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Police Oral Boards and the Use of Force Continuum
By: George Godoy


There are actually two parts to the police oral board. The first part examines your personality and why you would make a good police officer. The second part of the oral board involves scenario type questions that test your judgment and problem solving capabilities. Here is an typical example question that might be asked on an oral board: "A fellow officer calls for assistance on a family dispute that is getting out of control. Upon your arrival to the house you see the requesting officer struggling with a male subject on the floor. The male subject is on top of the officer attempting to punch him in the face. What are you going to do, and why?"

Knowing the force continuum is imperative if you are going to answer this question correctly. Every situational question of this type will involve your knowledge of the force continuum. Your chances of leaving an oral board with a passing score depends on it. Oral board members want to know what course of action you will take in a given situation - how your mind works - that you won't over react. Or, that you won't under react and get someone killed. Because of this one of the most important tools you can bring to any oral board is a comprehensive knowledge of the force continuum. It can open or shut the door to your career in law enforcement.

With that said let's review the force continuum.

Always remember the level of force in your response is dictated by the situation. Police officers use the force continuum, a scale of force alternatives, to mediate the level of response used in a given situation.

The force continuum is broken down into six broad levels. Each level is designed to be flexible as the need for force changes as the situation develops. It is common for the level of force to go from level two, to level three, and back again in a matter of seconds. 

The Force Continuum
More Force   Deadly Force
    Less Lethal
    Pepper Spray, Baton, Taser
    Empty Hand Control

Verbal Commands

Less Force   Officer Presence

Level One

Officer Presence. The mere presence of a police officer in uniform or in a marked police unit is often enough to stop a crime in progress or prevent most situations from escalating. Without saying a word, the mere presence of a police officer can deter crime by the simple use of body language and gestures. At this level gestures should be non-threatening and professional. This "zero" level of force is always the best way to resolve any situation if possible.

Level Two

Verbal Commands. Used in combination with a visible presence, the use of the voice can usually achieve the desired results. Whether you instruct a person to, "Stop.", "Don't Move.", "Be quiet.", "Listen to me.", "Let me see your ID.", or, "You're under arrest."-- voice commands in conjunction with your mere presence will almost always resolve the situation. The content of the message is as important as your demeanor. It’s always best to start out calm but firm and non-threatening. Your choice of words and intensity can be increased as necessary, or used in short commands in more serious situations. The right combination of words in combination with officer presence can de-escalate a tense situation and prevent the need for a physical altercation. Training and experience improves the ability of a police officer to communicate effectively with everyone he/she comes in contact with.

Level Three

Empty Hand Control. Certain situations will arise where words alone will not reduce the aggression. This is the time police officers will need to get involved physically. This is a level of control employed by police officers minus the aid of equipment or weapons. There are two subcategories called, “soft empty hand techniques” and “hard empty hand techniques.” Soft Empty Hand Techniques: At this level minimal force would involve the use of bare hands to guide, hold, and restrain -- applying pressure points, and take down techniques that have a minimal chance of injury. Hard Empty Hand Techniques: At this level the use of force includes kicks, punches or other striking techniques such as the brachial stun or other strikes to key motor points that have a moderate chance of injury.

Level Four

Pepper Spray, Baton, Taser. When the suspect is violent or threatening, more extreme, but non-deadly measures must be used to bring the suspect under control, or affect an arrest. Before moving to this level of force, it is assumed that less physical measures have been tried and deemed inappropriate. Pepper spray results in considerable tearing of the eyes, as well as temporary paralysis of the larynx, which causes subjects to lose their breath. Contact with the face causes a strong burning sensation. Pepper spray, once thought an effective street tool for police officers has lost popularity over the years because of its ineffectiveness, especially on intoxicated persons. The typical baton is a round stick of various lengths, and is made of hardwood, aluminum or plastic composite materials. A blow with a baton can immobilize a combative person, allowing officers to affect an arrest. Common impact weapon used by police today include the PR-24 and collapsible baton. Of all the options available at this level the Taser, in my opinion, is the most effective. The Taser discharges a high voltage spark (50,000 volts) at very low amperage. The Taser fires two small darts, connected to wires, which drops a suspect at non-contact distance. These devices are easily carried. They are lightweight and affordable. Extensive training is not required, and they may be more effective on persons under the influence of PCP and other drugs who do not respond to chemical irritants. They can be especially useful for controlling non-criminal violent behavior, such as persons who are mentally impaired, or under the influence of mind-altering substances.

Level Five

Less Lethal. This is a newer, acceptable and effective level of force that numerous police agencies have added to their use of force continuum policy and procedure. Less-lethal weapons were developed to provide law enforcement, military and corrections personnel with an alternative to lethal force. They were designed to temporarily incapacitate, confuse, delay, or restrain an adversary in a variety of situations. They have been used in riots, prison disturbances, and hostage rescues. Less-lethal weapons are valuable when: Lethal force is not appropriate. Lethal force is justified and available for backup but lesser force may subdue the aggressor. Lethal force is justified but its use could cause collateral effects, such as injury to bystanders or life-threatening damage to property and environment.

Level Six

Deadly Force.  If a peace officer has probable cause to believe that a suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious bodily injury to the officer or others then the use of deadly force is justified. (see Tennessee v. Garner) By the very nature of the profession, peace officers may at times be confronted with a potentially lethal threat. In most of these instances, peace officers will have no other option but to discharge their firearm in order to protect their life or, the life of others.

The use of force is an integral part of a law enforcement officer's job, particularly when arresting criminal suspects. No one disputes that police should be permitted to protect themselves and others from threats to safety, but what is often disputed is an officer's assessment of a threat and the level of force selected to counter it. As a general principle, the level of force used should be tailored to the nature of the threat that prompted its use.


Sgt. George Godoy recently retired after 22 years of police service in the Denver, CO area. He has created www.PoliceExam911.com to help police officer candidates get top scores on their written exam.


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