An overview of the application of force by police officers

The application of force on citizens by law enforcement officers in Canada is extremely important. The proper and healthy functioning of a free and democratic society such as ours certainly depends upon the establishment of laws to govern acceptable behaviour. And the establishment of laws is pointless without a requisite mechanism to enforce those laws. The consequence of these factors then, is that law enforcement officers are essential to upholding the Rule of Law and that the application of force in furtherance of the enforcement of those laws or in the defense of citizens or the officer will sometimes be required. Therefore, of immense interest to police executives, civilian oversight bodies, police commissions and indeed, all citizens of Canada, is ensuring that police agencies have sound training and policy reflecting the ‘ethos’ of what it means to be a law enforcement officer and how that understanding guides officers in making decisions reflecting the highest ethical and moral expectations the public ought to have of the police officers who serve this Country.

Law enforcement is a unique profession in which split-second decisions, especially those involving force response options are evaluated in a protracted fashion and from every conceivable angle. As a result, the ensuing investigation may produce forensic fact patterns which are substantially dissimilar from those experienced by the officers at the time that critical decisions resulted in the responses to a perceived threat. The resulting investigatory judgments based upon weeks, months or years of microscopic focus on a police officer’s actions, which typically occur within seconds or milliseconds, are in constant danger of unintentional hindsight bias, attributional errors and leading justice astray.

Therefore, when undertaking use of force reviews, one must constantly be mindful of the direction of the courts with respect to having the luxury of ‘detached reflection’ with which to consider the circumstances that the officer(s) faced and had to make critical decisions in a potentially difficult, emotional and dynamic environment. Police officers, during the course of their duties, occasionally have to use force in carrying out those duties in order to maintain public and officer safety. In determining whether or not the officers’ actions were appropriate in the circumstances requires a complete understanding of the unique context and the totality of the circumstances surrounding the event at the time force was used.

An expert analysing police use of force is constrained by the courts direction that they must review the force used by the officer having regard for the objective and subjective factors that influenced the officer’s choice of force response option(s). That is, the reviewer of police use of force incidents must constrain that review to what the officer knew and perceived at the time force was used. It is necessary to avoid the desire to conduct post dictions with a clinical and calm perspective on what the officers should have done under the dynamic, unpredictable and often violent circumstances that they faced.

To ensure officers and agencies are afforded with the most thorough, professional, objective, fact-finding investigation possible, an investigator must have a basic understanding of the fundamental issues relating to use of force principles. These critical principles include biomechanics, human movement, perception and attention issues, decision making and decision errors, to name a few.

The purpose of the Use of Force for Investigators Certification Course is to provide an overview of the application of force by police officers. It is not a thorough treatment of the numerous nuances of each use of force technique – of which there are many within each policing agency, between different municipalities, between provinces and across this vast Country. Instead, it is hoped that the reader will be brought to have a basic understanding of:

  • Retain a basic understanding of the history and philosophy of the use of force by police in Canada,
  • Examine a high-level view of the existing case law pertaining to the application of force and how to properly interpret the use of force,
  • Explore the development and application of use of force models/frameworks IMIM /NUFF – History, purpose and problems,
  • Understand the categories of subject behaviours,
  • Categorize force techniques and the possible risks in their use,
  • Identify situational factors unique to the context of each incident,
  • Recall officer impact factors, perception and tactical considerations,
  • Action / reaction and speed of assault principles,
  • Decision making, heuristics and decision-making errors,
  • Unintended Discharges – their main causes and effects,
  • Implication of human attention and attention deficits on perception and memory,
  • Crisis / trauma and the effects on memory consolidation and memory errors,
  • Considerations for interviewing the cooperative witness (timing, structure and type of interview) ,
  • Use of video in the investigative process – basic introduction into the significant errors and limitations of video,
  • Vehicle-involved OIS – considerations for investigating shots fired into vehicles.

This dynamic and challenging course is delivered over a two or three-day period. The instruction incorporates classroom lecture, demonstrations and case examples as well as Socratic questioning and argumentation. An extensive student manual is included in this program. Course pre-reading assignments are provided and encouraged in order for the student to maximize the learning potential.

For information on this one-of-a-kind program in Canada and to bring this training to your organization, contact Chris Butler at