LEOs use deadly force far less often than they’re legally justified in doing, in contrast to a media-fueled public impression that excessive force by America’s cops is “general and widespread,” according to a recent survey of police/citizen encounters.
While officers kill an average of about 385 subjects a year, this toll, in fact, reflects significant restraint, authors of the study conclude. A “large number of officers,” they report, “have been in multiple situations in which they could have used deadly force, but resolved the incident without doing so and while avoiding serious injury.”
The research team includes two former faculty members of the Force Science Analysis certification course, Dr. Anthony Pinizzotto and Edward Davis. Pinizzotto, a retired FBI senior scientist, and Davis, a retired FBI Academy instructor, previously authored three landmark studies of OISs. They were joined in the current survey by Shannon Bohrer, a retired MD State Police sergeant, and Benjamin Infanti, who holds a master’s degree in forensic psychology.
The four polled nearly 300 LEOs, with an average of 17 years on the job. Collectively, the officers had more than 5,000 years of experience.
- 80% reported that “they had been assaulted at least once during their career” (the average was seven assaults in the line of duty), with 27% injured severely enough to require time off work;
- 96% said they had drawn their firearms “at least once each year…under threatening or critical circumstances”;
- 70% said they had been “involved in at least one situation where they legally could have discharged their firearm.” On average, each had experienced four such situations;
- Yet only 20% had actually fired their weapon in a critical incident.
“Officers in the sample were involved in 1,189 situations where deadly force was a legal course of action,” the researchers note. “Officers used deadly force in 7% of these situations. In other words, [they] used restraint 93% of the time even when not legally mandated to do so. This…represents a significant amount of restraint by police officers.”
The media’s focus on shootings “overshadow[s] the actuality that police officers overwhelmingly employ restraint” and “helps create the misconception that… officers use deadly force more often than they actually do,” the research team reports.
In the future, the study group hopes that research will more deeply explore officers’ “thought processes in the decision to use deadly force or restraint…. For example, what factors [lead] to…officers using restraint? Does the use of deadly force reduce or increase the inclination…to use restraint in subsequent critical incidents? How do individual officers perceive restraint and deadly force? What characteristics of an incident lead to deadly force?…
“[I]t is essential that research analyzes how restraint can safeguard against the excessive use of force. These principles then can be applied to officer training in safety and tactics.”
A fuller account of the restraint survey can be read in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. Click here to read it.