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Back to Archives | Back to October 2004 Contents 

Canada’s National Use-of-Force Framework for Police Officers

By Ron Hoffman, M.A., Project Coordinator, National Use-of-Force Framework, Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, Ontario Police College, Aylmer, Ontario, Canada; Chris Lawrence, Defensive Tactics Coordinator, Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, Ontario Police College, Aylmer, Ontario, Canada; and Greg Brown, Ph.D., Director, Criminal Justice Program, Nipissing University, North Bay, Ontario, Canada

There are three versions of the use-of-force model: English, French, and bilingual. To learn more about the National Use-of-Force Framework or to download a copy, consult the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police Web site at (, or address correspondence to the director of the Ontario Police College at 10716 Hacienda Road, Aylmer West ON N5H 2T2 Canada.

olice officers have the authority to use force to ensure that laws are upheld and public safety and security maintained. The granting of that authority carries with it an expectation that the individual police officers and their law enforcement organizations will be openly and publicly accountable for any use of force.

Police use of force is officially sanctioned, but questions remain. What is a reasonable use of force? Why and under what circumstances is one type of force chosen over another? What standards are in place to ensure that all police officers are consistent in addressing potential use of force situations? These are tough questions that demand sound answers if public confidence in the police is to be maintained.

In April 1999, 65 use-of-force trainers and experts from across Canada and from the United States were brought together at the Ontario Police College to address these questions with the most up-to-date, expert experience available. Incredibly, the meeting achieved much, much more - a single model or "framework" describing the use-of-force process, endorsed by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, that can be used consistently by police services and police officers across the country.

How significant is this accomplishment? According to Bruce Siddle, a use-of-force specialist, the National Use-of-Force Framework represents "something no other country has yet been able to do." Implementation of the national framework will ensure that police officers across the country receive consistent training in identifying, assessing, and responding to use-of-force situations and that police officers, police organizations, the legal establishment, and the public across Canada have a common terminology and understanding to use when evaluating police use of force. Ultimately, the national framework may be the basis for the development of consistent, mandated standards for use-of-force training and practices across Canada that will best serve and protect the accountability of police officers to the public.

Models of Police Use of Force
The old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words has been applied to the development of models describing police use of force for more than three decades. In the United States and Canada, models or graphics depicting use of force by police officers first began to appear in the 1970s and 1980s.

These early models proved to be useful for training purposes. However, several significant concerns arose from their use. Many of the models were overly complex, so much so that police officers, let alone other justice professionals or the public, found them difficult to understand. At the same time, there were too many models, each using somewhat different terminology.

In addition, many of the models depicted a rigid, linear-progressive decision-making process, giving the impression that the officer must exhaust all efforts at one level prior to being allowed to consider alternative options, a kind of stair-step process.

But research and experience show that choosing the appropriate use-of-force response option is not a linear process, and linear models failed to accurately reflect the dynamic nature of potentially violent situations.

As a result, a second generation of situational use-of-force models began to appear in the late 1980s and early 1990s that depicted officer factors, suspect factors, and force response options revolving around a situation that contained its own characteristics.

Situational models were a significant improvement over the early linear models, but still they were deficient in one important aspect. For example, at one trial in Ontario, a defense attorney was overheard to jokingly remark, "Now I get it; you spin the wheel and wherever it stops is the force option you use!" This lawyer's observation pointed to the need for use-of-force models that go beyond description to include details about the process by which an officer chooses one response option over another. That is, a useful and valid model should act as a guide for understanding how the police officer came to use force and why a particular use of force option was selected.

Subsequently, situational models began appearing in the early 1990s that included a variation of what might best be described as a generic problem-solving process. One example of such a model is the one developed by the province of Ontario in 1993.

The Ontario Use-of-Force Response Options Model
The Ontario Police College is the fourth largest police training facility of its kind in North America. By law, all police recruits in the province must receive their recruit training at the college prior to being sworn in at their home police service. The government of Ontario mandates that the college, as the centralized training facility, must ensure that there is consistency in police training throughout the province, whether delivered at the college or in agency in-service training.

Reflecting its mandate, in 1993 the Ontario Police College hosted a gathering of use-of-force trainers and specialists from across the province in an attempt to develop a use-of-force model that would ensure that the training provided to officers was consistent with the current state of the art in use-of-force issues, and that the same training was being provided both to recruits and to officers in the field. The outcome of this gathering was the Ontario Use-of-Force Options Model, which integrated both force options and a generic decision-making process summarized as "assess-plan-act."

Coincidentally, within months of the development of the Ontario Use-of-Force Options Model, the government of Ontario introduced a series of mandated use-of-force standards. One of the most controversial aspects of the standards was that which required every police officer in the province to receive a minimum of eight hours of use-of-force training annually to requalify as a police officer. The new standards adopted much of the terminology of the Ontario Use-of-Force Options Model, further promoting the acceptance and use of the model by police services.

The Ontario model and the mandated use-of-force standards have proved successful in ensuring consistent training and qualification of police officers in the use of force. As it has developed over time, the use-of-force model has been integrated with all components of police training, from traffic enforcement through anti-racism training to domestic violence. A critical component of the training process is the presentation of a variety of scenarios based on real incidents in which recruits and in-field officers alike are required to apply the model and critically evaluate the outcomes. How did the officer assess the situation? What plan was formulated? What response options were considered and used? What was the outcome? Was the outcome the best one possible under the circumstances? Using the model, officers are provided with both training and a way to articulate to others how they came to use force, and why they reacted with a particular force option. Officers testifying in court have come to rely on the model and the research and expertise supporting it to explain their use of force.

Development of a National Use-of-Force Model
The success of the Ontario Use-of-Force Options Model, and variations of it, prompted the Ontario Police College in partnership with the Canadian Police College and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to propose to the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police in early 1999 that a nationwide use-of-force model be developed as a means to promote consistency in use-of-force training, practice, and standards across Canada. Bringing together use-of-force experts and trainers from across Canada and from the United States, the partners proposed to work to develop a next-generation state-of the art model of police use of force, one firmly grounded in contemporary research and expertise. If successful, such a model would, for the first time, provide all police officers and related personnel with a common, valid, easy-to-understand model.

There were additional benefits that were identified with the development of a national use of force model. A common model could promote greater resource sharing and more joint training initiatives. Expensive training aids, such as videos and computer simulation programs, could be easily shared.

Consequently, in April 1999, with significant financial support from the Canadian Police College, the Ontario Police College hosted a national use-of-force conference that drew 65 experts and trainers from across Canada and the United States to begin the process of developing a national use-of-force model.

One of the first hurdles that the conference would have to overcome was the fact that many of the participants had already developed a model of their own. Why would they want to change? It appeared a daunting task to have them all agree to discard their own models in favor of something new. But a spirit of compromise and oneness of purpose soon developed. Everyone in attendance appeared to understand that there were benefits to be reaped from a consistently used training model and that there was an opportunity to do something that would benefit all police officers in the country. This sense of compromise transcended geographical boundaries and personal and political agendas.

At the same time, everyone acknowledged that there is no perfect model. Rather, it was believed that the key to the usefulness of any model, given that it meets certain agreed upon minimum criteria, is consistency in its use, interpretation, and terminology.

Surprisingly, the experts and trainers in attendance at the conference quickly agreed on the criteria that should be used to judge the usefulness of a use-of-force model. Among the criteria identified were the following:

  • That the model be easily understood by viewing it

  • That it not imply linear progression of options

  • That the public should be able to grasp the basics

  • That it use consistent language

Working in small groups, the conference participants applied the identified criteria to existing models, eliminating components that failed to meet the criteria and keeping those that met or exceeded the criteria. The end result of the small group process was the presentation to the entire conference of the best features drawn from a wide variety of models. A small working team took on the task of incorporating these features into a prototype use-of-force model that would be evaluated and revised by the conference participants. In this way, through successive group sessions and conference-wide presentations that often ran late into the evening, at the end of the three-day conference the participants had in hand a graphic representation of a use-of-force model that all could agree on.

The task of putting the finishing touches to the graphic, and developing the accompanying text to explain the components, was assigned to a volunteer working group of 21 use-of-force trainers and experts representing jurisdictions across Canada. In the following year, with the Ontario Police College coordinating the project, the working group refined the graphic of the model and developed and honed the accompanying text. By October 2000 all of the original 65 participants at the conference had signed their agreement to the graphic and accompanying text, and in November the model was formally presented to the annual meeting of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.

The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police officially endorsed the national model with one condition: that the word "model" be replaced with the word "framework." The underlying rationale was simple: the association wanted it to be made perfectly clear that they could not force any police service to adopt the model. Rather, they believed that the model and text should be used as a basis or framework from which agencies could build their own use-of-force policies or standards.

The National Use-of-Force Framework for Police Officers in Canada
What follows is an abbreviated description of the key components of the national use-of-force framework. The framework includes a graphical representation of the various elements involved in the process by which a police officer assesses a situation and acts in a reasonable manner to ensure officer and public safety. The framework helps officers and the public understand how and why an officer may respond with force.

As an aid to training, the framework promotes continuous critical assessment and evaluation of each situation and helps officers understand and make use of a variety of force options to respond to potentially violent situations. The National Use-of-Force Framework is not intended to serve as a justification for officer use of force nor does it prescribe specific response options appropriate to a situation.

Key Principles
Six key principles underlie the national framework:

  • The primary responsibility of a peace officer is to preserve and protect life.

  • The primary objective of any use of force is to ensure public safety.

  • Police officer safety is essential to public safety.

  • The National Use-of-Force framework does not replace or augment the law; the law speaks for itself.

  • The National Use-of-Force framework was constructed in consideration of (federal) statute law and current case law.

  • The National Use-of-Force framework is not intended to dictate policy to any agency.

The principles chosen are ones the working committee believed are defendable and consistent within any of the common law countries.

The National Use-of-Force Framework was developed to assist in the training of officers and as a reference when making decisions and understanding and explaining their actions with respect to the use of force. The model does not justify an officer's actions.
The innermost circle of the graphic, labeled "Situation," contains the "assess-plan-act" component that should be visualized as dynamic as an officer's assessment of a situation is never-ending. The process of continuous assessment also helps to explain how a behavior (and response option) can change from cooperative to assaultive (or from communication to lethal force) in a split-second without passing through any other behavior or force options.

The area adjacent to the Situation contains the various subject behavior categories including cooperative, resistant, assaultive, and grievous bodily harm or death.

Perception and tactical considerations are interrelated and are therefore contained in the same area, or ring, in the model. Factors that the officer brings to the situation that may be unique to the individual officer interact with both situational and behavioral factors to determine how an officer may perceive or assess the situation. Further, the officer's perception of a situation may affect his or her assessment and, in turn, affect his or her tactical considerations.

The outer area of the graphic represents the officer's force options. These options range from officer presence to communication skills, physical control techniques, intermediate weapons, and lethal force. Though officer presence and communication skills are not physical use-of-force options, they have been included to illustrate the full range of factors that have an impact on the behavior of the subject.

The Assessment Process
Assessing a situation means considering three factors:

  • The circumstances

  • Subject behaviors

  • Officer perceptions and tactical considerations

Careful consideration of all possible factors in each of these three factors helps the officer understand and respond to situations and later explain how a particular situation was perceived, assessed, and responded to.

Subject Behaviors: The subject behaviors were divided into five categories:

  • Cooperative

  • Passive resistant

  • Active resistant

  • Assaultive

  • Grievous bodily harm or death

Officer Response Options: The officer had six general response options:

  • Officer presence

  • Communication

  • Soft physical control

  • Hard physical control

  • Intermediate weapons

  • Lethal force

The interrelation between the observed behaviors and the officer's response is by his or her perception and their tactical considerations. An officer's perception is his or her reality. The tactical considerations may be dependent on such factors as the availability of backup or special teams. The tactical considerations available to an officer in a large urban police agency can be different from those available to someone serving in a small rural community. This use-of-force framework captures these differences.

One example of how an officer's perception can affect her or his decision making is when an officer attempts to arrest a subject who is known as an escape risk. If the subject makes sudden movements consistent with an attempt to escape, such actions might cause the officer to believe the subject is about to escape even though this may not have been the subject's intent.

An example of how tactical considerations can affect an officer's choice to use force is the situation of crowd control. An officer who has access to a mounted unit may be able to use officer presence, including the horse, to break up an unruly crowd. An officer facing similar circumstances who has no mounted unit may need to resort to soft physical control to disperse the crowd.

The National Use-of-Force Framework represents the process by which an officer assesses, plans, and responds to situations that threaten public and officer safety. The assessment process begins in the center of the graphic with the situation confronting the officer. From there, the assessment process moves outward and addresses the subject's behavior and the officer's perceptions and tactical considerations. Based on the officer's assessment of the conditions represented by these inner circles, the officer selects from the use-of-force options contained in the framework's outer circle. After the officer chooses a response option the officer must continue to assess, plan, and act to determine whether his or her actions are appropriate and effective. The whole process should be seen as dynamic and constantly evolving until the situation is brought under control.

Authority to use force separates law enforcement officials from other members of society and the reasonable use of force is central to every officer's duties. The National Use-of-Force framework guides the officer in that duty.

The National Use-of-Force Framework was developed with the intention that it be used by police services in Canada to encourage consistency in the training of use of force. A major task now is to promote the framework to police and other law enforcement agencies across Canada and, potentially elsewhere. The project is a shining example of what can be achieved when members of the policing community work together to tackle important issues. v

Write to the authors at (, (, or (

Suggested Reading on Police Use of Force

Editor's note: The authors gratefully acknowledge the guidance and assistance offered by the members of the steering committee, including David Sunahara, Canadian Police College; Deborah Doherty, Royal Canadian Mounted Police; Sergeant Ghislain Raymond, Royal Canadian Mounted Police; and Jeff Rutherford, Ontario Police College. The authors would also like to express their appreciation for the support offered by Len Griffiths and Noreen Alleyne, both former directors of the Ontario Police College; Nancy Caney, former chair of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police Human Resources Committee; and Rudy Gheysen, director of the Ontario Police College, who offered encouragement and support from the project's inception to its endorsement by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.



From The Police Chief, vol. 71, no. 10, October 2004. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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