When is Seattle police use of force authorized under law?

Seattle Police Department file photo 

In the wake of a Seattle police shooting that killed a 30-year-old mother, some are questioning excessive use of force.

Sunday’s case is too fresh for a review board to fully analyze the tactics of this incident’s officer-involved shooting. But Seattle Police Department policy on use of force helps the public understand department operations regarding use of force.

Eight sections of the policy – which is referred to as Title 8 in the SPD manual – are available for reading on the city’s website.

The published policy’s dateline is 2015. KIRO 7 News has calls into SPD to see if there is a more recent version of the policy.

Title 8 is broken down into eight, lengthy sections. In this Q&A, you can find a shorter outline with highlighted information on use of force.

To read the specific details of Sunday's case, hear audio of the interaction before and during the shooting, and read about how the suspect was ordered not to possess weapons earlier this month, follow this link. Less than two weeks before the shooting, police also said they were told the woman "had experienced a recent sudden and rapid decline in her mental health."

Sunday’s fatal shooting also has drawn reaction from Seattle’s mayor and mayoral candidates saying a full investigation should be done.

What’s the purpose of the policy?

In an effort to achieve transparency around its policy, SPD released a use of force report that explained the why it has a policy, reading in part, "While recognizing that officers are often forced to make split second decisions, in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving, this policy allows officers to use only the force that is objectively reasonable, necessary, and proportionate to effectively bring an incident or a person under control."

When is use of force authorized?

An officer can only use force when "reasonable, necessary, and proportionate to effectively bring an incident or person under control, while protecting the lives of the officer or others," according to policy. Once it is safe to do so and the threat is contained, the force must stop.

What exactly is “reasonable, necessary, and proportionate”?

The following guidelines are pulled from SPD's policy.


: The reasonableness of a particular use of force is based on the totality of circumstances known by the officer at the time of the use of force. Factors to be considered in determining the objective reasonableness of force include, but are not limited to:

The seriousness of the crime or suspected offense;

The level of threat or resistance presented by the subject;

Whether the subject was posing an immediate threat to officers or a danger to the community;

The potential for injury to citizens, officers or subjects;

The risk or apparent attempt by the subject to escape;

The conduct of the subject being confronted (as reasonably perceived by the officer at the time);

The time available to an officer to make a decision;

The availability of other resources;

The training and experience of the officer;

The proximity or access of weapons to the subject;

Officer versus subject factors such as age, size, relative strength, skill level, injury/exhaustion and number of officers versus subjects; and

The environmental factors and/or other exigent circumstances.

Whether the subject has any physical disability.


:  “Necessary” means that no reasonably effective alternative to the use of force appeared to exist and that the amount of force used was reasonable to effect the lawful purpose intended.


: Proportional force involves officers deciding on an appropriate level of force to be applied.

Proportional force does not require officers to use the same type or amount of force as the subject. The more immediate the threat and the more likely that the threat will result in death or serious physical injury, the greater the level of force that may be proportional, objectively reasonable, and necessary to counter it.

What’s the policy around use of deadly force?

According to policy, deadly force may only be used in circumstances where threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others is imminent. A danger is imminent when an objectively reasonable officer would believe that:

A suspect is acting or threatening to cause death or serious physical injury to the officer or others, and

The suspect has the means or instrumentalities to do so, and

The suspect has the opportunity and ability to use the means or instrumentalities to cause death or serious physical injury.

When reasonably likely to cause death or serious physical injury, deadly force can happen by:

Shooting a firearm at a person

A hard strike to a person's head, neck, or throat with an impact weapon

Striking a person's head into a hard, fixed object (examples include but are not limited to concrete objects or surfaces, or solid metal structures such as bars or guardrails.)

Shooting a person in the head or neck with a beanbag shotgun round

Using stop-sticks on a moving motorcycle

According to SPD policy, deadly force may also be used to prevent the escape of a fleeing suspect when a “reasonable officer would believe that is necessary” and there’s probable cause that the suspect committed or is about to commit a felony; escape of the suspect would pose an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury; and then officer gave a verbal warning to the suspect.

When is use of force prohibited?

Title 8 policy outlines that an officer may not use physical force:

 To punish or retaliate

 Against individuals who only verbally confront them unless the vocalization impedes a legitimate law enforcement function

 On restrained subjects (e.g. including handcuffed or contained in a police vehicle) except in exceptional circumstances when the subject's actions must be immediately stopped to prevent injury, or escape, destruction of property. All such force shall be closely and critically reviewed

 To stop a subject from swallowing a substance that is already in their mouth.

 To extract a substance or item from inside the body of a suspect without a warrant

How can deadly force be avoided?

De-escalation tactics and techniques are actions used by officers, when safe and without compromising law enforcement priorities, that seek to minimize the likelihood of the need to use force during an incident and increase the likelihood of voluntary compliance.

When time and circumstances reasonably permit, officers can consider the following factors:

Medical conditions

Mental impairment

Developmental disability

Physical limitation

Language barrier

Drug interaction

Behavioral crisis

How are use of force incidents reported?

In order to ensure transparency and accountability officers must clearly and reliably report and thoroughly document each time they use force defined as Type I, II, or III.

All uses of force are reportable except “de minimis force.”

Here’s how those use-of-force ranks are defined.

 De Minimis Force – Physical interaction meant to separate guide, and/or control without the use of control techniques that are intended to or are reasonably likely to cause any pain or injury. Includes:

Use of control holds or joint manipulation techniques in a manner that does not cause any pain, and are not reasonably likely to cause any pain.

Using hands or equipment to stop, push back, separate, or escort a person without causing any pain, or in a manner that would reasonably cause any pain.

 Type I – Force that causes transitory pain, the complaint of transitory pain, disorientation, or intentionally pointing a firearm or bean bag shotgun at a person.

 Type II – Force that causes or is reasonably expected to cause physical injury greater than transitory pain but less than great or substantial bodily harm, and/or the use of any of the following weapons or instruments: CEW, OC spray, impact weapon, bean bag shotgun, deployment of K-9 with injury or complaint of injury causing less than Type III injury, vehicle, hobble restraint.

 Type III – Force that causes or is reasonably expected to cause, great bodily harm, substantial bodily harm, loss of consciousness, or death, and/or the use of neck and carotid holds, stop sticks for motorcycles, impact weapon strikes to the head.

How is a use-of-force incident found constitutional or not?

The U.S. Supreme Court has long held whether any use of force is lawful under the Constitution, based on the perception of a reasonable officer under the totality of the circumstances present at the time the force is applied, and it is often a point on which reasonable minds can differ.

The courtroom is generally the forum for determining the legality of a use of force, but SPD formed a "Force Review Board" in which members analyze if force meets the requirements of policy.

SPD says its policy incorporates both federal and state constitutional thresholds, but holds officers to a higher level of performance and scrutiny consistent with community expectations.

According to SPD, a finding that force is out of policy does not equate to a finding that the force violated the Constitution, but a finding that the force was in policy does mean it was also likely lawful under the Constitution.


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