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A use of force continuum is a standard that provides law enforcement officials & security guards (such as police officers, probation officers, or corrections officers) with guidelines as to how much force may be used against a resisting subject in a given situation. In certain ways it is similar to the military rules of engagement. The purpose of these models is to clarify, both for officers and citizens, the complex subject of use of force by law officers. They are often central parts of law enforcement agencies' use of force policies. Although various criminal justice agencies have developed different models of the continuum, there is no universal standard model.[1]

The first examples of use of force continua were developed in the 1980s and early 1990s.[2] Early models were depicted in various formats, including graphs, semicircular "gauges", and linear progressions. Most often the models are presented in "stair step" fashion, with each level of force matched by a corresponding level of subject resistance, although it is generally noted that an officer need not progress through each level before reaching the final level of force. These progressions rest on the premise that officers should escalate and de-escalate their level of force in response to the subject's actions.[3]

Although the use of force continuum is used primarily as a training tool for law officers, it is also valuable with civilians, such as in criminal trials or hearings by police review boards. In particular, a graphical representation of a use of force continuum is useful to a jury when deciding whether an officer's use of force was reasonable.[4]

Example model

This model is adapted from a United States government publication on use of force.[5] It lists multiple tactics in order from least to most severe, but is only a partial model, as it does not give corresponding degrees of subject resistance.

  • Verbal command
  • Handcuff suspect
  • Use wrist/arm lock
  • Use takedown
  • Block/punch/kick
  • Strike suspect
  • Wrestle suspect
  • Pepper spray
  • Use baton
  • Use firearm

It can also be broken down into the standard police Use of Force Continuum:

1. Physical Presence
2. Soft Hands
3. Mace or Pepper Spray
(A K-9 unit would fall here)
4. Hard Hands
5. Police Baton, etc.
6. Threat of Deadly Force
7. Deadly Force

In the Australian Security Industry, the accepted 'Force Continuum' taught is:

  1. Presence of the security officer
  2. Verbal commands
  3. Touching or Seizing the offender
  4. Weaponless Defensive Tactics
  5. Impact Defensive Weapons (i.e. Batons, etc...)
  6. Potentially Lethal Force


  1. Stetser, 2001, p. 36.
  2. Stetser, 2001, pp. 36-37.
  3. Stetser, 2001, p.38.
  4. Grossi, 2006.
  5. Garner and Maxwell, p. 37.


External links


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