REVISITING THE “OBJECTIVELY REASONABLE” STANDARD FOR USE OF FORCE

by Risa S. Christensen, Esq.

The “reasonableness” standard has been around for a long time.  This is the standard by which officers are instructed to gauge their actions when contemplating whether to use force in the situation before them.  So, if officers are taught this in the academy and in on-going training, why are so many officers still being sued? Certainly mistakes happen, and certainly some situations present themselves which were never discussed in the classroom of the academy or in POST hypotheticals.  But far too many lawsuits are being brought for situations which are not that unusual, or uncommon, so maybe there’s another reason.  Are some officers reacting without thinking, or reacting out of anger or frustration?  Or, are some officers simply misinterpreting or misapplying the reasonableness standard?

An officer’s use of force is governed by the reasonableness standard set forth in Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 395, 109 S. Ct. 1865, 104 L. Ed. 2d 443 (1989). The “reasonableness inquiry in an excessive force case is an objective one, meaning, the question is whether the officers’ actions are “objectively reasonable” in light of the facts and circumstances  confronting them, without regard to their underlying intent or motivation. So, an officer’s own personal feelings, fear, anger, frustration, etc., are not factors but rather the test is based on the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene.  Courts are suppose to determine the reasonableness of the officer’s actions based upon whether another officer standing in this officer’s shoes, reasonably perceived there was a need to use the amount of force used in the given situation.

The question the officer asks himself should be do I need to use force.  And when using force, what amount of force is reasonably necessary under these circumstances.  Whatever your decision with respect to whether to use force and the level used, you must remember that you will have to justify your actions to your department and to the public.  Later, you may have to justify it before a judge and jury.  Always maintain your integrity and professionalism and give plenty of verbal warnings at every level if you are able to do so. Use force only when it is objectively reasonable to do so under the circumstances facing you.

 Courts are also instructed to balance the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests against the countervailing governmental interests at stake.  So if the intrusion is extreme such as a high level of force as compared to what the level of resistance the subject presents, a particular level of force may not be reasonable under the circumstances.  

Being a law enforcement officer is stressful, but hopefully it’s also very rewarding. Protect your good name and reputation of integrity by remembering the “objectively reasonable” standard when you determine you need to use force in a given situation.

About Wagner & Pelayes, LLP

The law firm of Wagner & Pelayes is a minority owned law firm dedicated to providing the finest legal representation of cases involving insurance defense, defense of public entities and their employees including civil rights litigation in both state and federal courts and the defense of employment cases under FEHA and Title VII. Above all the law firm provides sound legal advice to their clients. The attorneys have extensive trial experience and have been involved in thousands of cases over the years.
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