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What's Reasonable? Testing the Reasonable Officer Standard in Fourth Amendment Civil Liability Police Excessive Force Cases

Trace C Vardsveen, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


When determining whether to hold a police officer civilly liable for using excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that legal actors must judge the reasonableness of that officer’s use-of-force action from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene and not with the 20/20 vision of hindsight. Additionally, the Court has identified several legally relevant factors to consider when making such judgments, including the type/severity of force an officer deployed to seize a suspect, whether that suspect posed a threat to the officer or others, and how much that suspect resisted arrest. Despite the rich body of empirical work on police use-of-force, research has yet to examine the psychological validity of legal actors adhering to the reasonable officer standard. The current research investigated whether prospective jurors follow the reasonable officer standard across three online mock-juror experiments that manipulated the legally relevant factors of officer force type/severity, suspect threat level, and suspect resistance level, along with factors of suspect race and perspective-taking. The results showed that suspect threat and resistance levels, as well as perspective-taking, indirectly affected officer civil liability judgments through officer and suspect judgments. However, the results also showed the influence of various extra-legal factors on officer reasonableness judgments and liability determinations, including prospective jurors’ attitudes toward police legitimacy, among other factors. Thus, the results indicate that prospective jurors adhere to some aspects of the reasonable officer standard when making officer reasonableness and civil liability determinations but deviate from the standard in other important ways. Implications of this research for psychology, law, and policy are discussed.

Subject Area

Psychology|Law enforcement

Recommended Citation

Vardsveen, Trace C, "What's Reasonable? Testing the Reasonable Officer Standard in Fourth Amendment Civil Liability Police Excessive Force Cases" (2021). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI28713378.