What Does the Duty to Intervene Really Mean?

Law enforcement officers have a duty to intervene when they have an opportunity to prevent another officer from using unlawful force. That duty comes from multiple sources, including federal constitutional law, a new state statute, and, in some cases, agency policy. But what does the duty require in practice? Is verbal intervention enough, or must the officer attempt to intercede physically? What if the officer has competing obligations, such as keeping control of an unruly scene? And what should an officer do if he or she isn’t sure whether the amount of force another officer is using is appropriate? This post will address how officers and agencies might operationalize the duty to intervene.

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New Requirement that Law Enforcement Officers Intervene and Report Excessive Use of Force

The North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice recommended in a 2020 report that state and local law enforcement agencies enact policies requiring officers to intervene in and report about circumstances in which a law enforcement officer witnesses excessive use of force or abuse of a suspect or arrestee. The North Carolina Sheriff’s Association similarly recommended in a 2020 report that all law enforcement agencies and the North Carolina Law Enforcement Accreditation Program adopt a policy requiring an officer to intervene when necessary to prevent another officer from using excessive force and to report any such intervention. This session, the General Assembly imposed such duties as a matter of state law rather than agency policy. This post will discuss current statutory law governing officer’s use of force and recent amendments enacted by S.L. 2021-137 (H 536) and S.L. 2021-138 (S 300).

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