This module is a resource for lecturers  




Group case study exercises on police use of force are set out below to test understanding and application of the key principles and standards.

Exercise one: Aims of law enforcement and reason for the use of force (20 minutes)

This session is an icebreaker for the students to introduce them to the topic.

Lecturer Guidelines

Begin by asking what the students think are (or should be) the legitimate aims of law enforcement. Responses should include some of the following:

  • Prevention of crime
  • Arrest of criminal suspects
  • Maintenance of law and order
  • Protection of the vulnerable
  • Facilitating peaceful assemblies

Can any of these be achieved without recourse to use of force? If so, how?

Examples might include the following:

  • Maintaining public trust in policing agencies through independent oversight and accountability mechanisms (for more on this, see Module 5 on Police Accountability, Integrity and Oversight).
  • Warnings about the consequences of a failure to comply.
  • Possible criminal responsibility for resisting arrest.

At this point, an optional activity is to show a two-minute video on an interaction between police officers and a youth who has made an obscene gesture to the police. Discuss how the police might have dealt with this more effectively without recourse to use of force.

Next, discuss when force might be legitimate. Is it only when a suspect is already violent?

Elicit examples of police use of force. Responses should include some of the following:

  • Physical restraint using hands
  • Handcuffing
  • Fitting of a spit hood
  • Baton strike
  • Chemical irritant (e.g. pepper spray or tear gas)
  • Taser electrical discharge
  • Police shooting

Using sticky notes on a whiteboard, ask the class to put the different responses in a "continuum", starting with the least dangerous to the suspect at the bottom (handcuffing or physical restraint) and finishing at the top with the most dangerous (i.e. the use of a firearm). Explain to the students that this is one possible continuum on the use of force by law enforcement officials.


Exercise two: Review of key human rights impacted by policing (15 minutes)

This session aims to consider how law enforcement operations are regulated within the framework of international human rights law.

Lecturer Guidelines

Begin by recalling that the acts of a police officer would normally be considered as acts of the state for the purpose of human rights law. That means that a police officer may infringe human rights and engage the responsibility of the State for a violation when doing so.

Ask the students which global human rights treaties are most relevant to law enforcement. The most obvious example is the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) (GA Resolution 2200A (XXI)) but the 1984 Convention against Torture (CAT) (GA Resolution 39/46) and even the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (GA Resolution 217A(III) of 10 December 1948) are also possibilities. Afterwards, seek to elicit which rights are impacted by policing. Examples include the following:

  • The right to life (Art. 6, ICCPR)
  • The right to freedom from torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment (Art. 7, ICCPR)
  • The right to security (Art. 9, ICCPR)
  • The right to liberty (Art. 9, ICCPR)
  •  The right to privacy (Art. 17, ICCPR)
  • The right to peaceful assembly (Art. 21, ICCPR)
  • The right to freedom from discrimination (Art. 26, ICCPR)

Discuss how these different rights can be impacted by policing operation.

Then ask whether a police officer may ever lawfully kill you without violating the right to life. This is possible in certain circumstances, but how does human rights law reflect this? The answer is that the corresponding prohibition for the right to life is on arbitrary deprivation of life.

The notion of arbitrariness means that the acts of the law enforcement official(s) must be in accordance with both national and international law if the taking of life is not to be deemed arbitrary. Determining whether this is the case depends primarily on whether the acts of the law enforcement official were both necessary and proportionate in the circumstances. These general principles are the subject of the next session.

If there is time, it is also valuable to discuss when the police may use force to protect a member of the public. Should this include former convicts? What if a person is suspected by the community of having committed serious sexual offences?

Should prison officers intervene to protect a prisoner from being attacked by another prisoner?

Other issues for discussion are when the police should be allowed to intrude into your personal life (the right to privacy) or to prevent you from demonstrating (the right of peaceful assembly).

Note: In facilitating this session, lecturers should be mindful that human rights are inalienable and indivisible, and that individuals suspected of breaching penal law are entitled not only to due process of law, but to protection from treatment that would compromise their human dignity. (ICCPR, articles, 9; 10; 14; 15)


Exercise three: General principles governing use of force in law enforcement (30 minutes)


Lecturer Guidelines

Two options are proposed for this session. One is to present, using a PowerPoint, the two core principles on use of force: necessity and proportionality. A model PowerPoint is available for this.

A second option is to elicit the two core principles through discussion with the class. The material contained in the PowerPoint will serve as the basis for structuring and moderating this discussion.

Necessity has three components:

  • The use of force must be for a legitimate law enforcement purpose
  • The force used must be the minimum necessary to achieve that purpose
  • Once that purpose has been achieved safely no further force may be used

Proportionality means even if force is necessary, it may be unlawful if that force exceeds what is reasonable to confront a particular threat. The principle of proportionality does not mean that force must be used as a "tit-for-tat" response to violence from a criminal suspect. Instead, it sets a ceiling on what amounts to lawful use of force, in accord with the threat posed by an individual or group of individuals and the offence that has been or is about to be committed. The principles should be considered sequentially. This means that proportionality only needs to be considered if necessity is already being complied with.

The two principles are also cumulative: failure to comply with both will normally violate human rights. Thus, for example, in the case of Bouyid v. Belgium (No. 23380/09), adjudged by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in 2015, the Court reiterated that "in respect of a person who is ... confronted with law enforcement officers, any recourse to physical force which has not been made strictly necessary by his own conduct diminishes human dignity and is, in principle, an infringement" of the right to freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment as set out in Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (1950).

Note: If time remains, it is worth discussing how personal protective equipment (e.g. helmets, shields, stab proof vests) can affect the extent to which the police need (or feel the need) to use force.

In January 2016, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) in the United States published a set of valuable guidelines on use of force. One of the guiding principles noted that: "Personal protection shields may support de-escalation efforts during critical incidents, including situations involving persons with knives, baseball bats, or other improvised weapons that are not firearms" (2016, Guiding Principle 28).


Exercise four: The use of firearms (35 minutes)


Lecturer Guidelines

The prohibition against the arbitrary deprivation of life was established in Topic Three of this Module. This session focuses on the requirement that all police use of force complies with the principles of necessity and proportionality, noting the additional, specific rules governing the use of firearms.

The most important of these rules are contained in the 1990 Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. These principles have come to be regarded as customary international law, and therefore binding on all States. Both the European and Inter-American Courts of Human Rights apply these Principles.

The full text of Basic Principle 9 is as follows:

Law enforcement officials shall not use firearms against persons except in self-defence or defence of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury, to prevent the perpetration of a particularly serious crime involving grave threat to life, to arrest a person presenting such a danger and resisting their authority, or to prevent his or her escape, and only when less extreme means are insufficient to achieve these objectives. In any event, intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.

Two options are proposed for this session. A model PowerPoint is available, or the lecturer may seek to elicit the rules by discussion with the students. The easiest way to do so is to ask when it is necessary to use a firearm. A frequent answer will be in self-defence or defence of others or to stop an escaping suspect or prisoner. Then discuss when the shooting will be proportionate: what if the thief has stolen an apple, for instance; or the escapee was suspected of tax fraud?

For a beginner's group, it is recommended to concentrate on the two main scenarios: shooting to stop an individual posing an imminent threat of death or serious injury; or shooting to kill when strictly unavoidable to protect life (a suicide bomber or a hostage taker about to kill his or her hostage). The grave threat scenario is very limited and should be reserved for an advanced group. Shooting purely to defend property is not permissible under international law.

If there is time available, lecturers may choose to lead a discussion on application of the rules to real life scenarios. It is suggested to use the video material proposed under "Additional teaching tools".

Another option is to use selected countries covered by the Law on Police Use of Force Worldwide website, to identify and discuss national rules on police use of firearms (e.g. compare and contrast New Zealand and Uganda).


Exercise five: Human rights law - the duty of precaution (20 minutes)

This session examines the human rights duty of precaution.

Lecturer Guidelines

Underpinning the principles of necessity and proportionality is the duty on authorities to plan law enforcement operations in a manner that minimizes the risk of the police having recourse to a potentially lethal weapon. This is integral to curtail the risk of death or serious injury to suspects, members of the public, or law enforcement officials.

The principle of precaution was first enunciated in 1995 by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in its judgment, McCann v. United Kingdom (18984/91). An effective means of teaching the principle is to describe the facts of the case and ask the students what decision they would have taken. Once students have shared their responses, the lecturer can explain that the Court did not find a violation of the right to life for the actual shooting but for the way the operation was planned.

Summary of the facts in the McCann case

On 6 March 1988, members of a British Special Air Service (SAS) unit shot to death three Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) members on the Rock of Gibraltar. All three deceased had been part of an IRA active service unit planning to bomb a British army parade in the centre of Gibraltar two days later. Both British and Spanish security forces had been aware of the IRA operation for months and were working closely together in an attempt to thwart it.

On the day of the shootings, the IRA unit parked a rented car close to where the Regiment band was to assemble for the Changing of the Guard ceremony, a popular tourist attraction which took place every week. The car was intended to hold the parking space for a car bomb that was to be prepared elsewhere. Once the car was parked, the three IRA operatives were walking in the direction of the Spanish border when they were intercepted and killed by the SAS.

The British government initially said that a bomb had already been planted. Within 24 hours, however, the Minister for Foreign Affairs admitted that there had been no bomb in the car and that the three killed were unarmed. Shortly after the shootings, a car used by the IRA unit was found over the border in Spain. It contained a timing device, screwdrivers, false passports, and wire. Two days later, a second car rented by one of the three operatives was discovered by Spanish police in Marbella. It contained 132 pounds of Semtex plastic explosive and several rounds of ammunition for an assault rifle.

The Court accepted that the soldiers "honestly believed", in light of the information they had been given by the authorities, that it was necessary to shoot the suspects to prevent them from detonating a bomb and causing serious loss of life. While the European Court did not find a violation of the right to life on the basis of the immediate actions of the soldiers to shoot, it did hold that the United Kingdom had failed in its duty to plan the operation in such a way as to minimize the risk of recourse to lethal force. In this respect, the Court asked why the three suspects had not been arrested at the border immediately on their arrival in Gibraltar and why the decision was taken not to prevent them from entering Gibraltar given that they were believed to be on a bombing mission.


Exercise six: Accountability for use of force (20 minutes)

This session concerns the individual accountability of police officers for their use of force. Module 5 on Police Accountability Integrity and Oversight addresses the broader aspects of police accountability.

Lecturer Guidelines

Begin by asking what accountability means. One definition of accountability is the responsible use of power. The process of accountability involves consequences when power is not used responsibly (or credible allegations of this are made).

Consequences should apply in instances where it is found that an individual police officer has used excessive or indiscriminate force. If an investigation finds wrongdoing, several options exist:

  • Report entered in his/her file
  • Disciplinary sanctions
  • Criminal prosecution

Offending officers may also face a civil suit from his or her victims or their representatives.

Arguing that he or she was "only following orders" is, generally, not a defence. As Basic Principle 26 stipulates (1990):

Obedience to superior orders shall be no defence if law enforcement officials knew that an order to use force and firearms resulting in the death or serious injury of a person was manifestly unlawful and had a reasonable opportunity to refuse to follow it.

There are also consequences for the superior officers. According to Basic Principle 24 (1990):

Governments and law enforcement agencies shall ensure that superior officers are held responsible if they know, or should have known, that law enforcement officials under their command are resorting, or have resorted, to the unlawful use of force and firearms, and they did not take all measures in their power to prevent, suppress or report such use.

At the same time, a police officer should not suffer consequences if he or she refuses to obey an order to use force illegally or acts as a "whistle-blower". This is reflected in Basic Principle 25 (1990):

Governments and law enforcement agencies shall ensure that no criminal or disciplinary sanction is imposed on law enforcement officials who, in compliance with the Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and these basic principles, refuse to carry out an order to use force and firearms, or who report such use by other officials.


Exercise seven: Case study on the facilitation and management of an assembly (40 minutes)

This final session involves two possible case studies of law enforcement scenarios:

  • the management of an assembly; or
  • combating the sale of illegal drugs.

Case studies and suggested answers are provided in the Case Studies section of this Module.

Lecturer Guidelines

Separate the class into groups of at least four persons each. Provide each student with a copy of the case study (or project it onto a screen) and give each group 25 minutes to prepare their answer. Ask each group to select a rapporteur to present the answer to the class. In reviewing the case study, seek comments from the other groups.

Next: Case studies
Back to top