Evidence-Based Use-of-Force Policy: How Research Could Improve Development and Training

The use of force by U.S. law enforcement officers during encounters with citizens is one of the most important moments in constitutional policing. Many clear examples of when response to resistance (or the use of force) is appropriate and would be widely accepted as an outcome of professional and constitutional policing can be envisioned. However, there are other, less frequent situations that have been deemed more problematic. Unfortunately, the general public has never fully understood how, when, why, and how often law enforcement officers engage in response to resistance. In fact, very little understanding exists of these actions in most cities and towns, let alone in the United States as a whole. However, with the advent of mobile video on every cellphone, citizens are now getting a front-row seat to U.S. policing that is unvarnished, raw, and often viewed without a full understanding of the context surrounding these situations. Therefore, a need exists to ask some basic questions and create new knowledge based on evidence to provide guidance and accountability for law enforcement officers.

Some have argued that today’s use of social media to broadly share use-of-force events does not show the entire event or context. Prior to addressing this issue, however, it is necessary to confront the simple question regarding the frequency of these events. Is law enforcement’s use of force increasing, or does it simply appear to be increasing because more events are publicized (and criticized) due to the increased availability of video? Unfortunately, this most basic question regarding police use of force cannot be reliably answered. There must be sound research and science provided in response to this and other pressing questions regarding law enforcement’s use of force, and sooner rather than later. The basic tenant of U.S. law enforcement is that the police cannot be successful if they do not enjoy the support and confidence of the people they serve. Crimes are not cleared, victims do not see justice, the dangerous are left to prowl neighborhoods—and the cycle continues.