The ACLU has often stated that the way to build the strongest case for reform is through researching police departments, and discovering relevant policies and practices they enforce. The organization has also stated that to understand officers’ strengths and weaknesses it is important to compare them to other departments. An important topic is use of physical force. This includes understanding your local police department’s formal written policies on how officers are supposed to behave and not behave in particular situations. According to the National Institute of Justice, there is “no single, universally agreed-upon definition of use of force.” The Institute explains, the use of force often depends on the officers and situation because no two officers or situations are the same. While there is no national database of incidents in which police use excessive force, just last year in 2019, the FBI launched a national use-of-force data collection. 

While officers often receive guidance from their individual agencies, no universal set of rules governs when officers should use force, or even how much. If there is a limit, this is often department based, and set on a force continuum. There are 5 main levels of police use of force which are often found in a force continuum. Further than this there are 6 main levels of resistance to consider. 

A diagram showing the levels of Police use of force

Infographic on 6 levels of resistance

Continuums must consider many factors. These include the civilian’s resistance level, the officer/civilian factors and special factors as well as the reasonable level of force for that situation. 

Many different projects and organizations shine light on how use of physical force should be limited by police departments across the country. One of these projects is Campaign Zero. The Project found that more restrictive use of force policies are associated with fewer police involved killings. 

A bar graph showing numbers from implementing restrictive use of force policies

They have offered many policy solutions to better utilize other methods to restrain civilians besides the use of excessive force which infringes on basic civil rights. Four main policy solutions offered in this area by the project were:

  1. Establish standards and reporting of police use of deadly force
  2. End traffic related police killings and dangerous high speed police chases
  3. Revise and strengthen local police department use of force policies
  4. Monitor how police use of force and proactively hold officers accountable for excessive force

The project even created a model use of force policy based on review and analysis of effective use of force policies across the nation. The project explains, “the police include evidence informed restrictions on police use of force that are designed to significantly reduce police violence in communities.” See the policy here. 

Another project named the “Use of Force Project”, integrated a list of policies used by police officers across the nation that often fail to include limits on police force. Nonetheless, these policies are legal, albeit, they often infringe on basic human rights of civilians across the nation - disproportionately so with people of color. Looking at the 100 biggest police departments in America, the policies they have in place may shock you. 

Policies Where Police Can Legally Infringe on Your Civil Rights

Police standing at attention

Here are some policies that exist across some of the biggest police departments in America. While these are legal, they infringe on your civil rights and statistics prove it.

1. Failing to Require Officers to De-Escalate.

44/100 of the police departments reviewed require officers to de-escalate situations where possible before using force. Utilizing de-escalation tactics includes verbalization, creating distance, time and space, tactical reposition and other methods whenever possible instead of using force. 

2. Allowing Officers to Choke or Strangle Civilians

28/100 of the police departments reviewed explicitly prohibit chokeholds and strangleholds or limit these tactics to situations where deadly force is authorized. This can include carotid restraints, hog-tying and transporting people face down in a vehicle, restraining oxygen to airways. Using such a procedure, this is only sanctioned when the assailant is using deadly force. Therefore, deadly force should only be used against deadly force in this scenario when it comes to chokeholds. This tactic is often used where less lethal force could be used instead resulting in the unnecessary injury or even death of civilians.

3. Failing to Require Officers to Intervene and Stop Excessive Force

48/100 of the police departments reviewed require officers to intervene to stop another officer from using excessive force. Considerable progress has been made in the area of police misconduct in the use of deadly force since the 1970’s. This of course was due to the reduction in racial disparities. Statistics show while in the 1970’s six people of color were killed  by police to one white person, today that number is down to three people of color to one white killed. This occurred through stricter internal policies on the use of deadly force. Early intervention systems have also been shown to reduce the average number of complaints against officers in a police department by more than 50%. This includes reporting officers who receive two or more complaints in a month, who have two or more use of force incidents in the past quarter, and then requiring officers to attend re-training and be monitored by an immediate supervisor after their first quarterly report and terminate an officer following multiple reports

4. Failing to Restrict Officers From Shooting at Moving Vehicles

17/100 police departments reviewed require officers to give a verbal warning, when possible, before using deadly force. The rule in these cases is often from the case Tennessee v. Garner, where for the use of deadly force, the officer is justified in shooting if they reasonably believe they are acting in response to an imminent threat of death or serious physical injury to themselves or other persons.

5. Failing to Develop a Force Continuum

84 of the 100 police departments reviewed have a Force Continuum or Matrix included in their use of force policy, defining the types of force/weapons that can be used to respond to specific types of resistance. Force is sanctioned under specific circumstances where the officer is acting in self-defense or defense of another individual. This policy is important to limit the types of force and weapons that can be used to respond to specific types of resistance.

6. Failing to Require Officers to Exhaust All Other Reasonable Means Before Resorting to Deadly Force

42/100 police departments reviewed require officers to exhaust all other reasonable alternatives before reporting to using deadly force. Campaign Zero has created solutions to this problem. They explain that while police kill hundreds of unarmed people, European nations do very little of this. Solutions offered by the project include establishing standards and reporting police use of deadly force as well as authorizing deadly force only when there is an imminent threat to an officer’s life or the life of another person.

7. Failing to Require Officers to Give a Verbal Warning When Possible Before Shooting a Civilian

67/100 of the police departments reviewed required the officer to give a verbal warning, when possible before using deadly force. Campaign Zero has also commented on this, explaining that before deadly force is used, the civilian should be given a reasonable amount of time to comply with this warning. 

8. Failing to Require Officers to Report Each Time They Use Force or Threaten to Use Force Against Civilians

25/100 of all the police departments reviewed require officers to report all uses of force including threatening another civilian with a firearm. Further than this, Campaign Zero commented that the department should require the names of both the officer(s) involved and victim(s) to be released within the 72 hours of deadly force.

8 Instances Where Police Cannot Legally Infringe On Your Rights

The lights on the top of a police car

According to the ACLU, since 9/11, police have gravely misused their power and have infringed on the rights of civilians. Here are some instances of police abusing their power in such a way it legally infringes on your rights. 

1. Warrantless Wiretapping

Tapping into telephone calls of Americans without a warrant is in violation of federal statutes as well as the Constitution. Eavesdropping on conversations of innocent Americans and broad data mining systems have become a larger problem in the 2000’s. 

2. Torture, Kidnapping and Detention

In the time since 9/11, government actors have illegally kidnapped, detained and tortured a number of prisoners. These actors claim that they have the power to designate any civilian including an American as an “enemy combatant” without charge. Investigation into Detention Centers have revealed several civil rights abuses and violations of International Law. 

3. Surveillance

The United States have been facing a massive assault on their privacies with an increasing amount of data collection, storage, tracking and mining. New technologies that have come with the new millennium have in turn helped to create a “surveillance society” of sorts. 

4. Abuse of the Patriot Act

Abuse of this act includes sending letters regarding national security to Americans that have no relation to terrorism.

5. Real ID

The 2005 Real ID Act laid the foundation for a national ID card, making it more difficult or persecuted people to seek asylum.

6. No Fly and Selectee Lists

The “No-Fly List” was created to keep tabs on civilians the government prohibits from travelling because those people have been labelled as a security risk. Since 9/11, the list has grown to include almost 1 million names. The list has been noted as erroneous, with many innocent people on the list for no apparent reason, with little recourse. Several members of Congress have also been flagged including Senator Ted Kennedy. 

7. Political Spying

Government actors have conducted spying operations on innocent Americans. Through the Freedom of Information Act, the ACLU discovered that the government had been monitoring peaceful groups. The TALON program which was a database made of illegally gathered information of anti-war groups was shut down in 2007.

8. Abuse of Material Witness Statute

Since 9/11, government actors have arrested and detained a number of law abiding citizens through the material witness statute which allows the arrest and brief detention of “material witnesses”. Many Muslims have been detained, and never treated as witnesses for crimes in that their testimony was never secured where no efforts were made. Imprisonment of these “material witnesses” were from 6 months to over a year.


Understanding which rights you have which can and cannot be infringed upon in particular instances, it is important to collect data from your local police department, to understand how they compare to other departments across the country on important issues. To find data, the ACLU has recommended utilizing:

  1. Data Developed by Community Residents
  1. Formal Complaints Filed By Citizens
  1. Internal Police Reports

Further it is important to understand your local police station’s policies. To do this, refer to their Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) manual that contains the department’s official policies. This document should be available to the public, and if it is not, this is completely unacceptable under most state’s open records laws. The department should not withhold any SOP manual. Moreover, the department should have a highly restrictive deadly force policy. While most big city departments do, small departments have not caught up to the trend. This way of community monitoring should help hold police departments accountable to said policies, and in turn hopefully accomplish less violent communities with less racial disparity as an outcome.


In Conclusion—know your rights, know when police and know when government actors can and cannot infringe upon them legally. Studies show the more policies In place that limit violent force, more innocent lives are saved. It is crucial to investigate your local police force, and understand their standard operating procedures. Educate yourself on their policies. Dive into the world of data and discover how much force they use with violent weapons and what their protocol is regarding this.