The use of excessive force by police organizations around the world as a crime control mechanism has been widely criticized and debated for many years. Many ask, what exactly is excessive force? What causes an officer to use excessive force and is it justified? There is much ambiguity when it comes to answering such questions. Your perception will undoubtedly create your expectation and too many times one’s failure to acknowledge, ‘the other side of the story,’ causes a misperception. How big of a role do the media play in portraying police use of excessive force as fair or unnecessary? These are all valid questions that will be addressed in this analysis as well as what is being done to address the situation. We begin with the definition of excessive force as provided by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, “excessive force is the amount of effort required by police to compel compliance by an unwilling suspect” (Police use of Force, 2009). That is, police will turn to excessive force when an individual has been uncooperative. Some argue that the police’s most defining feature is their capacity to use coercive force (Katz & Walker, 2008).
Police use of force may include physical force as well as the power to arrest, but most importantly the power to use deadly force. It is important to keep in mind that there are laws set in place to limit the amount of force an officer uses, including excessive force. Such laws have allowed for better policing practices and an improved police/community relationship. Although police use of excessive force still arises from time to time, the number of incidents has dropped dramatically over the years. According to a study done in the years 1999 and 2000 of calls for service, force was used by police in less than one percent of the calls (Police use of Force, 2009). In actuality, the police spend most of their shift serving their community as peacekeepers as well as helping others. So what drives a sworn police officer to use excessive force? The answer to this question is not a simple one, and rightfully so. Some argue that discrimination, stereotyping and the environment in which an officer may patrol can contribute to the use of excessive force. People call the police because they want an officer to settle a problem: to arrest someone, to get someone to calm down, or to have someone removed from the home (Katz & Walker, 2008).
In other words, police are constantly put in volatile situations where the people they are dealing with can become a danger to the officer who is responding to a call and there is no telling what someone might do at any given moment. Often times when an officer has been dispatched to a scene, particularly an altercation, tempers are already flaring and what would normally be a situation calling for a simple mediation performed by the officer can easily escalate to the citizen resisting arrest for fear of going to jail, not knowing that the police is just trying to calm down the individual in order to assist with the situation more accurately. Situations like these are all too common and police can feel very much unappreciated and a sense of disrespect on behalf of those they serve. This frustration often times lead to a small number of officers easily losing their temper when confronting citizens in future instances. It must be pointed out that such instances are rare, but still do arise from time to time. As a retired police lieutenant reflecting on his career put it, ‘The majority of cops were good, hardworking, conscientious individuals.
They cared, and they wanted to do a good job. But there were enough cops—not one rotten apple, but several rotten apples—to give law enforcement the taint it had received’ ((Retired), 2000). The media, which include movies, television shows, and news organizations, have a lot of power when it comes to portraying the police as good or evil. Given the considerable ambiguity that surrounds the issue, whether police use of force is presented as police brutality and whether brutality is understood as a problem depend greatly upon which voices and views the media emphasize (Lawrence, 2000). It is the media who determine what the general public learns about street cops’ daily experience with criminals and the underclass, as well as what the middle-class public learns about other groups’ experiences with police (Lawrence, 2000). A perfect example is the famous reality television program, ‘Cops,’ where camera crews participate in ride-along assignments and capture real life drama from the police officer’s viewpoint. News headlines are one of the most, if not the most, influential media forms influencing public opinion and attitude towards law enforcement.
As the lawyer for a Miami policeman acquitted in the shooting death of a black motorcyclist—an acquittal that touched off days of rioting—indignantly told reporters, “If the headlines read, ‘Twice-convicted drug dealer shot while trying to run over officer,’ there wouldn’t have been any riots” (Lawrence, 2000). So the question arises, what is being done to address the situation with police use of excessive force? History has shown that policing systems and strategies can and do change. One way the situation has been dealt with in recent years is with the creation of local citizen oversight groups where complaints by citizens are reviewed to determine whether the action taken by the officer towards the individual filing the complaint was caused by a lack of policy, or a bad policy, on behalf of the police department in which case a recommendation for a new policy is sent to the department.
Another way that police departments are dealing with the situation is by mounting video recorders on patrol cars as well as working with the local media and using them as a way of checks and balances. There is also the case for higher education for police officers. The subject matter of higher education as a requirement for police officers is a hot debate topic today. Study has shown that higher educated cops receive fewer complaints than those with less education (Victor E. Kappeler, 1992).
(Retired), L. A. (2000). From the Inside Looking Out. In J. Nelson, Police Brutality (p. 265). New York: Norton. Katz, C. M., & Walker, S. (2008). The Police In America. New York: McGraw-Hill. Lawrence, R. G. (2000). The Politics of Force. Los Angeles: University of California Press. Police use of Force. (2009, August 04). Retrieved March 19, 2010, from National Institute of Justice web site: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij/topics/law-enforcement/use-of-force/welcome.htm#note1 Victor E. Kappeler, D. C. (1992). Police Officer Higher Education, Citizen Complaints, and Departmental Rule Violation. American Journal of Police , 37-54.
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