NIJ: The Use-of-Force Continuum

The National Institute of Justice is the research, development and evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice. On its About Page, NIJ states that “We are dedicated to improving knowledge and understanding of crime and justice issues through science. We provide objective and independent knowledge and tools to inform the decision-making of the criminal and juvenile justice communities to reduce crime and advance justice, particularly at the state and local levels.” NIJ goes on to explain that, “We accomplish our mission through the “Listen, Learn, Inform” model — we “listen” to the needs of the field; “learn” ways to meet those needs by funding research, development, and evaluation projects; and then “inform” the field of what we learned.

Most law enforcement agencies have policies that guide their use of force. These policies describe an[sic] escalating series of actions an officer may take to resolve a situation. This continuum generally has many levels, and officers are instructed to respond with a level of force appropriate to the situation at hand, acknowledging that the officer may move from one part of the continuum to another in a matter of seconds. An example of a use-of-force continuum follows:

  • Officer Presence — No force is used. Considered the best way to resolve a situation.
    • The mere presence of a law enforcement officer works to deter crime or diffuse a situation.
    • Officers’ attitudes are professional and nonthreatening.
  • Verbalization — Force is not-physical.
    • Officers issue calm, nonthreatening commands, such as “Let me see your identification and registration.”
    • Officers may increase their volume and shorten commands in an attempt to gain compliance. Short commands might include “Stop,” or “Don’t move.”
  • Empty-Hand Control — Officers use bodily force to gain control of a situation.
    • Soft technique. Officers use grabs, holds and joint locks to restrain an individual.
    • Hard technique. Officers use punches and kicks to restrain an individual.
  • Less-Lethal Methods — Officers use less-lethal technologies to gain control of a situation.
    (See Deciding When and How to Use Less-Lethal Devices. )
    • Blunt impact. Officers may use a baton or projectile to immobilize a combative person.
    • Chemical. Officers may use chemical sprays or projectiles embedded with chemicals to restrain an individual (e.g., pepper spray).
    • Conducted Energy Devices (CEDs). Officers may use CEDs to immobilize an individual. CEDs discharge a high-voltage, low-amperage jolt of electricity at a distance.
  • Lethal Force — Officers use lethal weapons to gain control of a situation. Should only be used if a suspect poses a serious threat to the officer or another individual.
    • Officers use deadly weapons such as firearms to stop an individual’s actions.

Source: National Institute of Justice, “The Use-of-Force Continuum,” August 3, 2009, nij.ojp.gov:
https://nij.ojp.gov/topics/articles/use-force-continuum

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