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Key issues


Key Terms

The two fundamental principles governing any use of force under international law enforcement rules are necessity and proportionality. Law enforcement officials must comply with both principles: failure to respect either will usually mean that the victim's human rights have been violated. The principle of necessity holds that any force used in law enforcement must be no more than the minimum necessary in the circumstances in pursuit of a legitimate law enforcement objective. In addition, the principle of proportionality means that the force used must be proportionate to the threat, setting a ceiling on what is lawful. A third general principle of law enforcement has emerged in recent decades - the principle of precaution requires States to ensure that the planning and conduct of law enforcement operations minimizes the risk of injury.



In the early twentieth century, Max Weber famously asserted that the state is an entity that claims the "monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory" (Weber, 1918). While that assertion is debatable, given the right of citizens to use force in certain circumstances, it is correct to say that a primary role is given to law enforcement agencies.

Use of force, by police, is an issue that has long held the interest of scholars. Indeed, one contemporary criminologist acknowledges that the "old chestnut of debate about the police role has been whether the police are best considered as a force, with the primary function of enforcing the criminal law, or as a service, calming a sea of social troubles" (Reiner, 2010, p. 141). Three decades earlier, Bittner had argued that it was not a case of "either or": police "may be required to do the work of thief-catchers or of nurses, depending on the occasion" (Bittner, 1980). But global research in recent years has indicated that "keeping the peace" is the primary function of the police, "even in societies where the police are routinely armed" (Newburn, 2013, p. 617).

The sections that follow explore seven sub-topics on the use of force and firearms:

Next: Topic one - The context for use of force by law enforcement officials
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