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Reasonable force or police brutality?

In common with all citizens, the police may use reasonable force where necessary for self-defence, defence of another, defence of property, the prevention of a crime, or during a lawful arrest.

Under Section 117 Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE), the police are also empowered to use ‘reasonable force’ if necessary when exercising the powers conferred to them under that act (except those which require someone other than a police officer’s consent).

What constitutes ‘reasonable force’?

There have been several cases involving a member of the public and the police in which the question has been raised as to what constitutes ‘reasonable force’ and what amounts to police brutality.

Police brutality generally means that a member of the police force has intentionally used excessive force in order to carry out a lawful police purpose. The brutality is usually physical.

PACE says that the police officer using force must honestly believe that it is justified and not excessive.

In cases brought against the police involving the question of police brutality, Crown Prosecution Service guidance suggests that the following considerations should be taken into account in assessing the reasonableness of the force used:

  • whether the force was justified in the circumstances or whether it was excessive;
  • the nature and degree of the force used;
  • the seriousness of the offence which the police were trying to prevent, or for which an arrest was being made;
  • if the individual was resisting arrest, the nature and degree of force used by the police in order to ensure that the arrest was successfully carried out;
  • training or guidance that the police office had undergone, for example, in relation to the use of batons.

Generally, it is considered that force should only be used as a last resort. However, police officers may use force if they feel that they are in serious danger; they do not have to wait until they are physically attacked first.

The Citizens Advice Bureau considers that stop and searches on an individual may sometimes require force, but police officers should make every attempt to get the individual to co-operate before resorting to the use of ‘reasonable force’.  

Independent Police Complaints Commission

The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) is an independent body that oversees and investigates complaints about the police. They investigate serious complaints and allegations of police misconduct, particularly those involving a death or serious injury, allegations of corruption, allegations against senior officers, allegations involving racism and allegations of perverting the course or justice.

Cases of alleged police brutality

In 2009, Ian Tomlinson was attacked by a police officer during the G20 protests in London. He was walking past the protests when he was struck by a police officer with a baton and pushed from behind. He collapsed and died shortly afterwards, which led to a lengthy inquiry into his death and an investigation by the IPCC, which is still ongoing.

Although the court initially decided not to prosecute the police officer involved, this decision is now under review after an inquest jury has ruled that ‘excessive and unreasonable force’ was used and he was unlawfully killed.

On 4 August 2011, Mark Duggan was shot dead by a police officer after claims that he opened fire at police. This prompted the IPCC to declare an immediate investigation into the incident.

This content is subject to Crown Copyright

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