Assessing Police Use of Force Policy

William Terrill
Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University

Key Findings

  • Eighty percent of agencies use some type of force continuum policy.
  • There is a lot of variation in the range and order of the force continuum policies from force tactics (soft hands, pain compliance controls, hard hands) and weapons (batons, chemical sprays, CEDs), and how police agencies rank the order in terms of progression.
  • There is no ideal (or flawed) policy approach across all outcomes.


In the report, “Assessing Police Use of Force Policy and Outcomes,” Terrill and his co-authors in coordination with the U.S. Department of Justice, examined the variations in use of force policies to determine which policies offer the most beneficial outcomes to both police officers and the community. Using two pronged approach, they first administered surveys to a stratified random sample of police agencies nationwide to determine what types of force policies already exist. They found there was much variation in use of force policies as well as how they were categorized. In the second phase, eight departments from the first survey were chosen for a deeper study that consisted of multiple site visits, patrol officer surveys, and other data from citizen complaints and informational interviews. The results showed that even in this smaller pool of departments, there was still a large variation in the use of force continuum. Some departments used ladder-like structures, which indicated a step-by-step progression in force while others used a wheel structure, where force progression is not very evident (e.g., lethal force is placed next to chemical agent on one side and soft control techniques on the other side). Ultimately, the researchers could not endorse or condemn one use of force policy over another because of variation between department’s situations.

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