How Objective is the “Objective Reasonableness” Standard in Police Brutality Cases?

Written by Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D.

Courts tasked with determining the reasonableness of a police officer’s use of force have been guided by the United State Supreme Court to consider situations based on a standard of “objective reasonableness.” In essence lower courts have been directed to view the facts surrounding an officer’s use of force as they were presented to the officer at the time force was used without relying on the benefit of 20/20 hindsight or second guessing the officer’s decison. Courts are instructed to confront the facts of a case as they were presented to the officer when the decision to use force was made and to determine if the actions were “reasonable” given the circumstances and what was known to the officer at the time.

This decision-making directive was announced in 1985, when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Tennessee v. Garner (1985). The case involved the shooting death of an unarmed 15-year old juvenile, Edward Garner, who had broken into an unoccupied home and stolen a ring and $10. When police officers arrived on the scene, Garner ran. A Memphis police officer shot and killed Garner. The Court ruled that police officers could not use deadly force to prevent the escape of a felon unless the suspect posed a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others. In making its decision, the Court attempted to balance the government's interests in providing effective law enforcement and the intrusion into a suspect's rights. The Court noted that Garner's death was an unreasonable violation of the Fourth Amendment. In effect, the Court struck down the fleeing felon doctrine, which allowed police officers to use deadly force against any fleeing felon and required that police weigh the dangerousness of shooting a suspect and his or her crime with the probability of immediate or future harm caused by the suspect if he or she escaped.

The Garner decision clarified many important issues concerning police use of deadly force. Questions remained, however, as to its applicability to all circumstances in which police use force and what was reasonable police use of force. In other words, was Garner applicable to cases of non-deadly force and how was reasonableness of an officer behavior to be determined? In Graham v. Connor (1989), the U.S. Supreme Court answered these questions. The Supreme Court ruled that police use of force must be “objectively reasonable”—that an officer's actions were reasonable in light of the facts and circumstances confronting him, without regard to his underlying intent or motivation. The Court stated that while “reasonableness . . . is not capable of precise definition or mechanical application” (Graham v. Connor, 1989:1871), a number of factors require careful consideration before an officer can use force against a citizen. These factors include (Kappeler, 2006):

  1. Whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the officer or others
  2. The severity of the crime
  3. Whether the suspect is actively resisting arrest
  4. Whether the suspect is a flight risk or attempting to escape custody

The Court, however, has been silent on application of an “objective reasonableness” standard to the behavior of a citizen confronted with an act of police brutality. What is a reasonable response on the part of a citizen who is being savagely beaten by the police? Should a court second-guess how a person goes about protecting himself from police brutality? Should we only consider the facts as they were understood by the victim of a violent police encounter?

The video below illustrates one such beating at the hands of Chattanooga police where the citizen was characterized as “passively resisting” and “refusing to comply” after he had both of his legs broken by officer which lead a court to determine that the officers’ conduct did not constitute an offense that warranted their termination and therefore was “reasonable.” 

Police brutality caught on tape

Reviewing the officer’s conduct following the officers’ termination by the Chief of Police, Judge Kim Summers wrote, "Certainly, the use of force and the injuries sustained by Mr. Tatum were not ideal but neither were they dictated by the conduct of officers Emmer and Cooley. As such, it would not be an acceptable ending to this situation to ruin the lives and careers of two otherwise unblemished and promising police officers who came across the path of Mr. Tatum only because he chose to violate his parole by taking cocaine, engaging in violent behavior, and disregarding lawful directives from law enforcement…. While the number of baton strikes may have been extraordinary, so was the level of Mr. Tatum's resistance." I’ll leave it to you to determine how “objectively reasonable” the court was and what constitutes a “reasonable persons response” to this level of police brutality. 

Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D.
Associate  Dean and Foundation Professor
School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University


Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 109 S. Ct. 1865 (1989).

Kappeler, V. E. (2006). Critical Issues in Police Civil Liability (4th ed.). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.

Tennessee v. Garner, 771 U.S. 1 (1985).


Published on December 10, 2013