Most of us have seen the videotape of police officers savagely beating Rodney King. But how typical was this behavior? The Rodney King incident is not representative of most police officers around the country. Television shows, newscasts, and written media exacerbate the problem when they do not focus on the criminal as the root of the problem. “[C]urrent images of the police are drawn largely from television programs bearing little resemblance to reality” (Delattre 29). Police brutality is a matter of serious concern, but it is not as prevalent as the media would have us believe. Police brutality is not a national crisis.
Rodney King has become synonymous with police brutality. But what is police brutality? Bornstein states that “[p]olice brutality is the use of excessive force by police officers” (39). Most police are trained to use only the minimum amount of force necessary to control a given situation. The decision to use force is often made on a split second basis usually under difficult circumstances. The boundaries between justified and excessive force can sometimes be blurred under these circumstances. Under one set of circumstances, a particular action might be considered justified, but under differing circumstances, the same action might be considered brutality.
Most cops do not like to hurt people; “…cops sometimes use unnecessary force. They also use extraordinary restraint” (Sulc 80). Many police officers feel anguish after using fully justified force; few take pleasure in it. There are great strains on individual police officers: competing responsibilities, values, temptations, fears, and expectations. Police officers are called on to be patient mediators, skilled therapists, effective admonishers, daring crime fighters, obedient members of paramilitary agencies, etc.
In the midst of these requirements is the violence inherent in police work. Police officers often witness women battered by husbands and boyfriends, children burned and broken by parents, pedestrians maimed by drunk drivers, teachers raped by students, and innocent strangers savaged by predators in our streets. Even so, most police do not have a bunker mentality. They go on the force knowing what they will have to encounter. They like their jobs and are ready and able to stand the pressure–usually. Some police adjust poorly to the pressures of police work. They become cynical from the danger, the perceived failure of the system, and the repetitiveness of their work. Some police officers despair over the violence, suffering, hopelessness, and ignorance they encounter every day. Even so, the majority of police officers continue the performance of their duties without resorting to brutality. In spite of the seriousness of the publicized incidents, far more serious than police brutality is the frequency of assault and murder perpetrated against the police.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Police Use of Force, 44.6 million people, or 21% of the population had face to face contact with police during 1996. Police contacts that resulted in the use of force or the threat of force totaled only five hundred thousand, or one percent of the total. Often times the use of force was preceded by some provocative action. Criminals often threaten the officer, assault the officer, argue or interfere with an arrest, posses a weapon, try to escape, elude, or resist arrest. After accounting for justified use of force, which is inherent in police work, less than one quarter of one percent of police contacts resulted in questionable use of force.
This is hardly an epidemic. “Given the small number of cases, a preliminary conclusion that could be drawn is that use of force is rare in police-citizen contacts and it is often accompanied…by some possibly provocative behavior” (Police 14). On the flip side, if the media cares to report the flip side, 46,695 police officers were assaulted in 1996 (United States 65), resulting in 14,985 injuries and 55 deaths (United States 3). The statistics show that police officers are brutalized three thousand seven hundred and sixty times more frequently than criminals are.
Americans are well served with professional dedication and with frequent instances of physical courage. The people who stand between violence and the public are the police. Sometimes criminals do not want to cooperate, but police are still expected to arrest them. Most police officers abhor violence and despise fellow officers who use excessive force. Police brutality is not the epidemic we are led to believe it is. Let police do their job, if they violate the law, prosecute them as individuals without condemning every police officer in the country.
Borenstein, Jerry. Police Brutality. New Jersey: Enslow, 1993.
Delattre, Edwin J. Character and Cops: Ethics in Policing. Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute of Public Policy Research, 1989.
“Police Use of Force” Bureau of Justice Statistics Website. 22 November 1998.
Sulc, Lawrence. “Police Brutality Is Not a Widespread Problem.” Policing the Police. Ed. Paul A. Winters. San Diego: 1995. 79.
United States. Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Investigation, Criminal Justice Information Services Division. Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted. Washington, DC: GPO, 1997