Law enforcement use of force has been regulated in the states by common law for many years. In 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Tennessee statute that allowed police officers to “use all necessary means to effect the arrest” of a person fleeing or forcibly resisting arrest in Tennessee v. Garner. In a 6-3 decision, the court held that deadly force may not be used unless it is “necessary to prevent the escape and the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.”
In striking down the Tennessee statute, the court rejected the common-law rule allowing the use of whatever force was necessary to effect the arrest of a fleeing felon. According to the court, at that time 19 states had codified the old common-law rule and an additional four states retained the rule without a relevant statutory provision. The court recognized that the varied rules adopted by the states indicated a long-term movement away from the common-law rule, with the policies imposed by police departments themselves being even more restrictive that most statutory standards.
State and local constitutions, as interpreted by the courts, also generally prohibit the use of excessive force. In addition to baseline constitutional guidance from the courts, at least 43 states have codified, at a minimum, some aspect of their use of force requirements.
At least 41 states have statutes relating to law enforcement use of deadly force. Most states require a violent felony to have been committed or a threat to human life to exist in order for law enforcement to legally use deadly force against a person.
For example, Arizona law justifies an officers’ use of deadly physical force if the officer reasonably believes that the force was necessary to “(1) effect an arrest or to prevent the escape from custody of an arrested person whom the law enforcement officer reasonably believes has committed or attempted to commit a felony and is presently armed or dangerous; or (2) defend himself or herself or a third person from what the law enforcement officer reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of deadly physical force.”
However, state statutory approaches vary considerably, with some states addressing lethal force under justifiable homicide laws, while others provide more affirmative guidance for officers. For example, Connecticut’s law authorizes deadly force only when an officer’s actions are objectively reasonable under the circumstances and:
“(A) He or she reasonably believes such use to be necessary to defend himself or herself or a third person from the use or imminent use of deadly physical force; or
(B) He or she (i) has exhausted the reasonable alternatives to the use of deadly physical force, (ii) reasonably believes that the force employed creates no substantial risk of injury to a third party, and (iii) reasonably believes such use of force to be necessary to (I) effect an arrest of a person whom he or she reasonably believes has committed or attempted to commit a felony which involved the infliction of serious physical injury, or (II) prevent the escape from custody of a person whom he or she reasonably believes has committed a felony which involved the infliction of serious physical injury and if, where feasible under this subdivision, he or she has given warning of his or her intent to use deadly physical force.”
Some states also regulate a broader use-of-force continuum. At least 40 states have statutory guidance and/or requirements for use of “less lethal” force. Less lethal force requirements vary widely from state to state and include such things as crowd control, specific situations when less lethal force may be used, requirements for using a degree of force consistent with minimizing injury, or a general requirement that the force be “reasonable” or “necessary.”
Restrictions or guidelines specific to the use of neck restraints exist in at least 15 states. Laws restricting or prohibiting this kind of maneuver increased significantly in 2020, with many states classifying neck restraints as deadly force, to follow their state’s deadly-force standards, or forbidding their use entirely.
Using the Database
The database can be navigated by using state and subtopic filters. Text searching is available for statutory summaries or statutory language contained in the database. The map is also interactive and allows you to more quickly select multiple states to review―just hold down the control key to select more than one state. Use the reset button at the top left to clear all filters and start a new search.
Note that this database only contains statutory provisions that address each policy area. Case law, regulations or agency policy may further impact the current state of the law in each state. This database also does not address policies adopted by local jurisdictions or law enforcement agencies.