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  The Effect of Police Officer Confidence on Officer Injuries and Excessive Force Complaints

Steven D. Ashley, M.S., M.L.S., MFCI, ARM


Laura Golles, M.L.S.

June 12, 2000



The fundamental mission of government is the protection of its citizens.  As the most visible arm of government, law enforcement officers are on the front line in the fight to protect citizens from harm, and to preserve public order.  To attain this goal, society grants police officers authority unique in civil government, that of controlling the behavior of their fellow citizens.  In the most direct way, and on a daily basis, police officers are engaged in the control and management of the behavior of other members of society.

Law enforcement has historically had limited options for the use of deadly and non-lethal force.  As recently as twenty-five years ago, an officer’s primary tools were small caliber handguns, shotguns and some limited chemical sprays.  Nightsticks and blackjacks had been in existence for many years and were the only impact weapons available for routine use.  Many officers utilized improvised weapons, such as flashlights and homemade striking devices.  The training offered to officers in the use of weapons was very limited, frequently involving only basic firearms instruction. 

More recently, advancements in technology, more frequent litigation, and heightened public expectations generated by media coverage, have underscored the need for a change in how the law enforcement profession fulfilled its mission of managing behavior to assure safety for society’s members.  As criminals on the street gained greater access to a wider range of weapons, law officers experienced a compounded need for more diverse options in both the deadly and non-lethal force arenas.  Weapons such as stun guns, aerosol chemical sprays, and martial arts equipment have become available without any type of licensing process in many states.  Additionally, larger caliber and higher capacity firearms, coupled with advances in weapon concealment options, have presented an increased threat to officer safety.  In a relatively short period of time, these weapon developments led to law enforcement falling behind in the level of technological sophistication required to meet the increasing threat levels faced by officers on the street.  

Wider, more detailed, media coverage increased the public’s expectation that law enforcement would take advantage of advances in technology, while at the same time more closely managing individual officers’ use of force.  This increased expectation gave rise to expanded opportunities for litigation at both the state and federal levels, which in turn further fed the media engine.  Thus, a cycle of increased expectations and heightened criticism of law enforcement gave rise to increased risk management efforts by agencies at every level of the justice system.

The result of these societal forces has been an increase in police use of non-lethal weapons and techniques, such as aerosol sprays, impact weapons, and simplified defensive tactics systems.  Additionally, a wider selection of restraint methods and devices has become available.

During the last 10 to 15 years, law enforcement has also diversified its selection of firearms, replacing outmoded revolvers with higher capacity semi-automatic pistols, and in many cases, traditional pump-action shotguns with semi-automatic shotguns and rifles.  Advances in ammunition and firearms design have given rise to the wide spread adoption of more powerful calibers for police armament, such as the .40 caliber pistol round.

In order to assure the most effective and efficient use of this enhanced technology, significant advances have been made in law enforcement training methodology.  Systems for use of various tools and techniques have been developed.  While manufacturers and vendors of the new technology initially developed these systems, the law enforcement profession has begun to develop non-brand specific training in many regards.  This is an important development, as it allows for the integration of various force and control tools and techniques into more contextually accurate training methodologies.

So that new technologies are properly utilized, and to assist in the proper implementation of training programs, law enforcement has developed enhanced procedural guidelines over the past two decades.  Where once a Police Chief or Sheriff might simply admonish his people to “be careful” when using force against a citizen, more recent risk management efforts have resulted in detailed policies and procedures aimed at removing as much ambiguity from an officer’s decision to use force as possible.

The atmosphere created by these recent technological advances, increases in litigation, enhanced training programs and more prolific procedural guidelines is one of increasing difficulty for the law enforcement profession.  While technology and training have increased the potential for officer safety and provided better methods for management of use of force against citizens, in order to fully avail themselves of these advancements, law enforcement executives must devote more and more of their limited resources to equipment purchases and costly training programs.  To monitor the results of these initiatives, Chiefs and Sheriffs must also provide for more detailed direction and control of officers, through assignment of more officers to supervisory roles, and through the development of more extensive procedural guidelines.  This, of course, means that supervisors must also be trained, and that all personnel must be trained in the application of new policies and procedures.

Many departments have found it difficult to keep up.  In some cases, departments that purchased new firearms or impact weapons less than ten years ago are under increasing pressure from officers and citizens alike to reevaluate their current equipment, and to consider purchasing even newer technology.  In other cases, departments have a great deal of difficulty in offering adequate training to officers within the constraints of current budgets.  Often this is exacerbated by political considerations regarding government expenditures and fiscal policy.  It is not uncommon for departments to take a “calculated risk” regarding types and levels of training, and then to pay off when events occur that give rise to large court judgments.  Occasionally this practice results in recriminations from politicians or the community that law enforcement executives should have been better prepared to forestall such negative outcomes.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for today’s officer is the question of when to use force, and how much force to use.  By the vary nature of their jobs, officers are called upon throughout their careers to play mediator in many volatile situations, to take action when laws are violated, and to apprehend traffic violators.  At any given time, one of these scenarios can require the use of some type of force or control by an officer.  Departmental policy, authorized equipment, formal training, and an officer’s faith in his or her abilities dictate the amount and type of force officers might use.  Additionally, available technology may also impact the decision to use force.  If an officer is unprepared to meet the various threats he or she faces, injury to the officer or citizens may result. Lower confidence on the part of officers might lead to increased probability of injuries and complaints of excessive force.

Law Enforcement’s Less than Lethal Practices

            Because police officers are charged with enforcing the law and maintaining public order, they are frequently placed in situations where they must attempt to manage or control an otherwise free citizen.  Whether an encounter leads to an actual arrest or merely a temporary detention for questioning, these intrusions are often unwelcome.  It is not uncommon for such police intervention to be resisted by the citizen or citizens involved.  When this happens, officers frequently need to use forcible means to control and perhaps arrest the persons in question.  Traditionally, officers have had limited technology at their disposal.  Beyond empty-hand defensive tactics or boxing, officers could utilize striking instruments (such as nightsticks, billy clubs or blackjacks) or they could use a firearm. 

            Clearly, striking someone with a club or stick represents a high level of force, with significant potential for injury.  Of course, shooting them represents an even higher level of force.  While such high levels of force are sometimes justified by a citizen’s aggressive, resistive behavior, the opposite is far more common (Hall, 1997).

In those situations where high levels of force cannot be justified, officers were, and are, often at a disadvantage, facing a significant possibility of being injured themselves.  The need to control certain violent individuals, while at the same time being discouraged from using potentially injurious deadly weapons (often the only weapons they possess), has resulted in many officer injuries while making arrests for relatively minor violations of the law.

The Movement to Aerosol Weapons

            As society’s expectations matured regarding reasonable levels of force, police needed a control method that possessed less potential for injury than a “club” or a gun.  For roughly the last two decades, that method has increasingly been hand held chemical spray weapons (Hunter, 1994).

            Hand held chemical spray weapons (typically referred to as aerosol weapons, aerosol subject restraints, or ASRs) have been used by police in the United States since the late 1960’s (Bunker, 1996). Initially, more traditional chemical mixtures, usually generically referred to as tear gas[1], were marketed in small aerosol cans for use by individual officers. 

Early hand-held units were often ineffective, as the active ingredients–or agents–were really intended to be dispersed over a large area in an airborne cloud rather than sprayed onto an individual in a direct pattern.  Sold under the brand name Mace, these products rapidly gained a reputation amongst police officers for failing to control aggressive, resistive individuals.  Instead, officers that used Mace were often so adversely affected by the spray that they would refuse to use it thereafter.  Use of handheld sprays generally fell out of favor.

            During the late 1970s, a hand-held spray weapon containing oleoresin capsicum (OC), sometimes referred to as “pepper spray”, was developed for civilian policing, making significant inroads into the police arsenal during the 1980s.  This product contains the active ingredient capsaicin, extracted from pepper plants.  Because OC is chemically classified as an inflammatory agent, thereby differing from the earlier tear gas products that are chemical irritants (Onnen, 1993), it produces a more severe effect in the targeted individual. 

            The primary effects of exposure to OC include sharp burning sensations in the eyes and on the skin, as well as coughing and profuse mucous production.  Generally, reflexive closing of the eyes, choking and shallow breathing lead to reduced mobility following exposure (National Institute of Justice, 1994).

During the late 1980’s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) conducted tests on OC based products, in order to determine their effectiveness, and the degree to which they could be deemed safe to use.  The 1989 FBI test report was one of the first pieces of research that could truly be judged to be independent of manufacturers’ potential influence.  Until that time, and other than research done on earlier tear gas products in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the only data available as to efficacy and suitability for use on humans came directly or indirectly from the manufacturers themselves.  Coupled with this lack of independent research, most training available in the use of aerosol weapons also originated with the manufacturers.

Following the FBI tests, which found OC based products safe to use, and generally effective,[2] many law enforcement agencies began to adopt the technology for routine patrol use.  There was commensurate development of non-brand specific training programs, although much of the available training still emanated from the manufacturers and vendors of aerosol weapons.

Today, American law enforcement generally employs two types of aerosol weapons.  Simple OC products, in varying strengths and concentrations of up to ten percent, make up the bulk of the aerosol market.  Additionally, combination products, or blends, are also used.  Typically, OC and more traditional CS tear gas[3] are “blended” to produce a pepper-fortified tear gas.  These blend products have seen particularly widespread use and acceptance by law enforcement agencies in the State of Michigan.

Justifying the Use of Aerosol Weapons

            While most officers have a basic understanding of how to use their aerosols, the question of when to use them is less well understood.  In fact, there are differing opinions among police administrators and theoreticians as to when aerosol use is operationally appropriate.  Concerns regarding this question are embodied in several basic philosophies for the timing of aerosol use.

The first of these philosophies is to use aerosols when faced with minimal levels of resistance, such as verbal non-compliance or aggressive posturing.  Justification for use at such a low level hinges upon the potential for officer injury–and the commensurate increased likelihood of injury to the involved citizen–if an officer moves in to control the resistance physically, and begins fighting with the individual.  Essentially, it’s thought to be better to spray early rather than face this increased risk of injury to both parties.

Another operational philosophy is to not spray unless faced with a fairly high level of resistance, such as would otherwise justify the use of a striking weapon.  The reasoning for delaying the use of sprays until greater justification is present stems from concern that use of the aerosol could result in a severe physical reaction that might, in fact, be life threatening.  This philosophy tends to place heightened emphasis on avoidance of legal liability in such circumstances.

A third, and perhaps the most defensible philosophy, is to use aerosols – and for that matter any weapon – when such use can meet the test of “objective reasonableness”.  This standard is required by the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and is cited by the Supreme Court of the United States in Tennessee v. Garner (1985).  One way of stating this is that use of any weapon is justified when an officer reasonably believes that such force is necessary to stop an individual’s aggressive or resistant behavior, and that lesser levels of control would be unsafe or ineffective.

Other Use of Force Developments

Concurrent with the movement toward aerosol weapons, law enforcement began to adopt other less-than-lethal technologies.  Expandable police batons, which could be worn on the officer’s belt (as an alternative to the traditional nightstick, which was often left behind in his or her car when needed), became the “impact weapon” of choice.  Different versions of the standard police flashlight, engineered so as to substitute as an impact weapon when necessary, were also available, although concerns were–and continue to be–raised as to the increased legal liability encountered in such use.  Alternative restraint methods were developed, supplementing and sometimes supplanting standard issue, chain-link handcuffs (Ashley, 1996).

Each of these new developments required specialized training, as well as additional procedural guidelines in order to reduce the risks inherent in technological change.  Such procedures and training were not always implemented, with the results that new control methods and tools often led to increased liability costs, and a parallel increase in the number of officer injuries, and citizen complaints of excessive force. 

As municipal managers and insurers increasingly took notice of this undesirable and contradictory trend, law enforcement executives sought to reduce risk through adoption of procedures and training programs.  Today, many of the negative results arising from these initial problems have been overcome, although some departments still lag behind the rest of the law enforcement profession in their risk reduction efforts.

            Officers using weapons or control techniques of any type must be prepared to articulate their need for the use of such force.  The use of force to maintain order, to protect citizens and to enforce the law must be balanced against the cost to society in reduced freedom of movement and in increased intrusion into the lives of society’s members.  The outcome of this balancing test will determine the legal acceptability of each individual use of force.

Citizen Perception of Police Use of Force

There was a time when mainstream America gave little thought to the routine use of force by police officers.  Unless a citizen had been arrested, or lived in a high crime area, such things were generally out of sight, and out of mind.  When it did come to the attention of the public, use of force was often deemed to be necessary for the greater good.  Only in the case of inappropriate use of deadly force did one see very noticeable public reaction, and generally even those cases did not result in an overall damning of the law enforcement profession.  This is no longer the case.

The proliferation of information, coupled with society’s ability to capture and rapidly distribute images and ideas, has dramatically changed the law enforcement landscape in America.  There is an increased belief in the pervasiveness of brutality and excessive force on the part of law enforcement officers by the American public.  Widespread and repeated broadcast of sensational footage of excessive force incidents, coupled with endless analysis and discussion of events by commentators, has resulted in a virtual expectation that the police will use more force than is necessary.

Despite this trend, in many jurisdictions where non-lethal weapons, such as aerosols, are properly used and managed, complaints against officers for excessive force have declined by as much as 50 to 60 percent.  It is generally believed that this is due to the short-term nature of the effects of aerosol exposure, and to a reduction in the use of more traditional striking instruments.

            Physically fighting with a suspect, and perhaps using a striking implement such as a nightstick or baton, carries with it a significant potential for harm.  Injuries ranging from scrapes and sprains to deep bruises and broken bones are often the result.  These injuries leave marks on the human body that often remain for days, if not weeks or months.  Occasionally medical treatment may be required, sometimes resulting in time off from work for the involved citizen.  These situations frequently give rise to complaints that the force used was excessive, and such complaints are often accompanied by threats of legal action.

When viewed in this context, the relatively short-lived effects of an aerosol exposure, albeit extremely painful and debilitating, seem preferable.  Usually, the most extreme effects wear off in approximately 20 to 30 minutes, and the exposed person can then be said to have “functionally recovered” (Archambault & Rookwood, 1994).  Residual effects, such as reddening of the skin, bloodshot eyes, heightened respiratory sensitivity, and a mild burning sensation, can last anywhere from several hours to several days.  In a very few cases, there may be some peeling of the outer layer of the skin (as if recovering from a mild case of sunburn).

            Unfortunately, high profile cases such as the well publicized demonstration in Humboldt County, California, wherein officers applied OC directly to the eyes of apparently peaceful anti-logging demonstrators, are widely broadcast by the national media.  In such cases, debate ensues as to the appropriateness and necessity of aerosol use, giving rise to statements equating use of aerosol weapons to “torture” (Amnesty International, 1997). Following such incidents, some jurisdictions rethink their use of aerosols, and sometimes ban further use by local police (Chow, 1997).  Since many of the same agencies have ceased their use of striking implements, due a fear of litigation, this often leaves officers with few non-lethal force alternatives.  These departments, then, have moved full circle in respect to their use of force philosophies. 

On balance, it appears that routine use of aerosol weapons by police leads to reductions in complaints of excessive force, while high profile, individual cases often give rise to general discontent with use of force practices in the affected jurisdictions.

The Current Legal Environment

Because the Supreme Court has declared that the standard for any use of force during an arrest is objective reasonableness, it is necessary that officers and departments take steps to assure a thorough understanding of that standard, and its application to daily law enforcement activities.  Initially, the Court applied the standard in deadly force cases (Tennessee v. Garner), but then followed Garner with other cases expanding the application of the objective reasonableness test to all types of force.  In the most influential of these cases, Graham v. Connor (1989), the Court further indicated that reasonableness should be determined based upon a reasonable officer’s assessment of four factors; the nature of the crime at issue, whether the suspect is an immediate threat to the safety of the officer or others, whether the suspect is attempting to evade arrest through resistance or flight, and the degree to which the situation is tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving.  This last point acknowledges that officers must act with little time to analyze and consider circumstances, rather than with the luxury of 20-20 hindsight (Graham v. Connor).

            In light of these cases, and others, there has been much discussion in the legal arena regarding the need for law enforcement to properly direct and supervise the involvement of officers in high-risk activities.  In fact, the Supreme Court has made it clear that policymakers have an obligation to review the daily activities of governmental employees in order to assure that those activities likely to result in potential constitutional violations are addressed with training programs (City of Canton v. Geraldine Harris, 1989).  To not do so, according to the Court, is to be deliberately indifferent (and therefore unreasonable) to the potential constitutional violation. This is particularly true as regards the use of force to make an arrest.

            Most cases filed against law enforcement officers and agencies for inappropriate or excessive use of force, and for illegal arrests, are filed in federal court.  This is due to the constitutional limitations on such activity, as well as the potential for plaintiff’s attorneys to collect their fees from the defendant.  Many of the resultant lawsuits contain language regarding the obligation for departments to manage officers’ selection of force implements or techniques.  Additionally, its common for court opinions to focus on the need for job related training; i.e. training that is commensurate with the duties of officers.

The Importance of Reporting

In order for departments to demonstrate the job relatedness of their use of force training programs, they must collect data regarding use of weapons and techniques, the success rates of various control methods, and the types and numbers of injuries to officers and suspects. For this information to be as useful as possible, and as an analysis tool for departmental planning and management, it must be both valid and reliable.  As such, the information must be as accurate as departmental managers can make it, through development of simple, effective data collection mechanisms. 

One of the most important aspects of a data collection strategy is that the officers must see the collection process, and the planned usage of the data, as non-threatening.  If officers believe that the information they record will be used against them personally in some way, they may be inclined to inaccurately or incorrectly report data.  This undermines the entire reporting process, and indicates a fundamental breakdown in the labor-management relationship.

Public Access to Information

            Many in the public believe that police critical data management practices are highly suspect (Enochs, 1995). This tendency creates distrust between the public and the police.  Another area of legal concern, and one that has gained much attention within the past few years is that of public access to police information and statistics.  The federal Freedom of Information Act (1966), as well as various state “sunshine” laws, or open information laws, guarantee citizens access to most public information (Doherty, 1996).  While some sensitive information can be protected (e.g. on-going investigations, etc.), other information must be available and released upon demand within a specified time frame (ACLU, 1997).  In fact, some state courts have reaffirmed this requirement by ordering departments to release information (ACLU, 1998).

            The need to respond to legal requests for information and records, to demonstrate the job relatedness of policies and training programs, and to comply with the requirements of various “open information” statutes, points to the need to collect, analyze, and maintain accurate databases of critical information. 

There are two other dimensions to consider as regards the current legal environment.  The first of these is the completeness of critical data, and the second is the ability to ascertain what information should not be released and to act to secure it.

Departments are frequently accused of acting inappropriately in a high-risk incident, leading to the serious injury or death of a citizen.  When this occurs, it is not uncommon for the public and the news media to examine the elements of the particular incident, without considering the broader context within which it occurred.  In order to properly manage its risks, law enforcement must manage its needs and the expenditure of its limited resources based upon a cost-benefit analysis of its most frequent activities.  However, law enforcement incidents are examined as individual occurrences, often without heed to the larger context.  An excellent example of this is a high-speed pursuit.

The facts of a particular pursuit related incident, despite a tragic outcome, might not support an ultimate finding of liability on the part of the police.  However, the media, and the “Court of Public Opinion”, may damn the actions of the police, based on the outcome and distorted perceptions of the frequency with which similar outcomes occur.  In short, the primary focus may be on the number of catastrophic incidents over the past few years, without regard to the broader context of similar incidents where no catastrophic outcome occurred. 

For example, it sounds bad to say that a dozen people have been injured in police pursuits in the last three years.  But if a department has accurately collected all the pertinent data, it sounds less troubling to say that over the past three years, out of 45,000 traffic stops,[4] 12 people have been injured.  One can readily see the importance of collecting information on all incidents, regardless of outcome.

Just as important as collecting and presenting available data for release is the identification of information that cannot or should not be released.  Court cases have generally held that sensitive information regarding internal practices, on-going investigations, and some personnel information are generally exempt from freedom-of-information requests, and may be protected (Gifford v. Freedom of Information Commission, 1993).

Writings and Issues Regarding Use of Force

The media draws attention to a small number of widely publicized incidents involving excessive use of force, thereby sensitizing the public to the issue of police use of force.  Lawsuits have become commonplace, and complaints against officers by individual citizens, as well as, special interest groups, have also become more prolific.  Some groups are even more forthright.  “Allegations of police abuse are rife in cities throughout the country and take many forms” (Human Rights Watch, 1998).

Numerous studies have been conducted into the alleged excessive use of force by police.  One study indicates that a small percentage of police-public interactions involve the use of force (Bayley and Garofalo, 1989). Another study that is currently ongoing indicates that when an injury results from a police use of force, it is likely to be minor (NIJ, 1999).  The same NIJ study indicates that a small percentage of officers account for a disproportionate number of use of force incidents, but that police use of force seems to be unrelated to an officer’s personal characteristics, such as age, gender, and ethnicity.  The NIJ study calls for more research in this area.

While much can be learned from these studies, fundamental questions remain regarding consistency of methodology and commonality of terms.  Additionally, training of officers is non-standard throughout the law enforcement profession.  Some officers have received little or no training in use of weapons. It is difficult to determine the validity of data reported in these studies by officers that are not trained in the proper defensive tactics or use of non-lethal weapons.  A parallel issue is the general lack of information on policy, and training to the policy, within the various departments.  Issues such as the hiring and discipline policies within each department, and the use of technologies by each agency are unknown.  

In most case studies, it has been shown that the vast majority of police use of force incidents occurred in arrest related situations, and that a high percentage of those arrested were under the influence of drugs or alcohol (NIJ, 1999).

Many studies into police use of force are actually studies into police use of excessive force.  These studies frequently miss the larger issues regarding use of force.  In order to fully understand the issues inherent in use of force, a broader view need be taken.  Data should be collected on all uses of force, and examination of the trends apparent in excessive use of force cases should be contrasted with trends indicated in those cases where no complaint of excessive force is received.  This process would allow those excessive cases to be placed into proper context, regarding overall police use of force practices.

Non-Lethal Weapons

While some research has been done of late regarding use of striking weapons (Holtz, 1996), the age of the technology and the law enforcement profession’s concerns with the degree of injury caused through use of such weapons as batons, blackjacks and the like, has caused most recent research efforts to be aimed at finding methods for less invasive control of a subject’s actions.  While such futuristic technologies as “sticky foam” and electronic stunning devices are still under development, options available today include “capture-nets”, and non-traditional projectile ammunition (typically fired from a shotgun).  This ammunition can be lethal if certain areas of the body are struck at close range.  These alternatives, however, each have their drawbacks, and their practicality for the average officer is difficult to determine.

As research goes forward, law enforcement has an immediate need for a simple, easy to carry and deploy, non-lethal alternative.  Although controversy surrounds the decision, many departments have selected an aerosol spray weapon as that alternative.  Because of their widespread adoption within such a relatively short time frame, a detailed examination of the literature is warranted.

Much of the actual research in the area of aerosol weapons use is actually not aerosol weapon research at all.  It arises from two related fields; military use of traditional chemical munitions such as CS and CN,[5] and use of capsaicin based products in the food and pharmacological industries.  Much of this information is dated, having originated several decades ago.  While it should be given general consideration in any body of information regarding use of chemical agents as weapons, many questions remain regarding its applicability to the issues currently under consideration.

Military research examined the effects on individuals of exposure via an airborne cloud of chemical agent.  Typically, this research (as released to the public) focused on issues such as the concentration of agent in a given volume of air (e.g., in an enclosed room) required to incapacitate or to kill.  While these studies and early civilian research were focused on short-term exposures, the real issue was a desire to determine the range within which enough chemical agent existed to incapacitate, without resulting in lethality.  Issues regarding the speed of incapacitation were generally not analyzed (Jones, 1976).

Research into the use of capsaicin in foodstuffs has typically considered the effects of chronic exposure in diet.  Such issues as desensitization of the tongue and esophagus, and the effects of continued capsaicin exposure on the stomach lining, are of limited relevance when considering the acute effects of a one-time exposure to a spray weapon.

There is some anecdotal information available regarding the effectiveness of aerosol weapons by police.  Much of this information is drawn from actual usage reports, completed by officers in the field.  Some law enforcement agencies have compiled this information in an attempt to ascertain the operational impact of aerosol use. 

Two additional facts tend to prevent definitive use of data from these studies.  First, many different brands of aerosols are involved, with differing concentrations of active chemical agents. It is extremely difficult to compare a study based on one product to a study based on a different product.  This problem is exacerbated by a lack of commonality in the aerosol industry, in respect to terminology and product information.

Secondly, training of officers is non-standard throughout the law enforcement profession.  Some officers have received viable training, while others have received minimal training or no training at all.  It is difficult to determine the veracity of data reported by officers that are not trained in proper use of their aerosol weapons.  Similarly, there is a general lack of information on training levels in departmental studies, which makes it difficult to evaluate the ability of officers to accurately report usage incidents.

Despite these problems, some information can be gleaned from these reports.  In most case studies, injuries to both citizens and officers are reduced significantly, while complaints against police for excessive force are also reduced.  Portland, Oregon, police noted an 83% reduction in subject injuries and a 61% decrease in officer injuries when OC is used.  This was coupled with a 43% reduction in complaints of excessive force (Gauvin, 1995). A study of OC use in the Baltimore County, Maryland, Police Department noted that officers were injured in only 11 % of incidents where aerosol was used, and that most injuries were very minor.  A suspect injury rate of 8% was also noted.  Pre-OC data were insufficient to make a comparison, but the study concluded that these numbers represent a significant reduction based on trending analyses.  A reduction in complaints against officers of 53% paralleled other data (International Association of Chiefs of Police, 1995).

Morabito and Doerner (1995) reviewed use of force reports in the Tallahassee, Florida, Police Department, for a 20-month period prior to December 31, 1995.  They found significant reductions in subject and officer injuries when OC was employed, compared to use of an impact weapon.  Officers were injured 24.6% of the time when impact weapons were used, but only 3.6% of the time when OC was used.  Similar figures existed for suspect injuries; 25% of the time when impact weapons were used, and 5.1% of the time with OC use.

A 1995 study by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) reported a 90% OC effectiveness rate. Other research by the same body indicates that while aerosols may have been employed in arrest situations which eventually resulted in the death of the suspect, very limited evidence (if any) links the use of OC with the cause of death (Granfield, Onnen & Petty, 1994).

Some researchers have identified potential problems with the use of OC spray by law enforcement.  Doubet (1996) identified possible medical implications in the use of OC by police, and cautioned against use in response to low levels of suspect resistance.  However, a study of aerosol use in North Carolina found that, out of 2,912 officers sprayed in training and 1,451 citizens sprayed during arrest or detention situations, only eight injuries were reported, and all were minor irritations of the skin or eyes (Craig, 1994).

Messina (1993, 1996) cautioned against replacing competent defensive tactics training with OC spray, as spray may be ineffective against highly motivated, goal oriented individuals. More traditional control methods may be necessary, and officers should still be trained in their use. At least one police officer has been killed, with his death attributed to inappropriate training (Merrick, 1995).  Training with aerosols should be as realistic as possible, ideally involving simulated combat scenarios and full facial spray “hits” (Ashley, 1996).

Various special interest groups have collected data which, based upon each group’s assessment of meaning, indicates that use of aerosols leads to an unacceptably high risk of death or serious injury.  The most notable collection of information is presented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), with the Southern California Chapter being the most active and vociferous, issuing reports in 1993 and again in 1995. It is difficult to consider these data collections “research” (for many of the same reasons stated above, with respect to studies based on usage reports); however, publication of these and similar compilations have brought significant pressure to bear for changes in law enforcement aerosol usage.

Firearms and Deadly Force Methodologies

During the 1970’s and 1980’s much research was done into the use of deadly force by police.  Perhaps the seminal work in this area is Deadly Force: What We Know, published by the Police Executive Research Forum (Geller and Scott, 1992).  It is essentially a compilation of most early research into the issue of deadly force, coupled with analysis of police involved shootings in 13 large American cities.  One of the most telling points made in “What We Know” regarding the management of police-citizen conflict is that police must learn to study both successes and failures (Geller and Scott).  Much of the law enforcement profession’s time is spent studying success and rationalizing or justifying failure.  Only through thorough study of those incidents resulting in negative outcomes can law enforcement hope to begin the corrective processes necessary to enhance management of such violent encounters.

Virtually every police shooting that leads to injury of a citizen will result in a lawsuit (Scharf and Binder, 1983).  This is only one of the negative outcomes possible in a police involved shooting; others are injury to officers and citizens, negative public relations, civil unrest, damaged equipment, lowered morale among officers, reduced work product in the days and weeks following a shooting, increases in complaints against officers due to officers “attitude problems” following the shooting of an officer, and many others.

Unfortunately, fear of litigation drives many law enforcement management programs.  This is true despite the fact that many other issues are far more costly, both in dollars and in reduced work output.  The ripple effect from a shooting is often felt for years within a police organization.  One of the primary mechanisms by which this occurs is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a physiological-psychological aftereffect of any traumatic event.  Departments often try to deny the existence of PTSD, or to downplay its importance to the officer and cost to the department.  This is far from the truth, and is actually harmful to both entities, as it compounds the injury caused by PTSD.  Departments have nothing to gain, and much to lose by taking this position (Artwohl and Christensen, 1997).

Many departments that have relegated officer involved shootings to the “litigation drawer” in their hierarchy of concern often focus a disproportionate part of their training budget and time on proper use of firearms.  Some departments conduct firearms training as often as monthly, with many more training quarterly and semi-annually.  While firearms training is important because of the potential for negative outcomes, if often bears no relation to what is actually happening on the street.  Much more training should be done in the more common yet less dramatic skills that officers use every day, such as driving and defensive tactics.  The more realistic and job related training is, the more benefit will be gained from it (Ashley, 1995).

One of the key areas where police receive little training is in the area of verbal management skills.  One researcher has pointed out that the explosion of violence that sometimes occurs between an officer and a citizen is frequently the result of the demand for respect that each puts upon the other (Toch, 1969).  When police managers emphasize deadly force training at the expense of training in the less invasive aspects of control, officers can become acculturated to choose the more harmful alternative in an actual confrontation (Brill, 1977).

            Another operational area of law enforcement that sometimes receives too little attention is emergency vehicle operations.  Increasingly officers are participating in law enforcement driver training, often prompted by litigation arising from motor vehicle pursuits.  While this increase in training is helpful in reducing the risks of pursuit, it usually does not address forcible termination techniques such as roadblocks and intentional vehicle contact.  Both of these techniques have been classified as seizures under the fourth amendment to the United States Constitution.  The former of these can easily result in a fatal outcome if improperly managed (Brower v. Inyo County, 1989), while the latter most certainly will, when undertaken at high speeds, or when vehicle size is disproportionate (Donovan v. Milwaukee, 1994).  Many police procedural documents classify both of these forcible seizures as “deadly force”, although the courts are split on whether they actually do constitute such a high level of control.  Nonetheless, it is clear that they do constitute a relatively high level of control, and might constitute deadly force in some contexts.  It is therefore imperative that departments begin training officers in how to utilize these techniques, especially where they are expressly authorized by policy (Canton v. Harris, 1989).

Although this study did not consider driving related use of force methodologies, these issues remain, and should be addressed in the future.

Officer Confidence in Use of Force

There appears to be little, if any research into the effects of officer confidence on use of force incident outcomes.  Officer injury rates and numbers of excessive force complaints, and the degree to which an officer’s confidence in their ability to manage resistant subjects impacts both outcomes, seems a field where much can be learned.

There has been some research into confidence and training, and their combined effects on the ability of test subjects to perform certain tasks, but even that is limited in direct application to the instant question.  Costanzo (1992) found that providing information alone to test subjects did not increase their ability to perform, although it did increase their confidence in the accuracy of their performance. Beyer (1990) attempted to discover if gender differences were related to differences in self-confidence regarding performance, but was unable to determine if biases played a role in any deviance due to ambiguities in interpretations of test results.  However, another study indicated that gender differences are more detectable in general confidence, but that confidence in actual ability is dependent on the context of the activity (Lundberg, Fox and Punccohar, 1994)

Other research has indicated that subjects who receive preparatory information prior to a stressful event (such as a shooting or other use of force incident) experience greater confidence in their ability to perform properly, and do in fact perform at a higher level (Inzano, Driskell, Salas and Johnston, 1996). 

An analysis of the effectiveness of stress-based training found that such training reduced performance anxiety and enhanced performance.  Such factors as the experience level of the trainer, the training setting, and the type of trainees involved showed no reduction in the benefit of stress based training (Saunders, Driskell, Johnston and Salas, 1996).

Finally, Martocchio (1994) found that subjects learned skills better when told that their topic was a “learnable skill”, rather than those told that the skill was unlikely to be learned.  Anxiety levels of the former group were reduced through training, while anxiety in the “unlearnable” group remained high or increased.

Ramifications of this research for officer training in use of force incidents seem clear.  Differences in gender or type of trainee should have minimal effect on their ability to learn, and more stressful training will produce less anxious practitioners.  If a student believes that they can be successful, they are more likely to succeed than those who don’t believe they can.  Lastly, the more relevant information a trainee receives, the more confident they are likely to be in their ability to perform, but they need more than information – they need skill development training to reinforce the information they have received.


This study sought a correlation between levels of formal use of force training and officer confidence, and the frequency of injuries sustained by officers in use of force incidents.  Additionally, this study sought to discover any relationship between an officer’s confidence level in managing resistive behavior and the frequency of citizen complaints of excessive force. 

In order to facilitate this study, three hypotheses were presented for testing:

        Lower levels of formal training have no impact on officer confidence levels in dealing with use of force incidents.

        Lower levels of formal training have no impact on the frequency of officer injuries in use of force incidents.

        Low officer confidence levels have no impact on the frequency of excessive force complaints or on officer injury rates

Two types of survey instruments were developed to facilitate data collection (see appendices).  The first of these was an Officer Use of Force Survey, to be administered anonymously to front line law enforcement personnel (patrol officers, detectives and first line supervisors, as well as any other personnel primarily engaged in routine police duties).  The second was an Agency Head Use of Force Questionnaire, to be administered through a focus interview with the chief executive of each agency, or a senior command officer if the chief executive was unavailable.

Survey packages were distributed to 25 law enforcement agencies in Michigan during the months of March and April 2000.  The study sample was comprised of agencies varying in geographical location and agency size. The smallest agency sampled had six officers, while the largest had 100.  The mean department size was 33, while the Median was 23, and the Mode was 6 (only 2 departments of this size).  There were 12 city police departments of varying sizes, 1 city public safety department, 6 township police departments, and 3 county sheriff’s departments.  Three departments declined to participate.

Of the 22 departments participating, 20 agency executives completed focus interviews.  One city police chief and one township police chief were unreachable during the period of the study.

Agency Head Use of Force Questionnaire

Focus interviews were conducted with senior command staff at 20 agencies.  Demographic information was collected regarding number of officers, annual number of calls for service, and annual number of arrests.  Further information was collected regarding the nature of the department’s primary service area, and its population.

Procedural information was collected regarding four primary areas; written policies and procedures, officer injuries during use of force incidents, numbers of excessive force complaints, and each department’s use of force reporting and review process.  Regarding this last item, specific questions were asked regarding the precipitating events necessary to trigger a use of force report and the formalized agency review of a use of force incident.

When possible, anecdotal information was collected regarding types of weapons authorized, and frequencies of training with each.  This data collection was difficult due to the nature of the information, and was not consistent across the sample of interviews.

Officer Use of Force Survey

Of 723 officers surveyed, 417 returned completed instruments, for a response rate of 57.7 percent.  Departments were requested to have their officers complete their surveys voluntarily during work hours.  In order that each chief executive’s focus interview responses could be matched to the survey response from his or her agency, each department was assigned an agency reporting code number. Those numbers were recorded on each survey distributed within that agency.  No names or departmental ranks were recorded, so as to provide an added safeguard of anonymity. 

At the outset of this project, the authors began with an assumption that each officer had used some type of force or control in the course of his or her police duties.  That force or control could range from a slight intentional physical contact with a subject to the use of deadly force.  The author’s did not distinguish levels of control, but left respondents to their own definitions and assumptions.

            Officer respondents were asked basic demographic questions such as age, time on the job, and education level.  Respondents were also asked for data regarding the frequency of work assignments with another officer, frequency of injuries sustained during use of force incidents, the frequency of those injuries sustained while assigned with a partner, and the number of excessive force complaints filed against the officer.  Data was also collected regarding non-lethal weapons authorized by the department.  Selection options were Spray Weapon (OC Only), Spray Weapon (Other), Flashlight Authorized as an Impact Weapon, Collapsible Baton, and an area to list any others.  Questions in regard to the frequency of formal training on use of force policies, frequency of non-lethal force training and frequency of firearms training were also asked.

The authors then asked individual officers to respond in regard to their understanding of their department’s use of force policies, and whether they felt that they had adequate tools/weapons and training, as well as frequent enough training to accomplish their job.  The final question was whether the officer felt confident in his or her abilities to handle resistant subjects without getting hurt.

Analysis of Collected Data

This study was undertaken based upon the following three hypotheses.  Each is stated as a negative postulate.

        Lower levels of formal training have no impact on officer confidence levels in dealing with use of force incidents.

        Lower levels of formal training have no impact on the frequency of officer injuries in use of force incidents.

        Low officer confidence levels have no impact on the frequency of excessive force complaints or on officer injury rates

While a certain amount of other data was collected, the authors’ have chosen to limit this analysis to those variables that impact directly on these three hypotheses.  Study of other data will be undertaken in the future.

Based upon analysis of data from both survey instruments, it appears that lower levels of formal training have little or no effect on officer’s confidence levels in dealing with use of force incidents.  While some officers reported that they do not receive training in use of force often enough, they still indicated a generally high level of confidence in dealing with incidents.

It appears that current levels of training are generally successful in maintaining a low level of officer injuries in use of force incidents.   Most departments train at least annually in use of force, and also report few injuries.  Those injuries reported are of a minor nature.

Findings from the Officer Survey indicate a generally high level of officer confidence in handling use of force incidents, as well as a low number of citizens’ complaints regarding excessive force.  Findings from the Agency Head Questionnaire indicate that few such complaints are received, and that those that are received are almost always found to be unfounded, or are withdrawn by the complainant.

It is difficult to determine from this data set whether or not lower levels of confidence would impact on complaint levels and officer injuries, as officer respondents to this survey indicated an almost uniformly high level of confidence.

Recommendations for Further Study

The authors’ believe that there are several areas that demand further study, as well as several areas that the design of this study left only partially discovered:

        Frequency of police driver training, particularly in the higher risk areas of emergency response and pursuit, focusing on the forcible termination of pursuits (as use of force incidents);

        Officer perceptions of the need for more and more frequent training in verbal management skills;

        The impact on use of force incident outcomes when officers receive little or no training in verbal management skills;

        More detailed analysis of contributing factors to officer confidence;

        Research into the relationship between incidents wherein officers are injured and incidents resulting in litigation.



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[1] “Tear gas” is technically incorrect.  All of the chemical agents discussed in this paper are actually microparticulate solids.  The term “tear gas” is of unknown origin.

[2] The FBI report was eventually discredited in April of 1996, when Special Agent Thomas Ward, the Agent responsible for supervising the FBI’s OC research, pled guilty to accepting money from the OC manufacturer whose product he eventually recommended for purchase.  Despite this fact, the report has never been withdrawn, and very little publicity was noted regarding the conviction.  Few police agencies have acknowledged this fact (many are perhaps not aware of it), and many continue to cite the report as evidence of the safety and efficacy of OC sprays.

[3] Orthochloro-benzalmalononitrile

[4] Based on 12 officers averaging 5 traffic stops per workday, each working 250 days  per   year.

[5] Chloroacetophenone, one of the earliest riot control agents available to civilian police.  A refined version of CN (phenylchlormethylketone) was used as the active ingredient in Mace™.

While compliance to the loss prevention techniques suggested herein may reduce the likelihood of an incident, it will not eliminate all possibility of an incident.

Further, as always, the reader is encouraged to consult with an attorney for specific legal advice.





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