The Confrontational Continuum
The ability to use force is the most significant responsibility given to law enforcement officers. It is also the thing that is most likely to draw harsh scrutiny from both the public and the courts. Because of the significant liability and other risks faced by officers when they use force, ASP includes a Confrontational Continuum module in its defensive tactics training. The information provided in the module has been developed by teams of experts, and proven effective and defensible on the street.
The Continuum provides realistic and reasonable guidance in helping determine the level of force that is both necessary and appropriate. Training on the topic also stresses the importance of carefully documenting that level of force, with particular concern and understanding that:
- The physical process of an arrest occurs after control has been accomplished.
- The force must immediately cease once control has been achieved.
- Force that is exerted after control has been established is likely to be seen as excessive force by the public and the courts. If the courts determine that force exceeded the bounds of police conduct, the incident can have severe consequences, up to and including criminal charges.
ASP’s Continuum training was devised as a tool to help officers make decisions on the appropriate level of force to be used in a specific confrontation. It also provides a means to explain to others why a certain level of force was utilized. It provides a linear path of force assessment and decision making:
- Dialogue is the base level option—it is a means of persuading an individual to comply, avoiding a physical confrontation in which the officer or subject may be injured. All other things being equal, it should go without saying that this most fundamental tactic is the first and best choice.
- Escort technique is a very commonly employed technique by law enforcement. It is considered a low-level compliance procedure, non-threatening and non-violent.
- Pain compliance typically involves the manipulation of a joint to cause pain and can be used under circumstances where dialog or escort technique are not appropriate, or have already been ineffective. In many agencies, the use of OC “pepper spray” is also considered a pain compliance procedure.
- Mechanical control includes techniques such as a punch, kick, or throw. Mechanical control has a higher likelihood of gaining compliance, but also presents a greater chance of injury to the subject (and often, to the officer).
- Impact weapon use is typically the next step when empty-handed mechanical control techniques fail. The baton is the primary intermediate weapon within this force level, bridging the gap between the use of hands or fists and the use of a firearm. Conductive Energy Devices like the TASER may also fall into this general level of the Continuum.
- Lethal force is, of course, the last level. It is the option at the end of the Continuum, and of course, most typically involved the officer’s use of a firearm.
By definition, the Continuum dictates that as the subject’s resistance increases, the officer’s response increases appropriately. Remember that every use of force situation may be critically evaluated in terms of its likelihood to gain control versus its likelihood to cause damage. So, techniques that offer greater control and less potential for injury are optimal.
In addition to the actions of a specific subject, officers must factor in the totality of the situation. This may include, but not be limited to: relationships between parties and conditions “on the street.” It may also include disparity factors, including the number, gender, size, fitness and skill of all involved. Other special considerations may include the subject’s proximity to a firearm or other weapon, special knowledge, Injury or exhaustion, ground position, disabilities or Imminent danger. These relevant conditions relate to the confrontation in determining the officer’s course of action. Any of these circumstances may require the officer to make the judgment call to use more or less force to control the situation.
Officers should also have the option and ability to quickly disengage in response to a confrontation. Techniques which tie an officer to a subject, or do not allow the ability to appropriately escalate the force option in response to a subject’s threat are unacceptable. Officers should feel comfortable with the Continuum they learn and train to, and officer safety must always be a priority.
Note that every agency has its own standard operating procedures, policies and force terminology, and officers should default to the requirements of their specific department. However, the order of force escalation is generally consistent from agency to agency.
These split-second decisions officers make every day are not easy. It’s important that administrators ensure their agencies and officers understand the magnitude and importance of use of force decisions. At the end of the day—despite the fact that it is founded in force—the Continuum exists to achieve the best possible outcome in a given encounter, for all involved.
Lieutenant, Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office
ASP Trainer since 2015