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An Assessment of Graham v. Connor, Ten Years Later

NCJ Number
Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management Volume: 25 Issue: 2 Dated: 2002 Pages: 294-318
Darrell L. Ross
Date Published
25 pages
The U.S. Supreme Court in Graham v. Connor (1989) determined that "objective reasonableness" is the Fourth Amendment standard to be applied in assessing claims of excessive force by police; this study analyzed the patterns of lower Federal court decisions in 1,200 published Section 1983 cases decided from 1989 to 1999.
The decision in "Graham" held that deciding whether the force used by police in a given instance was "reasonable" under the Fourth Amendment requires a careful balancing of the nature and quality of the intrusion on the arrestee's Fourth Amendment interests against the countervailing governmental interests at stake. The Supreme Court emphasized the overriding function of the Fourth Amendment is to protect an individual's personal privacy and dignity against unwarranted intrusion by the government. In order to evaluate claims of excessive force, the Court established several criteria. Noting there is no precise or mechanical application possible for this test of reasonableness, the Court requires careful attention to the facts and circumstance of each case, including the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether the suspect is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight. Since the Graham decision, divergent interpretations and a lack of uniform application of the standard have emerged within the lower courts. This study examined cases that involved claims that emerged from the use of handcuffs, empty-hand control technique, lethal force actions, and police equipment. The majority of the courts are generally adhering to the basic premise and philosophy of the objective reasonableness standard as defined in Graham, but with some stricter application than the Supreme Court may have intended. Police officers are receiving better training and more precise guidance by departmental policy, which has apparently led to better decisions in the field regarding the use of force. Also, police have more equipment options than in earlier years, allowing a wider range of force options when encountering resistance. 46 references and a list of cases cited