Police Use of Force
A Brief Summary of U.S. Supreme Court and Illinois Law


Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989)

(U.S. Supreme Court)


The Plaintiff was seeking damages against a police department that used physical force against him during an investigatory street stop. The plaintiff was diabetic and feeling the onset of an insulin reaction. A friend drove him to a store, but because the line was too long he rushed out of the store and asked his friend to drive to another friend’s house so he could get fruit juice. An officer saw the plaintiff rush out of the store, became suspicious, and followed the car, stopping it after about a half mile. The friend told the officer that the plaintiff was having a “sugar reaction.” The officer told them to “stay put” while he determined what happened at the store. While he was doing this, the plaintiff exited the car, ran around it twice and promptly passed out. Confusion then ensued when backup arrived, as all of the officers thought the man was just drunk. The officers refused to let the plaintiff have the orange juice that his friend had brought and tossed him in the car, then released him shortly thereafter when they learned nothing had happened at the store. The plaintiff did suffer some injuries, such as a broken foot, cuts on his wrists, a bruised forehead, and ringing in his right ear.


The U.S. Supreme Court described what happened in the Lower Appellate Court. That court engaged in a four part analysis, concluding that there was an actual need for the application of force; there was a reasonable relationship for the need for force and the amount used; there was no “discernible” injury inflicted, and the force was applied in a “good faith effort to maintain and restore discipline” rather than “maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm.” The Appellate Court granted the city’s motion to dismiss and threw the case out. The plaintiff appealed, and the Appellate Court affirmed the four part test. The plaintiff then appealed up the to the Supreme Court, which agreed to take the case.


The court began by saying that the Appellate Court had it wrong and could not use the four part test in every “excessive force” situation. Further, the court stated that the Appellate Court should have begun with a determination of which constitutional provision applies: either the Fourth Amendment (unreasonable search and seizure) or the Eighth Amendment (cruel and unusual punishment). The court clearly states that these are the two primary sources of constitutional protection against “physically abusive governmental conduct.”

The court held that the Fourth Amendment, i.e., the prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure, applies “in the context of an arrest or investigatory stop of a free citizen.” All such stops must be analyzed under the Fourth Amendment standard which is “how reasonable under the circumstances was the stop made and then carried out?” The term “reasonableness” is only to be determined through the eyes of the officer on the scene rather than with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. The most crucial questions to ask in an arrest or investigatory stop situation are:

1. How severe is the crime?

2. Is there an immediate threat to the officer’s safety or to others?

3. Is the subject actively resisting arrest or giving flight?

The court acknowledges that not every push or shove violates the Fourth Amendment even if the wrong person was ultimately arrested. Further, courts must allow for that fact that “officers are often forced to make split second judgments in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving about the amount of force that is necessary.”

Most importantly, the court examines the “objective” rather than a subjective standard that must be used in these situations. That is, they only look to what was done, not why it was done. The most instructive direct quote from the opinion is:

An officer’s evil intentions will not make a Fourth Amendment violation out of an objectively reasonable use of force, nor will an officer’s good intentions make an objectively unreasonable use of force constitutional.

The court of appeals was held to be in error by its use of the four part test, as that has a “malicious/sadistic” element and is therefore not sufficiently in conformity with the objective test. The court further stated that the subjective motivations of individual officers have no place in an analysis of whether force was “excessive” under the Fourth Amendment.


I. Scott v. Henrich, opinion filed November 2, 1994 (39 F3rd 912)

This was a case from the Federal 9th Circuit (Montana), in which a widow brought a civil rights action for damages against police officers and the city for the use of deadly force against her husband.


Two officers were called to a residence in response to reports that a man was firing a gun. A few minutes later, they had received reports of shots fired at a nearby address. When the officers arrived, the motel manager pointed to an apartment across the street where the gunman had entered, and a boy told one of the officers that “he had seen a man fire a shot or a couple of shots…and that the man was acting strange or crazy…”

The officers quickly approached the street level door. One banged and kicked the door and ordered the occupants to open up. The officers then heard fumbling with the lock of the door, the door opened, and one John Scott stood in the doorway. According to the officers, Scott held a “long gun” and pointed it at them. One officer fired a shot that missed, but the other, apparently believing Scott had fired this shot, fired four shots at the person in the doorway, one of which killed him.


This 9th Circuit Appellate panel immediately went to Graham v. Connor and stated that police may use only such force as is objectively reasonable under the circumstances. Further, an officer’s use of deadly force is reasonable only if “the officer has probable cause to believe that the subject poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or another.” Clearly, the first test is whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, as determined in the Graham case.

One of the things pointed out by the 9th Circuit Appellate justices is that deadly force cases pose a difficult problem because the officer/defendant is often the only surviving eyewitness. Therefore, judges must ensure that the officer is not taking advantage of the fact that the witness most likely to contradict his story (the person he shot dead) is unable to testify. Consequently, judges have been mandated to very carefully scrutinize all of the evidence in the record rather than just take the city’s word for it. Further, the appropriate inquiry is whether the officer acted reasonably, not whether they had “less intrusive alternatives” available to them. To require officers to find and choose the least intrusive alternative would require them to exercise “superhuman judgment.” In the heat of battle, “with lives potentially in the balance, an officer would not be able to rely on training and common sense to decide what would best accomplish his mission. Instead, he would have to ascertain the least intrusive alternative (a very subjective determination) and choose that option and that option only.” The court held that this was not realistic. Consequently, the city was held not to be liable in this instance of deadly force.


The Illinois statute at 720 ILCS 5/7-5 says that a peace officer, or any person that he has summoned to assist him, “need not retreat or desist from efforts to make a lawful arrest because of resistance or threatened resistance; and further, an officer is justified in the use of any force which he reasonably believes to be necessary to defend himself or another from bodily harm while making the arrest.” (emphasis added)

Additionally, the use of deadly force is only justified when an officer reasonably believes that it is necessary to prevent death or bodily harm to himself or another, or, when he reasonably believes such force is necessary to prevent the arrest from being defeated by resistance or escape and the person to be arrested has committed or attempted a forcible felony involving infliction of great bodily harm, or escape is being effectuated by use of a deadly weapon or a threat to endanger human life.

The statute goes on to say that even if an officer is executing an invalid warrant, the arrest is good as long he does not know that the warrant is invalid (again, the Graham v. Connor “objective” standard).

About ten years ago, another case (Reyes v. City of Chicago) held that Graham v. Connor applies to arrests, investigatory stops, or other “seizures” cases but it has been left open as to what standard to use in relation to pretrial detainees.


Regardless of the disability, if the subject is using deadly force, threatening deadly force or great bodily harm, or trying to escape using a deadly weapon or threatening great bodily harm, an officer’s use of force is justified. First and foremost, the officer on the scene is charged with the responsibility of maintaining order in the community and is fully justified under the Graham v. Connor objective standard in using whatever force he deems necessary to protect against harm to himself and others. However, short of that situation, if there is no deadly force or threat of great bodily harm involved in an investigatory or street stop, an opportunity might present itself to de-escalate the situation if the officer determines that a disability, including autism or other developmental disability, might be involved.