Can the police use force against me?
When can the police use force against me? What rules must the police follow? What are my rights?
Disclaimer: this article is for general information. It’s not intended to be used as legal advice. For information on how to get legal advice, please see our page here.
Content note: It’s important that all of us know our rights when it comes to police using force against us. However, this page mentions types of restraint techniques that the police use, and mentions injury and death. Skip the sections called “what are common examples of use of force?” and “Using force against people who are at a higher risk of suffocation” to avoid reading about that.
What does the law say?
Police can only use force against you if there is a lawful objective. A police officer can only use force if there is a law that tells them when they can do so.
The main legal bases that allow the police to use force in general are:
1. The Criminal Law Act 1967
This allows the police to use force that is reasonable in the circumstances:
- To prevent crime
- To lawfully arrest or help arrest someone who’s committed a crime, suspected of having committed a crime, or has unlawfully escaped custody
2. Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE)
This allows a police officer to use reasonable force, as long as
- PACE gives the police officer a power to do something
- It’s necessary for the police officer to use force to use that power, and
- This power can used without the consent of another person (unless that person is another police officer)
The College of Policing’s page on use of force in custody has more information.
3. The common law
The common law is made up of rulings by judges in different cases, so it’s also called “case law”. The CPS (the Crown Prosecution Service) states that common law allows anyone to use force that is reasonable in the circumstances in order to:
- Defend themselves or someone else
- Defend property
- Prevent crime
- Carry out a lawful arrest
What is reasonable force?
As well as having a lawful objective, the police can only use force that is reasonable. Using reasonable force means that:
- The use of force must be justified in the circumstances. There must have been a need to use force in the first place.
- The amount force used should be proportionate. It shouldn’t be excessive in the circumstances: the police should use the minimum required to achieve their lawful aim.
Police commanders in charge of operations where it’s a possibility that they’ll use force should plan to keep the need to use force to a minimum. The College of Policing’s page on use of force has examples of what should be taken into consideration.
If the force is being used to prevent crime or arrest someone, whether or not it’s lawful will depend on:
- What kind of force the police have used
- How much force the police have used
- How serious the offence is that they’re trying to prevent or arrest someone for
- What kind of force was used against the officer by the person they’re trying to arrest, and how much
Using force against you should always be a last resort
Police officers should always respect and protect human life. They should try to cause as little damage and injury as possible.
In addition to making sure the use of force is reasonable, police should also be following any principles or guidelines that apply, like:
- The Common Principles for Safer Restraint. This explains in more detail how police should decide to use restraint techniques against people in custody.
- When taking decisions, the police should always be guided by the National Decision Model. It provides a guide on how police should take any policing decisions. It’s designed that police decisions can be more easily reviewed.
- General police Standards of Professional Behaviour. You can read more in our article here. These apply to all police officers and should guide how they act.
What are common examples of use of force?
The types of force the police have been recorded to use includes things like:
- Handcuffing people, for example to search them or to arrest them.
- Other restraint techniques where the police physically use their body to restrain another person, like holding onto a person’s arm.
- Using implements, like batons, irritant spray, spit and bite guards
- Using Tasers, firing rubber bullets
- Using real guns and bullets.
Other things should the police take into account
Using force against Disabled people
The police have certain obligations under the Equality Act, such as
- taking people’s disabilities into account.
- Never directly discriminating against people just because they are disabled
If a police force has a general policy on use of force, they must consider how Disabled people might be impacted worse compared to non-disabled people. This might include how using force might affect:
- People who use wheelchairs and other mobility aids
- People who have physical conditions which means they have a higher risk of being injured if they are handcuffed, or physically held
- People who are Deaf or hard of hearing
- People who are blind or have low vision
- People who, because of their condition, might have different reactions in intense situations, and therefore be more at risk to the police using force on them.
Read more about rights Disabled people have on our disability section here.
Using force against under 18s
It’s especially important that the police take care if they use force against under 18s. The UK is signed up the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. It’s an international agreement (called a convention) that recognises that under 18s need special safeguards and care.
You can read more about the use of force against under 18s here.
Using force against people who are at a higher risk of suffocation
The College of Policing notes that some restraint techniques can increase the risk of suffocation (positional asphyxia) on people who
- Have a particularly smaller or particularly larger build
- People who have taken substances, like drugs, alcohol or medications like anti-psychotics
- People who are particularly stressed
There are specific instructions for using certain restraint techniques in these situations. Read “the prone position and positional asphyxia” section on the College of Policing’s page on “Control, restraint and searches” for more information.
Recording use of force
If taking people into custody, the College of Policing notes that the police must record use of force if
- It’s been used to arrest someone or move them
- It’s been used on people detained under the Mental Health Act 1983
- The detained person was injured and needed significant medical attention after, like going to hospital
- The force used resulted in an injury that amounts to actual bodily harm
- There were other features of the arrest that could damage the police’s reputation or cause media interest
A 2021 report of HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services noted that there is not enough data on police use of force. Despite it being a requirement, “not all forces that were inspected were making enough effort to ensure that their officers record each occasion when they use force”. However, the data suggested that police use force more often against Black, Asian and Minority Asian people. Police were not able to explain to an inspecting body their disproportionate use of their powers against these communities.
If you feel that the police have used force against you unfairly or unlawfully, you can complain.
What about my human rights?
When making a decision to use force, the police must always consider your rights under the Human Rights Act 1998. The Human Rights Act brings certain rights under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into UK law.
The most relevant ones are below.
Article 2: right to life
Article 2: protects your right to life. It’s unlawful for the police to use force which causes someone’s death unless it was absolutely necessary, and:
- it was to defend themselves or others from violence, or
- it was to arrest someone or prevent someone from escaping, or
- it was to stop a riot.
The police must always be properly trained and follow guidance. If someone does die, there must be a proper and effective investigation.
Article 3: no torture, or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
Article 3 protects your right not to be tortured, or be treated in an inhuman or degrading way. There are no situations in which this is lawful. Although certain methods of use of force, like handcuffs, Tasers and pepper spray can be lawfully used, in some situations it might be a violation of Article 3. This will depend on many factors including any injuries caused, and the person’s overall health.
Article 5: right to liberty
Article 5 protects your right to be free and secure. The police can only detain you in specific circumstances and if there is a law that allows the police to do so. When the police detain people, which includes during a stop and search, it falls under Article 5.
Article 8: right to privacy
Article 8 protects your right to private and family life, your home and your correspondence (or communications). Article 8 can cover a wide range of things, including your right to physical integrity. This can include being stopped and searched, police searching your home, seizing your property, or monitoring your activity.
Articles 10 and 11: your rights to protest
Article 10 protects right to freedom of expression (which includes your freedom of speech). Article 11 protects your right of freedom of association, which is your right to meet freely with others. Both these rights are important for you to have the right to protest.
Article 14: you can enjoy these rights without discrimination
Article 14 says that public bodies – like the police – can’t discriminate against you when you use your rights. This means that if the police use force against you and it engages one of your human rights, it can’t be discriminatory. Discrimination happens when a public authority (like the police):
- treats a person less favourably than others in similar situations on the basis of a particular characteristic, such as using more deadly force against Black people.
- doesn’t treat people differently when they are in significantly different situations. For example, using force against a wheelchair user in the same way that they would against someone with no mobility issues, or treating a small child the same as an adult.
- applies seemingly neutral policies in a way that has disproportionate impact on individuals or groups, such as Disabled people.
Not all discrimination is unlawful – but for discrimination or unequal treatment to be found to be lawful, there must be weighty and objectively justifiable reasons.
At all times, when the police decide to use force against people, they should be thinking about your human rights.
What if the police treat me badly?
You can always complain to the police if you don’t like how they treated you. Please see our pages on police complaints for more information about how to do so.
If you think the police broke the law, you might want to get legal advice. Visit our page here on how to find legal help.
What are my rights on this?
Find out more about your rights and how the Human Rights Act protects them
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