Challenging the Ordinality of Police Use-of-Force Policy

AuthorSamuel R. Baty,Scott M. Mourtgos,Ian T. Adams
Published date01 March 2022
Date01 March 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2022, Vol. 33(2) 119 –147
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/08874034211038346
Challenging the Ordinality of
Police Use-of-Force Policy
Scott M. Mourtgos1, Ian T. Adams1,
and Samuel R. Baty1
Most use-of-force policies utilized by U.S. police agencies make fundamental ordinal
assumptions about officers’ force responses to subject resistance. These policies
consist of varying levels of force and resistance along an ordinally ranked continuum
of severity. We empirically tested the ordinal assumptions that are ubiquitous to
police use-of-force continua within the United States using 1 year’s use-of-force data
from a municipal police department. Applying a quantitative technique known as
categorical regression with optimal scaling, we found the assumptions of ordinality
within the studied department’s use-of-force continuum (which is similar to many
police use-of-force continua within the United States) are not met. Specifying physical
force as a “lower” force option than less-lethal tools is associated with increased
officer injury and decreased subject injury. Our findings call into question use-of-
force continua featuring ordinal rankings for varying categories of less-lethal force.
use-of-force, force continuum, less-lethal force, officer injury, subject injury
Most police agencies utilize a force continuum within their use-of-force policies, but
the exact configuration of these continua varies considerably (Terrill & Paoline,
2012b). Use-of-force continua are meant to provide officers with guidance on how to
take progressively forceful action (e.g., officer presence, issuance of verbal com-
mands, use of physical force, batons, pepper spray, taser, firearms) based on subject
resistance. These continua are used by police departments to specify the highest level
of force allowed for a given level of a subject’s resistance (Crawford & Burns, 1998;
1The University of Utah, Salt Lake City, USA
Corresponding Author:
Scott M. Mourtgos, Department of Political Science, The University of Utah, Carolyn and Kem Gardner
Commons Suite 3345, 260 South Central Campus Drive, Salt Lake City, UT 84112, USA.
1038346CJPXXX10.1177/08874034211038346Criminal Justice Policy ReviewMourtgos et al.
120 Criminal Justice Policy Review 33(2)
Garner et al., 1995). Although the scenarios and actions they are intended to address
are undeniably complex, these guidelines are often presented as if they are explicitly
ordinal scales (Terrill, 2005, p. 110 emphasis added): “Thus, a standard force contin-
uum ordinally ranks varying levels of force and resistance along a continuum in terms
of severity, with the explicit purpose of offering guidance on how to respond to spe-
cific forms of resistance.”
The extreme ends of force continuums—officer presence and deadly force—are
universally agreed upon. However, while officer presence and verbal commands are
“lower” levels of force available to officers than discharging a firearm, there is no
agreed-upon placement of less-lethal forms of force available to the police—namely
physical force, pepper spray, conducted energy devices (CEDs), and batons—within a
force continuum (Terrill & Paoline, 2012b). Individuals (practitioners and researchers
alike) disagree regarding whether striking someone on the head with a closed fist is a
more severe form of force than striking someone on the leg with a baton. There is also
disagreement regarding where to place pepper spray and CEDs on a force continuum,
thereby removing the need for the actual use of physical force. These are crucial,
reality-based assessments faced by line officers and their administrators, and ones that
frequently arise because many law enforcement agencies’ force continua situate physi-
cal force “below” these less-lethal compliance tools.
Our study aims to test the fit of ordinal use-of-force continua in the context of
actual police use-of-force. Conceptually, a use-of-force policy represents a theoretical
model of using force, and it makes sense to compare theoretical expectations with real-
ity. Using an administrative data set providing comprehensive coverage from a single
agency, we provide empirical evidence strongly suggesting that most forms of less-
lethal force are conceptually very similar, and those use-of-force continua that place
less-lethal force on an ordinal scale are based on questionable logic. Moreover, while
police use of physical force is associated with fewer injuries to subjects compared with
the use of other less-lethal types of force, physical force corresponds with increased
injuries to officers. This presents the following question: How should law enforcement
agencies (as well as society) balance the risks to officers or subjects when less-lethal
force is used? This question is, in part, answered by use-of-force policies.
The Legal-Policy Dichotomy
The police are the state’s primary agent of coercive force, and the police are often
called because someone observing some event believes that coercive force may be
necessary to resolve a problematic situation (Bittner, 1970; Herbert, 2006). Officers
are trained and expected to use the amount of force reasonably required to arrest
individuals based on the prevailing circumstances. The use of sanctioned violence by
the State against its citizens is in accordance with society’s acceptance of the social
contract: People relinquish their individual right of reparation in exchange for the
State’s undertaking of that responsibility (Rousseau, 1762/1968). The State enacts
laws to avoid a state of nature in which society would live in “continual fear and
danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”

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