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What is the Force Continuum?

July 19th, 2019 force continuum


The force continuum is an important topic; a topic that examines the use of force by law enforcement officers. Knowing the force continuum is also important for the oral board exam. Here, we examine why as well as what fundamental details you need to know.

In the oral board exam, you are asked situational questions about how you would react. You are expected to react in a measured and proportionate manner.

The force continuum is a scale of force – from Level 1 force to Level 5 force – used by police officers to determine how best to react to a situation. Its function is to organize a structured and justified response to a situation. For example – it would be unjustifiable for a police officer to shoot and kill a bystander who wasn’t obeying simple instructions. The response must be proportionate to the seriousness of the offense. In other words, the “force continuum” helps you determine what level of force to apply in any given situation.

It’s also worth noting that the level of response used may change based on changing circumstances. As the facts change, so too should your response. For example, it’s entirely possible that you may be forced into a level three response, only to find yourself scaling back to a level two response only minutes later. Again, it’s about knowing the situational facts and responding accordingly.

You cannot react in an irrational and disproportionately aggressive manner if the situation does not warrant that response.

There are five levels to the force continuum:

  • Level 1 – Presence of a Law Enforcement Officer
  • Level 2 – Verbal Response
  • Level 3 – Empty Hand Techniques  
  • Level 4 – Non-Deadly Weaponry
  • Level 5 – Lethal Force

As you read each level, think through – in detail and in your mind – about how you would apply these levels in situational settings. The more thinking you do about problem-solving, the better and more refined your approach will become.

Remember, in the oral board exam you must justify your actions. If you believe a Level 4 response is warranted, you must reasonably and rationally justify that response. If you cannot articulate your reasons, you may have landed on the wrong level of response.

Level 1 – Presence of a Law Enforcement Officer

Let’s be clear – the presence of a police officer itself has an enormous impact.

An officer has the capacity to prevent an ongoing crime or to prevent a crime that may otherwise have happened. In this way, the presence of a law enforcement officer constitutes “Level 1” on the 6-stepped ladder of the force continuum.

The police officer in question doesn’t even need to utter a word, let alone move a limb. An officer in attendance at an event commands the behavior of the crowd, even if members of the crowd don’t think about it.

“Level 1” on the force continuum is, therefore, the least forceful of all responses.

Level 2 – Verbal Response

Verbal response refers to word commands delivers by the officer. In conjunction with the presence of an officer, this combination of force can prove remarkably effective.

Here are some factors to consider:

  • Commands can include statements such as “Stop!”, “You’re under arrest” or “Can I see your ID please?”.
  • Commands should be stated in a calm but firm manner.
  • Commands should react according to the situation. If a situation appears to be becoming more aggressive, commands and the force with which they’re said may also increase.

Verbal commands are an important aspect of communication.

It’s also why communication plays an important role in the oral board exam. With enough training, experience, and practice, your commands-based communication will improve with time.

Level 3 – Empty Hand Techniques

Commands don’t always result in the desired outcome. Some situations simply escalate far beyond what was originally expected. That’s where the third element of the force continuum comes in – “empty hand techniques”.

Empty hand techniques are those that involve officers to physically involve themselves in an altercation without the use of equipment and/or weaponry.

There are two types of empty hand techniques:

  • Soft – restraining an individual with hands and applying pressure to parts of the body to ensure the individual remains restraint.
  • Hard – techniques that have the capacity to cause injury. For example, this may involve striking at body points likely to lead to a reduced level of risk for the officer (such as the brachial stun).

A combination of soft and hard techniques may also be warranted depending on how the situation evolves.

Level 4 – Non-Deadly Weaponry

The use of non-deadly weaponry often assumes that Level 3 force has been tried.

There are several non-deadly weapons at the officer’s disposal:

  • Baton – a baton is usually made from hardwood or composite material. It can be used to strike an individual sufficiently to allow the officer to undertake an arrest.
  • Pepper spraypepper spray is used to paralyze a suspect. Pepper spray works by introducing a highly irritant substance to both the eyes and upper respiratory tract, leading to tearing, burning sensation and a reduced ability to breathe.
  • Taser – also known as a “conducted energy device” CED, the taser is an electrical means that affords officers the luxury of not needing to contact the suspect. A high voltage spark of up to 50,000 volts is applied to the suspect, ceasing motor movements and allowing officers to come in for the arrest.

All three non-deadly weapons are important tools for the police officer, not just to defend themselves but also the wider public too.

Level 5 – Lethal Force

The final stage of the force continuum is, of course, lethal force.

Lethal force is warranted in cases where all other means have been exhausted, or that an immediate threat to the life of the officer and/or members of the public has presented itself.

In these situations, police officers must decisively act. However, as the most lethal part of the force continuum, it also carries with it the greatest responsibility. Too often in the news, we hear of situations in which lethal force has been abused; how that level of force was not justified.

Final Thoughts

The force continuum is an important scale used in law enforcement.

As part of your police officer exam, candidates are expected to have a thorough knowledge of the force continuum. The oral board test, for instance, examines your capacity to handle situational problems. You are presented with a set of facts and asked how you would respond.

There are several factors to consider:

  • The justification of the force continuum level you choose.
  • Why it may be necessary to start at one level and reduce to / increase up to another level.
  • Your understanding of human behavior and how people respond.

These details add significant depth to your oral board answers.

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