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What Is Considered Excessive Force by an Officer in California?

On Behalf of | Oct 25, 2023 | Civil Rights

Excessive force by police has dominated national headlines for several years. Because the public is not present at each incident, it is easy to say there are two sides to every story. While this may be true, there are clear examples of incidents that are definitively excessive. Every industry has those who blur the guidelines that are in place. When police officers disregard their procedures while performing their duties, they can find themselves breaking the trust of those they are interacting with, their community, and the law enforcement community as a whole.

Knowing what constitutes excessive force can not only help protect you, should you become a victim of it, but it could also help empower you to hold those who perpetrated the abuse accountable if it occurs.

What Is Excessive Force?

Excessive force by a police officer is a violation of Chapter 5 of the California Penal Code. This statute lists the definitions of what is considered appropriate conduct by law enforcement. These definitions are used by judges and juries to determine whether excessive force may have been used by a law enforcement officer. The definitions state:

  • An officer that uses force must respect the rights, dignity, and sanctity of human life.
  • Deadly force may only be used by an officer when necessary to protect human life and, while doing so, they must evaluate the situation accordingly.
  • When deciding the amount of force necessary, an officer must consider the perspective of another reasonable officer in the same situation, considering all the circumstances at the time.
  • There must be consideration for a person’s mental health, physical health, and developmental or intellectual disabilities.

These definitions work to provide a good outline for deadly force. However, when considering other views of excessive force, they may not be so clear.

Non-Deadly Force

When an officer chooses to use non-deadly force, it must be reasonable to the situation. If an officer uses any type of force, it should be equal to the amount necessary for the situation. Many officers are in great physical condition, while not every suspect is in the same shape. Sometimes, this can affect an excessive force situation because the officer is not considering their own strength as an opportunity to gain control of the situation. They could inadvertently injure the suspect unnecessarily.

Tasers, while non-lethal, are considered an intermediate use of force. Officers must consider the suspect and circumstances before deploying one to be sure that its use is necessary and reasonable. Suspects who are under the influence of a substance or pregnant have a vulnerability that the taser could magnify and cause permanent harm.

Deadly Force

Before an officer uses deadly force, they must confirm two important details to ensure they are not using force beyond what is necessary.

  • Is there a threat of imminent death to an officer or another person?
  • Has the suspect committed a violent felony and the officer believes they pose an imminent threat of death to another officer or person unless they are immediately apprehended?

California law requires officers to identify themselves before they can use deadly force. The media highlights departments in other states that use a process known as “no-knock warrants.” The requirement that police officers announce themselves negates the use of these types of warrants in California.

Damages for Deadly Force

If an officer uses deadly force, they subject themselves and their department to both criminal charges and a civil claim. If there is a civil claim filed, damages could be awarded for medical bills, time out of work, pain and suffering, and other related financial impacts. The law allows for the addition of punitive damages in such cases. In these cases, the department is often left to pay the settlement as the responsible party instead of the officer.


Q: What Is an Example of Excessive Force by Police?

A: Excessive force can happen in different ways, depending on the circumstances. Any excessive physical or verbal abuse by an officer is too much. The amount of force must be equal to the requirements of the situation. If a suspect is calm and cooperative, but an officer is condescending and aggressive, it could be considered excessive force.

Q: What May Be Defined as Excessive Force?

A: If a law enforcement officer employs more force than is reasonably necessary to gain control of a suspect or situation, it is considered an excessive use of force. What constitutes a reasonable amount of force is determined by how another officer would respond if they were faced with the same situation and circumstances.

Q: What Is the Amount of Force That a Law Enforcement Officer Is Allowed to Use?

A: Officers are granted the right to use necessary force while carrying out the duties of their job. However, their decision on the amount of force used in any situation must be dependent on what is reasonably necessary to gain control of the situation or suspect. They must also consider the mental and physical well-being of those involved.

Q: Is a Chokehold Excessive Force?

A: Chokeholds have been a controversial topic in terms of force for police officers. However, courts regularly consider them to be an example of excessive force. While they may help an officer gain control of a situation, they are jeopardizing the life of the individual on whom they are employing it. The use of this method could result in serious injury or death.

Excessive Force by Law Enforcement in California

The job of a law enforcement officer is difficult and requires many decisions to be made in an instant. However, there is a duty to not only protect the public but the suspects whom they are interacting with. As such, they must make determinations about how to control a person or situation that are equivalent to what is necessary. When an officer uses force beyond what is necessary, they endanger the lives of those around them. If you feel that you or a loved one have been the victim of excessive force, contact Exum Law Offices and our criminal defense team can help answer any questions that you may have while providing you with the legal counsel you may need.