We are all familiar with the use of excessive force by today’s police departments as we are witness to it time and time again on our television sets, in the safety of our homes. We see the police dragging a helpless victim from their vehicle, throwing them to the ground and proceeding to beat them senseless, seemingly unaware of a bystander’s video camera capturing the entire scene on tape to be replayed time and time again.
The question becomes whether the police officers are reacting to an increased demand by the public to be protected by our men in blue, or whether these officers are simply abusing the power given them by the very public they are bound to protect.
Is it a widespread problem, or one in which a few bad police officers make all the good ones look equally guilty? The general consensus seems to be that today’s police officers are indeed going much further in their quest for justice than is necessary, and that they are also protected from the consequences of their actions in ways the average citizen is not.
The Use of Excessive Force by Police Officers
In today’s world, the use of excessive force by police officers seems to be such a common occurrence that we barely give it our attention when it comes on the news. The Rodney King beating on television came before the phenomenon was so common, and people found themselves glued to their television sets in disbelief, unable to imagine such a thing happening in our United States.
Since that time police brutality is likely reported somewhere in the United States on a daily basis, and the especially brutal incidents make it to the national news to be shown again and again. Unfortunately, unless it happens to be in our own neighborhood, or worse, is directed toward a friend or family member, we barely give it a second thought, shrugging our shoulders and going blithely about our own lives. When did the brutalization of citizens by those we have trusted to “protect and serve,” become so commonplace, and why are we not more morally outraged by this issue?
While police officers in the United States are authorized to use both psychological and physical force in order to apprehend criminals and solve crimes, the use of physical force, perhaps because it leaves visible scars, is the much more talked-about type of force. As far back as the early 1980’s, the United States Civil Rights Commission reviewed the use of police force and reported that Police possess “awesome powers.”
“They perform their duties under hazardous conditions and with the vigilant public eye upon them. Police officers are permitted only a margin of error in judgment under conditions that impose high degrees of physical and mental stress. Their general responsibility to preserve peace and enforce the law carries with it the power to arrest and to use force—even deadly force.” (Alpert 2002 p. 1).
The problem with this report was that no one attempted to define excessive force more
specifically, or to address and explain the fact that their are certain situations in which police officers go beyond the necessary force that is actually needed to achieve the desired result. Because of this, there are not the kind of compiled statistics we would expect to find on the use of excessive force by the police and in most cases, only the incidences of excessive force that are likely to have caused the death of the victim are actually looked at. (Alpert, 2002 p. 1).
A very rough estimate of police brutality hovers around 5.1% of all citizen contacts with the police, and over one-third of all use of force incidents could actually be classified as excessive. (Alpert 2002 p. 2). A serious problem exists in our “reasonable” standard, because there is such a wide variance in what is believed to be “reasonable.” Police officers seem to have difficulty in assessing what is good police work and when force can be considered excessive. Most accusations of excessive force are categorically denied at the department level, although one explanation for this may simply be that the police officers band together, closing ranks as it were, to protect their fellow officers.
While we certainly see our share of police brutality on television during the nighttime news, there is likely much that we do not see. There tends to be a bit of a sympathetic relationship between the press and police officers, because in some ways the police, by allowing access to crime scenes and such, allow the reporter to do their own job. In other words, the police are much better as friends of the press than foes. (Irwin 2002 p. 1). Consider that in 1977 and 78, Wayne Satz who was a reporter for KABC-TV in Los Angeles aired a series of reports alleging numerous instances of police abuse, even some involving the shooting of unarmed suspects.
While this series earned the Peabody award, it also earned the wrath of two Los Angeles police chiefs who were so furious at the footage that Satz began not only receiving anonymous death threats, but officers in the LA area were using his likeness on the targets of their pistol ranges.(Irwin 2002 p. 2). This kind of banding together by the police to protect their own from outside scrutiny has likely at least slowed the press from airing tapes of police beating unarmed suspects.
Consider also, that there are few consequences to police officers who use excessive force. The United States Supreme Court decision in 1987 in the case of Creighton v Anderson effectively provided immunity from personal liability to officers whose actions did not violate “clearly established” law.
“The essential issue after Anderson, however, has been what the clearly established law was at the time of the officer’s actions…The lower federal courts are split on the question of whether an officer who uses force which has been determined after the fact to be excessive can assert an objective good faith as a defense and avoid personal liability.” (Alpert, 2002 p. 3).
Hans J. Massaquoi states the issue in much stronger terms, showing that his belief is that the brutality exhibited by the police departments of today is deliberate and calculated, rather than random situations that have escalated out of control. Mr. Massaquoi says bluntly, “Instead, too many of American cities’ “finest” are unfeeling bullies who take out their frustration, racial hatred and contempt for society’s less fortunate on defenseless citizens who, for one reason or another, rub them the wrong way.” (Massaquoi 2002 p. 1).
Even though at a police brutality summit in New York City the police officers gathered there concluded that “the police cannot violate the law in order to enforce it,” there is little evidence that these same officers have “put their money where their mouth is.”
Chicago Police Superintendent Leroy Martin, who attended this summit stated that one way of reducing police brutality is simply to increase the educational level in recruiting police officers. “if you recruit a better educated person, especially someone who has been college-educated….you recruit a person with a different mentality.” (Massaquoi 2002 p. 3). The reality, however, is that most police departments around the country require only a high school diploma or GED, and if you look closely at the backgrounds of these people you will find that many of them come from troubled homes and have problems of their own. (Massaquoi 2002 p. 3).
There are those who resist publicizing the incidences of police brutality because they fear it will “further erode the public’s respect for police officers, and thus their effectiveness, by characterizing all cops as mean and unprofessional.” (Massquoi 2002 p. 1). Their theory is that the vast majority of police officers are dedicated public servants, putting their own lives on the line each and every day just to protect the rest of us, and that we should not let a few rotten apples spoil the public’s perspective on our police force in general.
William Tucker, in his article “Is Police Brutality the Problem,” comes down strongly on the side of the police department citing incident after incident in which the police were forced to use force simply to protect themselves or other citizens from harm. He states that “the serious complaints are often the work of criminals who are seeking some leverage in the charges against them. They file a complaint as soon as they are arrested and hope to use it as a trade off in bargaining their case.” (Tucker 2002 p. 4).
While the police force has certain alternatives to “deadly force,” many of these are nearly as serious as a bullet, such as beanbag rounds fired from a shotgun that leave serious bruises and cause extreme pain, stingballs used in grenades, stun guns which temporarily incapacitate without killing, or pepper spray and mace which temporarily blind the suspect. (Alexander 1999 p. 4). While all of these certainly have their place in the apprehension of serious criminals, the police departments must be trained and educated on the use of these alternatives so they are not misused.
The police force certainly does not want, nor feel they need, oversight leading to second-guessing in their jobs. While the police have no problem with installing cameras at intersections to catch speeders or those running red-lights, they resist cameras during interrogations.
Many times the only “watchdogs” the police have are the local jurisdictions, something many feel is ineffective because of the “incestuous relationship between local prosecutors and police.” (Maier 2002 p. 2). Because the local district attorneys need the police to make their cases, they often overlook incidences of police misconduct in order to protect the status quo. Police officers feel the district attorneys are part of their “good ‘ol boy” system, and thus it becomes an issue of one hand washes the other.
In conclusion, while it is certainly apparent that many police forces are abusing their powers and overusing force in their daily line of work, it is less apparent what the solution is. While both the laws and police policies limit officer’s use of unrestricted force, neither have been able to define the limits of reasonable force. (Alpert 2002 p. 4).
Excessive force needs to be clearly defined as opposed to reasonable force, and police officers need to have more education in the application of force and the appropriateness of the amount of force in relation to the specific situation. While a college education for police officers is not likely to be a requirement any time soon, departments need to make sure their officers are properly trained and educated and that the psychological reviews of the individual police officers are taken seriously. Excessive force is a serious issue that demands serious solutions by those in power.
Alexander, John B. (October, 1999). Nonlethal Weapons: When Deadly Force is Not Enough.
From The Futurist, Volume 33, Issue 8.
Alpert, Geoffrey P., (2002). How Reasonable is the Reasonable Man? Police and Excessive
Force. From The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. Volume 85, Issue 2, Page
Irwin, Lew. (2002). Cops and Cameras: Why TV is Slow to Cover Police Brutality. From
Columbia Journalism Review. Volume 30. Issue 3.
Maier, Timothy W. (July 3, 2000). ‘Fed’ Up Police. From Insight on the News, volume 16, Issue
- Retrieved November 15, 2006 from:
Massaquoi, Hans J. (July 2002). How to Stop Police Brutality. From Ebony, Volume 46 Issue 9.
Tucker, William. (January, 1993). Is Police Brutality the Problem? From Commentary, Volume
95 Issue1. Retrieved November 16, 2006 from: