When Is Deadly Force Justified?

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Haberfeld, 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.

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