Defend or Defund? Shoot or Don’t Shoot?

In light of the recent media frenzy regarding police misconduct that has created and fueled the debate about whether to ‘Defund the Police’ or create a new force continuum, that allows police officers to be stabbed or shot before using Deadly Physical Force (DPF), must come to an end.  The ongoing narrative of defunding the police based on group or personal perception does not accomplish or address the proper objective.

The misguided application of the rule of law by the media, our elected politicians, professional athletes, community activists, along with the entertainment community, has empowered and emboldened the so-called “peaceful protesters” into a lawless mob.

The endless one-sided inflammatory rhetoric of hate and distrust has demonized the law enforcement community causing increased hostility towards police.

The tension between the law enforcement community and the public has been escalated by some critics who believe that defunding the police will stop violence.  Others seem to be trying to fuel a political or personal agenda that is unacceptable in our society. However, with multiple social media networks at people’s fingertips, the number of recorded police encounters has increased significantly.  The widespread misuse of social media networks has created a questionable image that police officers in greater numbers are abusing their authority and using excessive force. This is accomplished by use of small, half-truth portions of stories being told, posted or reported.

Other critics can argue that social media networks have captured an increase in blatant disrespect for the law.  These same social media outlets have recorded, in larger numbers, countless acts of lawlessness by the public.  Political posturing has further divided the public while destroying the moral and social fabric of a civilized society.

The rule of law refers to the standard that all people and institutions are subject and accountable to. The law that is applied uniformly and fairly to all persons. A question arises; should one side be held more accountable than the other?  The rule of law is the very fabric of a civilized society.  Without the rule of law the existing social structure will collapse into total chaos. (Rule of Law”, n.d.)

Law enforcement administrators are held accountable for the actions of the men and women under their command who wear the uniform and patrol our streets.  However, if these same law enforcement administrators are continuously being micromanaged and handcuffed by elected officials, the result is confusion. The message that the officer on the street receives is that it is not permissible to enforce the law. It is very easy in this scenario to see how a street officer will adapt to the situation by no longer enforcing the law.

The only way we can gain a more comprehensive picture of the social and political chaos of ‘defunding the police’ is through the use of logic not emotion. We must ask, are the entities that are judging or reporting unlawful actions of law enforcement qualified or trained to do so?  Does the media and our elected politicians understand necessary force over excessive force?  Do these very outspoken professional athletes, TV and movie entertainers understand the procedural application of justification for the use of Deadly Physical Force? The political pandering must end as we need to be united under one set of laws.

The purpose of this article is to provide a path toward trust between the public and the police. Law enforcement officials cannot alter or change the public perception or misconception without educating and engaging the community.  The community needs to better understand why police officers may have to engage in using different levels of force. The article will hopefully shed some light in a more comprehensive manner.

What is reasonable or necessary force? It is the minimum reasonable amount of lawful force necessary to achieve a legitimate law enforcement objective. According to Oxford Dictionary, reasonable is having sound judgment that is fair and sensible. (Oxford Dictionary, 2020)

The concept of reasonable or necessary force is applied in conjunction with the force continuum. What is the force continuum?  The force continuum is a standard that provides law enforcement officers with guidelines as to how much force may be used against a resisting person in a given situation.

Police officers are confronted with a delicate balance between necessary force and excessive force. So how does the force continuum work? The best analogy to describe the force continuum is to visualize a set of stairs or rungs on a ladder.

The first step or ladder rung would be just the officer’s mere presence, being in uniform and standing in a position of authority, allows the public to know he/she is a police officer.  The second step or second ladder rung would be verbal commands.  Verbal commands can be applied in multiple levels, as the officer can change or alter his/her tone, pitch and volume, when a person is being uncooperative.  Verbal and non-verbal commands can be useful when combined.  One example of verbal and non-verbal combined is when an officer verbally says stop and places his/her non-dominant hand up, palm facing out towards the person.

Verbal commands and non-verbal commands are very effective communication skills. These same verbal and non-verbal cues are also an example a suspect or person may exhibit while being uncooperative. “No, I am not getting out of the car,” or any other graphic verbal statement that is uncooperative. The force continuum also provides guidelines of the breakdown of communication and which allows an officer to move up to the next step or rung of the ladder.

When the first two steps fail. The third step of the stairs or ladder rung is soft-hand techniques that are designed to assist an officer when passive resistance is being used by the person. First, what is passive resistance? Passive resistance is when a person refuses to comply, and a clear common example lately would be refusing to follow direction or lawful commands.  When passive resistance from a person occurs, a police officer applies the soft-hand techniques which is the minimal level of force that involves using the hands to hold or guide a person while applying arm or wrist lock techniques through pressure points for the person to comply with the officers commands. The first three steps or ladder rungs are calculated to be used and applied with minimal risk of injury to all parties involved.

The fourth step of the force continuum is hard hand techniques, which is when a person has escalated to a more defensive resistance when involved in a police encounter.  Defensive resistance is when a person is pulling away or walking away from the officer while being uncooperative, but never attempting to harm the officer physically. The hard hand technique is the level of force that includes punches, kicks or striking techniques that are designed to stun or shock the person to gain compliance with only a moderate risk of injury to the person.

The fifth step or ladder rung is the use of non-lethal instruments, which is when the person has raised his/her level of resistance to physically attacking or attempting to strike, kick, punch or inflict bodily harm on the officer.  What are some of the non-lethal instruments an officer may use?  Police officers have Oleoresin Capsicum spray, commonly referred to as pepper spray, batons and compliance Tasers which can be deployed when a person is being actively aggressive to the officer and/or to the public. These non-lethal tools can be very effective; however, it is important to note that not all people respond in the same manner as some may be more effective than others. Some non-lethal instruments may not work at all on some people and in some situations. (Force Continuum, 2009)

The final step or last ladder rung of the force continuum is lethal force. Lethal force or Deadly Physical Force (DPF). Definition of Deadly Physical Force: A person may use deadly physical force upon another individual when, and to the extent that, he/she reasonably believes it to be necessary to defend himself/herself or someone else from what he/she reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of unlawful deadly physical force by such individual. (Article 35 NY Penal Law, 2020)

In simpler terms.  Deadly Physical Force, hereinafter DPF, may be used when an officer’s life or another person’s life is in imminent (immediate) threat of serious physical injury or death.  DPF should only be used as a last resort.  However, other factors that a police officer must consider when using DPF is that the threat against a person or officer is imminent and the response to that threat also needs to be immediate and in proportion to the threat that hopefully neutralizes (stops) the threat instantaneously.

The force continuum should provide a better understanding of what is justified force; however, we must remember that real-time decision making by any officer may go from level one (his/her presence) to level six (use of DPF) in a split-second.

It is easy to Monday morning quarterback from the luxury of our safe, soft, comfy couch when we watch and listen to the news clips or social media videos that arbitrarily apply other factors that may not be true or accurate to the real scenario that has unfolded.  When watching a police officer make a split-second decision to use DPF in real-time we must try to consider being under the same pressure, fear and anxiety, he or she had to endure before making that life or death decision.

The use of Deadly Physical Force is never an easy decision for a police officer to make. However, the Hollywood perception or misconception that is often portrayed is that all police officers have the marksmanship skills and ability to shoot a suspect in the arm or leg. Most Hollywood portrayals are unrealistic, leading the viewer to believe that the officer could have just “winged” the subject.

The annual hit-ratio among many large departments such as New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Las Vegas police departments has revealed that when their members are involved in shootings they do not have a very high accuracy rate.  These same reports over the last few decades have revealed that most police involved shootings are typically within a distance of 3 to 12 feet away and the actual hit-ratio ranges between 22% to 52%. (Remsberg, 2018)

The most important concept when judging any police encounter involving the use of force is to ask yourself one simple question, what reasonable force would be required to accomplish a positive result from those involved?  The concept of applying the application of the force continuum while understanding the different levels of force that an officer may lawfully use will help assist you in making a logical decision over an emotional one.  Any death is emotional, nevertheless, applying emotions to a split-second decision is not a logical legal application of the rule of law.  President John F. Kennedy stated that “Americans are free to disagree with the law, but not to disobey it…” (Congress on Civil Rights, 1963) This statement holds true to all persons involved.

Excessive force can be easily identified when compared to reasonable force if the officer used an inappropriate level of force from the force continuum in response to his/her perceived threat. Excessive also means that the officer failed to reassess the use of force at each level to ensure that it was effective, and if it was effective then the officer must halt.  More importantly you must understand reasonable and excessive force compared to police brutality. (FindLaw, 2020). Police brutality is when an officer intentionally uses an inappropriate amount of force. This is never acceptable.

The degree of Force used on the Force Continuum is the direct result of any escalation by the subject of law enforcement activity. A law enforcement officer may move from one level to another level as necessary. Under the Force Continuum guidelines officers are legally justified and permitted to use force that is equal to that which they encounter, or even one level above the force they are encountering to neutralize the force being used against the officer or another individual. (Force Continuum, 2009)

The decision to use force has to be articulated in a manner that clearly shows reasonable and necessary justification based upon the officers perception of the situation.

6. Deadly Physical Force

5. Non- lethal Weapons

4. Hard Hand Techniques

3. Soft Hand Techniques

2. Verbal commands

1. Officer presence



Article 35 NY Penal Law | Defense of Justification | NY Laws. (2020). Retrieved  from

Excessive Force and Police Brutality – FindLaw. (2020). Retrieved 2020, from

Special Message to the Congress on Civil Rights | The American Presidency Project. (1963). Retrieved from

National Institute of Justice, “The Use-of-Force Continuum,” (2009),
retrieved from

Reasonable | Definition of Reasonable by Oxford Dictionary on also meaning of Reasonable. Lexico Dictionaries | English. (2020). Retrieved from

Remsberg, C. (2018). New Study on Shooting Accuracy. How Does Your Agency Stack Up? | Force Science Institute. Force Science Institute. Retrieved from

Rule of Law. (2020) Retrieved from


Author information

Scott Downs

Scott Downs

Scott Downs is currently an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Briarcliffe College. His works have been published in the Journal of Emergency Management, as a content expert. He is a summa cum laude graduate of Saint Joseph’s College and holds a Master’s Degree from the Long Island University- Homeland Security Management Institute that was designated by Congress after 9-11. Scott, being a former 4th generation law enforcement officer and former Director of Operations for a National Security company, combines his educational and real-world experience to actively serve both the public and private sectors with the best practice methods as a safety, security instructor and consultant. He can be reached at

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