The law allows police officers to use force whilst exercising their powers. The use of force by police officers is governed by the Criminal Law Act 1967 and the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.
Additionally, police officers are expected to abide by the Standards of Professional Behaviour, set out in Schedule 2 of the Police (Conduct) Regulations 2020.
The 'use of force' standard requires that ‘police officers only use force to the extent that it is necessary, proportionate and reasonable in all circumstances’.
What is force?
Force includes any touching, even if it doesn’t result in injury. This includes:
- The use of handcuffs
- Taking fingerprints
- Holding a person’s arm to lead them to a police vehicle or into a station
- The use of CS spray, a police baton or police dog
When can an officer use force?
The police have the power to use reasonable force in the following situations:
- To make an arrest (section 3 Criminal Law Act 1967)
- To prevent crime (section 3 Criminal Law Act 1967)
- In self-defence or in defence of another person
Limits on the use of force
The force used must always be reasonable in the circumstances. This means the force must be:
- Necessary to achieve a lawful objective
For example, an officer cannot use force when arresting you, or stopping and searching you, unless they have reasonable grounds for believing it is necessary (e.g., because you are acting aggressively).
Under PACE Code A, 'Reasonable force may be used as a last resort if necessary to conduct a search or to detain a person or vehicle for the purposes of a search.'
- Proportionate: i.e., no more than is needed to achieve the objective
If it is necessary to use force, an officer must only use the amount of force needed e.g., to stop you hurting them or somebody else.
If an officer uses more force than is necessary – excessive force – this makes the force unlawful, even if it was lawful for the officer to use some force.
Types of force*
- Physical force: this includes the physical holding / pinning / restraining of a person by police personnel, as well as any form of physical contact – for example, pushing, pulling, and striking.
- Restraint equipment: specialist equipment used to physically restrain someone or control their behaviour, for example, the use of body or limb restraints (like an ERB - emergency restraint belt), Velcro or fast straps, and contamination hoods (or 'spit hoods').
- Taser: a CED (Conducted Energy Device) is the technical name for a Taser, a device that uses electric shocks to stun and immobilise a person. Tasers release short bursts of 1,500 volts in either drive stun (manual use) or through two spiked barbs launched up to 21 feet away from the person being targeted.
- Incapacitant spray: PAVA spray and CS spray are both used to incapacitate someone by causing extreme irritation of the skin, eyes, and airways. PAVA is an inflammatory substance which affects the immune and vascular systems; CS spray (or tear gas) affects the nervous system. PAVA spray is generally more potent than CS spray.
- Baton: a baton can be a straight, fixed-length stick (sometimes known as a 'straightstick'), or a collapsible and expandable stick. An expandable baton is opened by being swung forcefully and has a solid tip at the end.
- Conventional firearms: Various police firearms units have access to firearms such as pistols, submachine guns, rifles, shotguns, riot guns, and stun grenades.
- Police dog / horse: Animals are also used by police in some situations in order to control, incapacitate, or pursue someone.
- Baton rounds: Baton rounds are fired from a specific kind of gun and are intended to be less lethal than firearms. Attenuating energy projectiles (AEP) are soft-nosed projectiles intended to deliver a high amount of energy over an extended period.
- Other: Police can also use other methods or means of force, including, for example, their police vehicles: cars, vans, and motorbikes.
*The above information on types of force was adapted from this IPCC (now the IOPC) report.
If you believe that an officer may have unlawfully used force against you or another person, you can make a complaint – see our complaints guide for more information on the police complaints process.
If the force used was particularly excessive, and/or resulted in serious physical or psychological injury, you should seek legal advice as you may be able to make a claim against the relevant police force.
Use of force: ‘the defining feature of the police’
The police’s ability to use force is often described by scholars of policing as ‘the defining feature of the police’ (Yesberg et al., 2022). And yet it is also one of the most contentious and controversial aspects of policing. Police officers are uniquely empowered to use their discretion to make certain decisions and to act in particular ways that would be seen as deeply wrong (and in many cases, that would be illegal) if done by any other member of society. This idea is perhaps most clearly visible in relation to the use of force. Crucially, questions about police use of force cannot be separated from questions about police racism and racial disproportionality in the criminal justice system more widely.
Consequently, when this power – the capacity to use force with relative impunity – is seen to be misused, abused, or overused, it often sparks public outrage – and prompts broader discussions about police legitimacy and trust, as well as about racism in policing and officer discretion. High-profile cases of police killings – such as those of Jean-Charles de Menezes in 2005, Sean Rigg in 2008, Joy Gardner in 1993, Blair Peach in 1979, Mark Duggan in 2011, Rashan Charles in 2017, Jermaine Baker in 2015, Kevin Clarke in 2018, and just this year, Chris Kaba – were followed by protests and campaigns on various scales demanding justice, accountability, and change. Since 1990, police officers have fatally shot 78 people in England and Wales (Inquest, 2022). Many more have died following police contact through other methods of force, such as restraint or the use of a Taser (Statista, 2021).
Although debates over precise definitions and ideal terminology when it comes to the use of force (and what constitutes ‘reasonable’, ‘excessive’, or ‘disproportionate’ force) remain unsettled, what is clear is that the term ‘use of force’ encompasses a wide range of actions by police officers. The definition of a ‘use of force incident’ for the purposes of Home Office data collection, for example, is ‘a situation in which a police officer uses any of the following force tactics on a single individual’: handcuffing, limb or body restraints, ground restraint, hitting or striking, pressure point and joint locks, batons, irritant sprays, spit and bite guards, shields, Tasers, AEPs, conventional firearms, and police animals (Home Office, 2021). Situations in which a baton, firearm, or any other object is drawn or aimed – but not actually used – are still counted as a ‘use of force incident’.
The law that governs police use of force is not defined by one specific piece of legislation. Instead, the Criminal Law Act 1967, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, and the European Convention on Human Rights (as well as common law principles) together make up the legal framework relating to police use of force in the English and Welsh context.
Race and the use of force
Force is disproportionately used against people of colour in a multi-layered way. In 2018/19, cases of use of force being used against Black people constituted 16% of the total number of instances in England and Wales, despite the fact that Black people make up just 3% of the total population (Fleetwood & Lea, 2020). In other words, Black people are five times more likely to be subjected to force by police officers than white people (Yesberg et al., 2022, citing Home Office statistics).
In 2021, the police watchdog found that not only do police officers deploy Tasers too often, they are disproportionately used on people of colour, with Black people in particular more likely to face prolonged use lasting over five seconds (The Guardian, 2021). A 2016 report from the Independent Office for Police Conduct (then called the Independent Police Complaints Commission), which analysed data collected by the organisation from serious cases of police use of force over a five-year period, found that more than one in four of these cases involved people from a BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) background. In these cases, BME people were more likely to be younger than white people involved, and although BME people were less likely than white people to have mental health concerns and to be intoxicated with drugs or alcohol, they were more likely to be arrested for drug offences or possession of a weapon. While 58% of the cases involving white people had force used against them in a public setting, this figure rose to 73% for people of colour (IPCC, 2016).
Unsurprisingly, the same 2016 report found that although the majority of people surveyed reported that they had high levels of trust in the police using reasonable force in encounters with members of the public, racially minoritised communities, young people, those living in London, and especially Black people were significantly less likely to agree. People who had had direct experience of police officers using force against them tended to hold more negative views than the general public and lacked confidence in the complaints system. Across the board, the report found that there was a feeling among participants that the police were using force more readily than they did ten years ago.
Researchers – mainly those based in the US – have also investigated what is often called the ‘racial perception gap’, which describes the difference in how incidents of police use of force are interpreted by different groups. This work has shown that ‘white people tend to have more positive perceptions of police use of force and are more likely to think force is justified, and that black people tend to be more likely to perceive a racially unequal application of police use of force’ (Yesberg et al., 2022).
In the UK, research carried out in 2017 asked 'why do well publicized acts of police violence often fail to trigger wider or deeper challenges to the role and position of the police?’, and found evidence that ‘identifying with the police and social groups associated with the police is linked to greater acceptance of the use of force’ (Bradford, Milani, & Jackson, 2017).
Recording practices and data collection
Until fairly recently, data collection on (and monitoring of) police use of force was not mandatory for police forces in England and Wales. In 2014, home secretary Theresa May asked chief constable David Shaw to lead a review of police use of force powers in order to ensure their ‘appropriate’ use. In a speech delivered to the National Black Police Association (NBPA), in which she acknowledged ‘recent media reports about the police use of Taser on different communities’, May said that the review would ‘put forward options for the recoding an publishing of information on how each police force is using force, who it is being used on and what the outcomes are’ (Home Office, 2015). The review, published the following day, set out 13 recommendations about use of force data, including the recommendation that a ‘core set of data [should be] captured for all incidents involving police use of force’ (National Police Chief’s Council, 2015).
In April 2017, almost two years after the publication of the review, monitoring of the use of force was made mandatory for all 43 Home Office-funded police forces in England and Wales. Police forces now must provide a subset of their collected use of force data to the Home Office as part of the ADR (annual data requirement), which is a list of all police data sets requested by the home secretary under their statutory powers (Home Office, 2021).
For the first three years of publication (from the year ending March 2018 to the year ending March 2020), these use of force datasets were classed as ‘Experimental Statistics’, ‘as the processes around data collection and the quality of the data were developed’ (Home Office, 2021). From 2020-21 onwards, the statistics have been classified as ‘Official Statistics’ indicating, according to the Home Office, that the statistical methods are now well established, coverage has improved, the statistics are seen to be useful and credible, and the impact of various quality limitations are known and understood. However, this does not mean that these datasets are now without issues, as set out in the user guide which accompanies the latest data publication (Home Office, 2021):
- Datasets do not include force used in ‘designated public order events, where officers may use force over a period of time against a person(s) not subsequently apprehended’: it is ‘not feasible for officers to provide the same level of detail as for individual use of force incidents’
- A ‘use of force incident’ refers to ‘one officer’s use of force involving one person’, ‘each officer who used force must complete one use of force report, per individual, detailing their ‘own’ use of force’, and officers have a high degree of individual discretion with regard to how they report these incidents
- ‘Not all police forces’ recording systems are able to record the repeated use of the same tactic within an incident’, meaning that in the official datasets, ‘the tactics used in an incident are only counted once, even if they were reported multiple times within the same incident’
- Crucially, ‘there is no central system or software for recording use of force; police forces’ recording systems differ in many ways, leading to differences in the data collected and the quality of the data’
- Additionally, individual police forces are responsible for providing officers with training and guidance in the reporting of the use of force – there is no universal training or accepted standard for use of force data recording.
January 2023 update
In December 2022, the Home Office published the latest statistics on police use of force, covering the period from April 2021 to March 2022. The stats show that police in England and Wales are (still) disproportionately using force against Black people – especially young Black men. See below for an updated breakdown of use of force data in England and Wales.