FERGUSON, Mo. — The fatal shooting of a black 18-year-old by a white police officer has opened a debate over what level of force is appropriate when law enforcement confronts a citizen perceived to be a threat.
Here is a look at some of the issues involved when officers must decide whether to use force, deadly or otherwise:
Q: How often do police use force, or threaten to use it, against citizens?
A: A study by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 1.4 percent of the nearly 60,000 U.S. residents who had contact with police in 2008 said the officers used or threatened to use force against them. Those numbers are similar to national survey results in 2005 (1.6 percent) and 2002 (1.5 percent).
Males were more likely than females to have force used or threatened, and blacks were more likely than whites and Hispanics to be on the receiving end of force, or its threatened use. Three-quarters of the respondents said they felt the police response was excessive, and nearly one in five said they were injured from the encounter. Close to one-fourth of those surveyed said they cursed, argued with, insulted or threatened police.
Q: What are the legal standards governing police use of force?
A: A U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Graham vs. Connor 25 years ago remains the legal standard. In that case, the court’s majority ruled that a “reasonable” police response must be “judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than 20/20 vision of hindsight.” Although the ruling provides a minimum standard, law enforcement agencies still have latitude to develop tougher rules rather than rely on a national template or uniform policy.
Q: Why do police officers seemingly shoot to kill rather than try to wound or immobilize suspects?
A: Although officers aren’t technically under orders to shoot to kill, they are instructed to shoot the largest surface area on the body they can target, usually the chest or torso, to most effectively disable violent suspects, said Maria Haberfeld, professor of police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
Haberfield, a former Israeli national police officer, and other experts added that unlike specially trained police snipers, most patrol officers lack the skill required to disable a suspect by shooting him or her in the arm.
Q. What is the use-of-force continuum?
A: Most police departments rely on what is known as a use-of-force continuum, which consists of a series of more forceful responses depending upon the severity of the perceived threat. At the low end, the continuum consists of verbal direction and calm, nonthreatening commands such as “Let me see your license and registration,” or simply, “Stop.” The continuum increases to include “soft techniques” such as grabbing or holding a suspect, to “pain compliant techniques” such as choke holds, and ultimately, guns as a means of lethal force.
Q: What about Tasers and other stun guns?
A: Known more broadly in police parlance as “conducted energy devices,” stun guns are not always carried by patrol officers. Their use can also sometimes cause further agitation in suspects, Haberfeld said. In Ferguson, the police department was sued this week by the wife and mother of a 31-year-old man who died from a heart attack in September 2011 after he was shocked while running down the street naked.
Q. What happens when police departments are deemed to have abridged citizens’ rights through excessive use of force or other constitutional violations?
A. The U.S. Justice Department has cracked down on civil rights violations in several big-city police departments over the past two decades after the federal agency received more legal power following the 1991 Rodney King beating in Los Angeles. Police departments in Cincinnati, Detroit, Las Vegas, New Orleans and Pittsburgh are among those to have entered into consent decrees with the Justice Department, which is now investigating the Ferguson Police Department.
The agreements typically spell out more stringent use-of-force procedures, such as establishing review boards to assess incidents after-the-fact as well as steps to identify possible warning signs among officers at risk of using excessive force.