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Resisting Arrest is No Excuse for Police Brutality

July 15, 2020

In light of recent events, there are numerous stories about police-involved shootings and police brutality. Often these disproportionately involve African-Americans and other minority communities. One common objection to this trend is: “If you don’t want the officer to shoot you, don’t resist arrest.”

There’s a lot to unpack for such a seemingly simple statement.

First, I advise people all the time when dealing with police officers to comply first, and complain later. Resisting arrest is a crime, and you can be convicted of resisting arrest even if there is no basis for the original arrest. It also undermines any false arrest claim you may want to bring later on.

Complying with the police and not resisting puts you in the best position to maintain both your physical safety and your legal rights. Tragically, however, it is no guarantee you won’t be the victim of police brutality anyway.

A Crucial Distinction

That being said, it is crucial to distinguish between common-sense advice to civilians dealing with police officers, and the obligations and requirements of police officers under the U.S. Constitution and applicable policies and standards.

Resisting arrest, or failing to obey an officer’s orders, are inadvisable. But they are not excuses for the officer to use any level of force he chooses to. They do not justify the use of excessive or deadly force.

Resisting Arrest is No Excuse for Police Brutality

Let’s go over the controlling standards for police use of force. These standards illustrate when police use of force becomes illegal police brutality.

Police Brutality & Resisting Arrest

An officer’s allowable use of force is subject to strict rules and criteria. These rules are primarily based on the United States Constitution, federal and state statutes, and police department policies and orders.

An officer’s use of force will always be based on the actions of the subject, i.e. the civilian. The greater the resistance and/or the threat by the civilian, the greater force the officer is allowed to use. 

The term “resisting arrest” includes a somewhat broad range of actions.

You can resist arrest by simply refusing to do what the officer tells you to do, by refusing to put your arms behind your back to be handcuffed, or by not exiting your car if the officer orders you to do so. This is known as “passive resistance”. This allows the officer to use the level of force necessary to get the subject into custody. This might include using his hands to bring the subject’s arms behind his back to handcuff him, or to pull the subject out of the car.   

If a subject actively resists arrest, for instance by physically preventing an officer from putting his hands behind his back, by tensing his body, or by walking or running away from an officer, he becomes an “active resister”

This increase in resistance allows the officer to use a greater level of force, but only enough force necessary to get the subject into custody.  Depending on the circumstances, the officer can use such nonlethal force as pain techniques, baton or asp (like a billy club) strikes, open-hand strikes (i.e. slaps), and even fists.

Reasonably Necessary Force

But these elements of force must still be reasonably necessary to get the subject into custody based on the specific facts of the situation.  An officer cannot punch a subject if the subject is merely moving his arms to prevent himself from being handcuffed.

And it should go without saying that an officer cannot use deadly force simply to get a subject into custody. The primary justification for the use of deadly force by an officer is that the officer reasonably believes a person poses an imminent threat of serious physical harm or death to the officer or others in the vicinity.

A jury would analyze whether a reasonable officer would have believed the same thing in the same circumstances. If they deem the officer was unreasonable in his belief, he has used unreasonable force.

Bottom Line: Police Use of Force Must Always be Reasonable

Any use of force that is not reasonably necessary to gain compliance is a violation of the subject’s constitutional rights. And that’s regardless of whether the person was resisting at the time.

The fact that a subject resists arrest, or doesn’t comply, does not release the officer from his legal obligations. He must follow the Constitution, applicable laws, or police department policies with respect to the use of force.

The problem with glib headlines like “If you don’t want the officer to shoot you, don’t resist arrest” is that they can blur the line between common sense advice and the police’s legal obligations. Law enforcement officers can only use a certain amount of force depending on that situation. Too often, we’ve seen moderate resistance by a civilian result in profoundly disproportionate and unreasonable force by an officer.

Simple noncompliance is never an excuse for excessive or deadly force.  


If you believe you or someone you know has been the victim of false arrest, police brutality, excessive force, or any other legal or constitutional violation, contact Chicago civil rights attorney Jordan Marsh for a free consultation at (224) 220-9000, or by email at

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