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What is the Force Continuum?

October 17th, 2022 force continuum

Force Continuum and Law Enforcement

The force continuum is an important topic in law enforcement. As the term suggests, the force continuum is used to assess the appropriate level of force to apply in a given context. Some situations require minimal use of force, whereas other contexts demand the use of lethal force. The precise level of force to be applied, therefore, is determined by the force continuum.

In the oral board exam, you will be asked situational, dynamic-style questions about how you would react in a specific context. You will be expected to react in a measured, proportionate, and responsible manner.

The force continuum is a scale of force (from Level 1 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 given, often complicated response. For example – it would be unjustifiable for a police officer to shoot and kill a bystander who wasn’t obeying simple instructions. The response should always 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 not always easy to decide what level of force to apply. As a law enforcement officer, you will be expected to come to rapid judgments that deliver the right response. Given the complexity of many law enforcement situations, often unpredictable and unknowable, this makes the appropriate use of force difficult to apply in some scenarios. But you must always approximate in that direction.

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. Gather the evidence of the context, consider it – if time allows – and respond in a clear-headed, proportionate manner.

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

As you go through each level below, think through – in detail – about how you would apply these levels in given contexts. The more thinking you do about problem-solving, the better and more refined your approach will become. Don’t just imagine situations, realistic or otherwise, in your mind. Learn about how the use of force was applied in real-life situations in the news. Ask yourself how you would respond and if you would respond differently, why? Again, it’s this kind of questioning you can expect during the police interview exam. This kind of practice will serve you well.

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 decided on an inappropriate use of force.

Level 1 – Presence of a Law Enforcement Officer

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

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 breadth 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 actively think about it. The presence of law enforcement acts as a deterrent.

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

Level 2 – Verbal Response

Verbal response refers to word commands delivered by an officer.

In conjunction with the presence of an officer, this dual 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, confident, but firm manner.
  • Commands should react according to the situation. If a situation appears to be becoming more aggressive, commands and the application of additional force may also increase.

Verbal commands are an important aspect of communication.

It’s also why communication plays an important role in both the police written test and the oral board exam. With enough training, experience and practice – your commands-based communication will become more polished over 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 phase of the force continuum comes in – “empty hand techniques”.

Empty hand techniques are techniques that involve officers physically involving 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), but which subdue the suspect without any further layers of force.

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 and applied.

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 an irritant to both the eyes and upper respiratory tract. This can lead to tearing up, burning sensation of the eyes 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 physically contact the suspect. A high voltage spark of up to 50,000 volts is applied to the suspect, ceasing motor movements. This allows 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 to defend 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 imminent threat to the life of the officer and/or members of the public has become present.

In these situations, police officers must act decisively. However, as the most lethal phase 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 or misused; how that level of force was not justified in the context in which it was used.

It’s not always easy to get lethal force right. In some situations, you may have seconds to act and may not be exposed to all the information at the time.

Take Home Message

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 exam examines your ability to handle situational, dynamic-style problems. You are presented with a set of facts and asked how you would respond. The panel will follow up on your answers and will alter the situation depending on how you act. You need to think quick, but under calm – and ensure that your responses are always proportionate and in-tune with the best available evidence.

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 / ratchet up to another level.
  • Your understanding of human behavior and how people respond.

These details add depth to your oral board answers. The more reasoned your response, the better the oral board panel will consider your analysis. Even if they disagree with your approach, they may see potential in how you reason your argument.

Understanding the force continuum is essential to many aspects of not only the oral board exam, but also your future performance of real-life situations as a law enforcement officer. The best officers are those that apply the critical thinking skills – fast, but accurately – to a given context. With enough time and experience, you too can develop these core, critical skills.

Found this helpful? Become an exclusive member of Police Test Study Guide to receive instant access to your online learning dashboard – complete with more on the force continuum, police test questions, oral board prep, and the written exam; the complete police test prep product to help you master the law enforcement exam and make it through to the academy.

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