. The day-to-day environment must be one that reinforces adherence to basic procedures. The environment also needs to reflect a value system which views using force as the least-preferred method of problem resolution. The establishment of that environment, as observed elsewhere, begins at the top of the organization. However, to be effective, line officers and their supervisors must accept that value.

Police pursuit situations have drawn considerable attention in recent years because of well-publicized civil judgments against local jurisdictions for negligence. This has caused many police departments to examine and begin to adjust their policies towards participating in high-speed chases. In addition to the potential for serious injury or death and substantial property damage, these situations often end with the pursued individual being subdued by force. Emotions run high in pursuit situations because of their inherent dangers. Both officer and suspect may engage in conduct that would not occur under normal circumstances.

The pursuit situation is very difficult for police administrators to address, and, in some cases, produces “lose-lose” conditions. Many believe a “no-pursuit” policy would lead to more individuals taking a chance on eluding an officer. At the same time, a no-pursuit policy will not necessarily limit the department’s liability—because some of these cases may produce a failure-to-protect dilemma.

Therefore, policies must be developed that guide officer discretion. One provision Unfortunately, much of the formal police training in this area does not adequately prepare an officer to deal with the ambiguities involved—which may result in responses at one extreme or the other. Either the police department is overly aggressive and develops a hostile relationship with one group of citizens, or it is not aggressive enough, and gives the impression of ambivalence or laziness. As in other areas, practical guidelines for the use of discretion need to be prepared, disseminated, and reinforced in daily operations.  These guidelines have to balance the individual’s right to freedom of movement with the need of the community to be free from crime.

Handling, Custody, and Transportation of Prisoners. Police handling of individuals in custody results in a higher level of assault and fatalities than one might expect—given the presumption of police control in these circumstances. However, problems do occur, and experience shows that many times officers are assaulted and suspects injured during the booking process. In fact, injuries and deaths suffered by minorities, already in police custody, have prompted a number of serious police-community conflicts in recent years.

Studies in Baltimore County, Maryland, and Newport News, Virginia, to cite just two examples, have shown that a significant number of alterations occur in the environment where booking takes place. Although the reasons for this are not immediately clear, separation of the arresting officer and the suspect seems to result in fewer incidents. Available data does not distinguish the proportion of such incidents relating particularly to transportation. Nevertheless, an evaluation of procedures and reinforcement of sound ones would contribute to a reduction of conflict.

Handling People with Mental Impairment. The treatment of mental illness has undergone radical revision in recent years. Where in-hospital treatment and confinement was once the norm, the emphasis has now shifted to outpatient and community-based programs as an approach towards recovery. As more and more people with special needs are returned to their respective communities, it becomes more important than ever for the police to develop a general familiarization with recommended approaches towards handling the mentally ill. Police departments must make a concerted effort to identify local resources that offer special services in the field of mental illness. They should also extend an invitation to area health professionals to participate in a program of in-service training for the benefit of those police officers who are most likely to confront citizens with one or more forms of mental illness.

The goal of such an effort is not to transform the police officer into a diagnostician or professional psychiatrist, but to provide the officer with a special understanding of, and empathy for, the problems of the mentally ill. Channels of communication between the police, the mental health professionals, and local treatment centers should be constantly utilized and upgraded when necessary.

The police should also recognize that not all forms of mental illness are permanent, nor are they completely debilitating. Some of the people an officer encounters may, on the surface, appear to be functioning with some degree of normalcy, but may still be under enormous pressure or stress that is not readily discernible or articulated. Separating and identifying the person who is affected by mental illness from the person who is simply engaged in antisocial or criminal behavior requires a special degree of skill and experience. It is imperative that officers be provided with the necessary level of training that can elevate them to that special degree of skill, or that arrangements be made so that the services of mental health professionals are readily available to officers in crisis situations.

As most law enforcement professionals know, the results of police encounters with the mentally impaired have led to major police-community confrontations in a number of cities. Fortunately, however, the seriousness of this problem has been recognized, and innovative approaches to it are being developed. For example, in April 1986, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) issued guidelines to help police departments handle encounters with the mentally impaired. The report resulted from an 18-month study funded by the National Institute of Justice and the Community Trust.

The PERF report also describes creative models used by three police departments:  Madison, Wisconsin; Birmingham, Alabama; and Galveston County, Texas. While these programs illustrate markedly different approaches, they may be helpful to police departments trying to improve their own handling of the mentally impaired. In Madison, handling calls involving the mentally ill is the responsibility of regular patrol officers, who receive over 20 hours of mental health training. In addition, officers can confer with the county’s 24-hour emergency mental health center before attempting to handle difficult cases. The Galveston County Sheriff’s Department uses a unit of six specially trained deputies to respond to all mental health calls, thereby relieving regular deputies of this responsibility. The Birmingham Police Department relies on a community service unit consisting of social workers who come to the scene of an encounter to assist officers in reaching a disposition of the situation.

The City of Portland and Multnomah County, Oregon, have also experienced several recent clashes between police and the community over police handling of mentally impaired persons. Believing that the necessity for police intervention was, in many instances, a manifestation of mentally ill persons “falling through the cracks,” Portland and Multnomah County established a task force to develop a coordinated plan of action involving all pertinent city and county agencies. A letter of agreement indicating the responsibilities of these agencies has been included in the appendices.

Hostage/Barricade Situations. In recent years, most medium-to-large police agencies have developed teams of officers to respond to hostage/barricade encounters. These teams usually include negotiators and have established objectives of dealing with these situations without injury to anyone involved. Unfortunately, however, that is not always the result, and when the person or persons involved are members of a minority group, any force used is likely to be more controversial because of the general belief that the police practice a double standard. The tragic encounter between Philadelphia police and the MOVE group in 1985 is a case in point, and there are other, less well-publicized incidents that also racially polarized communities.

Most police hostage/barricade teams conduct frequent training and hold debriefing sessions at the conclusion of an operation. These teams have made significant contributions towards reducing the amount and degree of force used by the police in addressing these problems. Agencies that have not established this capability should do so if resources permit. If not, the capability could be developed by combining resources or through agreements with other municipal, county, or state agencies.

Drugs and Gangs. One of the major areas of concern in policing is the violence that surrounds drug and gang activity. The increased number of handguns and other firepower, the role of organized criminals and youth gangs, and the amount of money involved in this activity have torn apart communities—created divisions within communities and between police and communities, particularly communities of color.

Homicide rates, especially among minority youth, have also escalated. Pressures and demands from different segments of the community have led to calls for aggressive policing, even if it entails the violation of individuals’ rights. Field practices that violate accepted police practices and procedures are too often condoned in the name of expediency or pressure for immediate results. This issue represents a significant challenge to police executives and a department’s value system.

The guidance the executive can provide on such a volatile issue begins with the value system of the police department and the systems established to put these values into operation. The community and law enforcement must be involved in developing a comprehensive approach to drugs and gangs that solicits the community’s cooperation and support. The police department must address both the criminal acts and the community’s fears or perceptions. Specialized training must be provided to the officers in: effective techniques for investigating drug activity, making arrests, developing intervention and diversion programs, establishing racial and cultural awareness programs, and developing broad based community support through such programs as a citizens’ crime watch and D.A.R.E. The relationship between police and urban youth can become a positive partnership that includes police, parents, schools, community and business leaders, clergy, and the media. The relationship should be one that seeks both to prevent and to resolve problems of crime and disorder based on cooperation, collaboration, and mutual respect.

Responding to Incidents Involving Allegations of Excessive Use of Force

A Checklist to Guide Police Executives

Years of good policing practices and community trust can be jeopardized by a single act of, or perception of, police excessive use of force (EUF). When an EUF incident occurs, police executives should be prepared to take appropriate and carefully considered action to promote peace, maintain community trust, and sustain departmental morale. When there are allegations of EUF, the department’s officers and staff, as well as the community they serve, must be assured of a fair and impartial investigation. Community tensions and violence may develop in the aftermath of an incident involving use of force or other police conduct. This checklist of immediate steps suggests actions to take right after an incident. The checklist of other actions identifies steps which can help create positive police-community relationships — the best protection against violent community reaction to an EUF incident.

Immediate Steps

I. Provide Information Promptly
_____ Advise the Mayor, County Executive, and other officials, key civic and community leaders and clergy about the situation.
_____ Provide what information you can to the public about the incident and the circumstances which prompted police action, but avoid any negative comments about the suspect(s) or victim(s).
_____ Avoid making any prejudgments about the officers’ conduct before you have complete information and the investigation is completed.
II. Get an Investigation Underway Promptly
_____ Advise the family of the involved person(s) and the public about the investigation, including its scope, resources allocated, and projected timetables.
_____ Publicly clarify departmental policies governing the status of the involved officer(s) while the investigation is underway.
_____ Announce publicly your willingness to cooperate with investigations by other agencies (local, State, and Federal).
_____ Hold periodic meetings with community leaders to advise them of the progress of the investigation and any other developments.
_____ Take precautions to avoid new incidents or confrontations.
III. Enlist the Community’s Help and Support
_____ Brief community leaders and ask for their help in defusing community tensions by getting accurate information to the community, organizing community street patrols, and scheduling neighborhood meetings.
_____ Conduct dialogues with community groups to help establish a common understanding of the legal and administrative requirements of EUF investigations.
_____ Survey community perspectives and invite commentary and any expression of concerns about police arrests, stops, ticketing, profiling, and other issues.
IV. Anticipate and Plan for the Announcement of the Results of Investigations
_____ Brief the family, their associates, and community leaders on the results of the investigation before making a public announcement. Seek their assistance in keeping the community peaceful.
_____ Arrange, where possible, for at least two hour advance notice of public announcement of the decision by a grand jury, district attorney, or court.
_____ Be ready to implement a contingency plan in the event that the announcement may lead to community tension or unrest.
_____ Meet with leaders of protest activities to secure agreement on the scope and limits of marches, flash points, demonstration sites, use of marshals, and other ground rules.
_____ Deploy sufficient resources to contain any disruptive activity or disorder.
Other Actions
Below is a list of questions which police leaders should review periodically to assure adequacy of policies and procedures governing issues involving Police Use of Force.
_____ Does the Department have a written, legally sound and publicly understood policy governing the circumstances for appropriate use of force? Were community representatives consulted in the drafting or review of this document?
_____ Does the Department keep accurate records of incidents of the use of force? Are these records reviewed regularly for trends, officer patterns, and other potential areas of concern?
_____ What are the attitudes of the department’s officers and staff about use of force issues?
_____ Are these attitudes consistent with the Department’s policies? Is additional orientation or training required?
_____ Does the Department have a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) governing its response to allegations of EUF? Does the SOP caution against making any premature judgments about the circumstances of the EUF incident and actions of the involved officer?
_____ Does the SOP include arranging prompt assistance, including community resources, for the family of any alleged victims? Does the SOP provide for timely updates on the resources committed, and progress and results of any investigation?
_____ Does the Department have established contacts with all levels of community leadership who can be called upon in times of crisis?
_____ What training is made available to officers on alternatives to use of force, including conflict resolution, problem solving, and communications skills?
_____ Does the Department have a written complaint procedure that is simple to activate and requires a minimum of forms?
_____ How does the Department respond to public reports of use of force? How is the Department’s response viewed by its staff and the community it serves?
_____ Does the Department have a SOP on involving community leadership in ongoing discussion of community/police concerns? How do patrol officers and all other ranks participate in the discussions?
_____ Has the Department developed a mission statement and set of Department values? Are community leaders aware of the values of the Department?
The Community Relations Service (CRS), U. S. Department of Justice.

Available:  https://www.justice.gov/archive/crs/pubs/pubeufchecklist.htm

Key Terms

References and Further Reading





Modification History

File Created:  08/15/2018

Last Modified:  06/14/2019

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