How Much Force Can a Police Officer Use to Make an Arrest?
Most arrests do not make the nightly news. The majority are accomplished with little to no force beyond mere handcuffing and the suspect being walked into a waiting squad car by the arresting officer. However, there are occasions when a Police Officer will use excessive force, and most of us have all seen the worst examples of these incidents on the news.
Given the their role in society, the law permits Police Officers to use a certain degree of physical force to overcome resistance and make an arrest, and on its face, this seems logical - if a suspect is committing an armed robbery, assault, burglary, rape, etc., police need some latitude to deploy force in order to stop the violence and maintain the peace. It is worth noting that an arrest itself even for a minor offense, and even when effected without violence, is an application of force.
Police use of force is analyzed under either the Fourth or Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution depending on whether a suspect is detained. If a suspect is already seized, the Fourth Amendment applies. If not, then the Fourteenth Amendment applies. As each situation is different, it is difficult to formulate rules beyond that an officer is authorized to use objectively reasonable force in effecting an arrest. In assessing whether a specific use of force was reasonable under the circumstances, the law takes into consideration “…that police officers are often forced to make split second judgments in circumstances that are tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving.”
Facts and circumstances are almost always necessary to inform the analysis. The case law involving specific instances of force is constantly expanding and changing as times, technology, and societal attitudes change, so whether you are a civilian or a police tactics instructor, it is important to speak with an attorney familiar with the laws regarding use of force.
De minimis force: There are categories of force which have been deemed “de minimis” by New York Courts for which lawsuits have been dismissed:
Tight Handcuffing: complaints of tight handcuffing are often dismissed by courts unless supported by medical evidence of injuries beyond minor bruising, swelling, marks, or pain/ discomfort. Moreover, if an arrestee does not specifically ask for their handcuffs to be loosened, an excessive force claim will fail.
Wrestling a suspect to the ground: A case brought in Federal Court in New York was dismissed when it was alleged that an officer wrestling a person to the ground during an arrest caused only bruising and unspecified facial injuries and leg injuries.
Shoving: Excessive force lawsuits where the officer is alleged to have shoved a suspect are often dismissed. Shoving in and of itself will probably not be a viable claim. However, it bears repeating that what constitutes “reasonable force” is fact specific – an officer shoving a suspect off a rooftop is different than an officer shoving a resisting suspect against a squad car in order to handcuff them.
Due to the nature of violence – unpredictable, dynamic, rapidly evolving, and fact specific, it is difficult to precisely delineate what types of force are de minimis in the abstract.
Ultimately, the objective reasonableness of the force used is the central question in evaluating an excessive force claim, and this depends on the facts and circumstances of each case.
Deadly Force: Officer involved shootings are sadly too frequently featured in the news. Unjustified deadly physical force incidents erode the peoples’ faith in government institutions which can only function with the consent and cooperation of the communities they serve.
That said, given the nature of police work, there are specific times when a police officer is authorized to use deadly force. The general principle is that police officers are permitted to use deadly force if the suspect “poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others…” including “…if the suspect threatens the officer with a weapon[.]”
New York State Penal Law §25.15(2)(a)(ii) permits a police officer to use deadly force if the officer “reasonably believes that such other person is using or about to use deadly physical force.”
Qualified Immunity: When a Police Officer is accused of using excessive force, they may be entitled to Qualified Immunity from being sued if, based on the facts and circumstances known to the officer at the time of the incident, the officer reasonably believed the use of force was lawful.
The key phrase here is “reasonably believed.”
To draw from recent events, it will be difficult for an officer to claim that they “reasonably believed” it was necessary to put their shin across an unresisting suspect’s neck and apply their full body weight for a period of minutes causing that suspect’s death.
On the flip side, given the immediate and rapidly evolving nature of violent crime, qualified immunity can correctly protect Police Officers who make split second decisions under stress and grave danger to their own lives and the public they serve. When faced with life and death decisions, police do not have the luxury of detached hindsight which the courts and attorneys enjoy as they spend months and years picking apart events which lasted for mere seconds.
In determining whether force used by Police was excessive or appropriate, it is important to speak with an attorney who is well versed in police matters. Feel free to call 914-500-7990 to set up a free consultation.
 Graham v. Connor, 390 U.S. 386 at 396-397 (U.S. 1989).  Estmont v. City of New York, 371 F. Supp. 2d 202 (E.D.N.Y. 2005).  Johnson v. Police Officer #17969, 99 civ 3964 (S.D.N.Y. 2000).  Tennessee v. Garner, 71 U.S. 1, at 8-9 (U.S. 1985); Stevens v. Metro. Transp. Auth. Police Dept., 293 F. Supp. 2d 415, 420 (S.D.N.Y. 2003).  Lennon v. Miller, 66 F.3d 416 (2d Cir. 1995).