Re-examining the Use of Force Continuum: Why Resistance is Not the Only Driver of Use of Force Decisions

Published date01 March 2023
Date01 March 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Police Quarterly
2023, Vol. 26(1) 85110
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10986111211066353
Re-examining the Use of
Force Continuum: Why
Resistance is Not the Only
Driver of Use of Force
Kyle McLean
, Arif Alikhan
, and Geoffrey P. Alpert
Policing research and use of force policies have been guided by the continuum model
for the past several decades. The continuum specif‌ies a relationship between the
amount of resistance a suspect presents and the amount of force that an off‌icer should
use to respond to or overcome a given level of resistance. In this paper, we show that
resistance alone is an insuff‌icient indicator of the necessity and level of force to be used
both conceptually and empirically. We argue for the inclusion of considerations of
perceived threat in the analysis of use of force incidentsboth in policy and in re-
search. Our analysis also reiterates the importance of police culture in understanding
use of force decisions.
use of force, force continuum, response to resistance
In May and June 2020, massive protests were held across the United States and in other
countries demanding major police reform and defunding or abolishing law enforcement
Clemson University, Clemson, SC, USA
Alikhan Insights, LLC, Irvine, CA, USA
University of South Carolina and Griff‌ith University
Corresponding Author:
Kyle McLean, Clemson University, Clemson, 139 Brackett Hall, Clemson, SC 296341356, USA.
agencies. While the trigger event was the killing of George Floyd by members of the
Minneapolis Police Department, the larger crisis has been attributed to poor policy-
making and decision-making regarding police-citizen encounters that result in uses of
force. Protestors accurately point out that police departments and their off‌icers break the
social contract they are expected to uphold when policing involves misconduct and
brutality. One of the suggested reforms coming out of the protests involves the policies
suggested by #8cantwaitwhich include the establishment of a use of force continuum
in every police department. Use of force continua provide off‌icers with a frame work
that authorizes levels of force based on perceived levels of resistance from suspects.
The policies of #8cantwait resonated so strongly that many cities across the country
passed resolutions mandating their police department adopt the policies (see, for
example, Memphis Poe, 2020; Charlotte WBTV Web Staff, 2020; and Pittsburgh
Wadas, 2020). However, what is often lost in this conversation is that many police
departments already have force continua and that use of force incidents that many f‌ind
objectionable are permitted under these policies. For example, in some force continua
an off‌icer who perceives that a subject is actively resisting (or in some cases f‌leeing),
can use physical force or a less-lethal weapon such as a TASER or OC spray in response
to the resistance or f‌light. As a result, the images of off‌icers using high-capacity
streamers to pepper spray protestors as they are backing away is troubling, but may not
be violations of a force continuum or agency policy as the protestors are resisting and
the off‌icers are responding with an allowablelevel of force.
Furthermore, use of force continua inherently rely on the off‌icer s subjective
perception of resistance and provide opportunities for off‌icers to deviate from the policy
in deciding which level of force to use (Terrill & Paoline, 2012). Specif‌ically, prior
research has shown that multiple individuals viewing the same incident can perceive
different levels of force and resistance (Hickman et al., 2015) and that a variety of
off‌icer characteristics, such as gender (National Center for Women and Policing, 2002),
age (Crow & Adrion, 2011), and even cultural attitudes (Terrill et al., 2003), can impact
off‌icersdecision-making in a use of force context. Thus, resistance may not provide
objective guidance on if and how much force should be used in a given situation.
We suggest that police departments and their off‌icers move beyond the use of
suspect resistance to justify force and adopt and train threat assessments (in our study,
exemplif‌ied by the concepts of ability, opportunity, and intent) to determine when an
off‌icer should use force (see also McLean et al., 2019). Under this conceptualization,
off‌icers should not use force unless a subject has the ability to harm the off‌icer or
another person, the opportunity to harm the off‌icer or another person, and the intent
harm the off‌icer or another person (Stoughton et al., 2020). Recall the protest incident
described above where an individual is actively resistingand/or f‌leeing, but is not
presenting the ability, opportunity, or intent to harm someone. The subject should not
have force used against them, as there was no objective threat.
Our research examines how off‌icers perceive incidents with citizens and how they
make use of force decisions. Prior to the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent
protests, we administered a survey with an integrated video of an off‌icercitizen
86 Police Quarterly 26(1)

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