Police Brutality

Police Brutality


The police force is an arm of the criminal justice system. One of their functions is to help in the maintenance of peace and order within the community. Some patrol the streets for the purpose of achieving high police visibility while some stay in the police department to respond to calls for assistance coming from the locals of a community. In case a crime is committed in their presence or when responding to calls for assistance, their task is to apprehend these criminals.

The Police Officers may also be deployed in cases of mass demonstrations. In democratic countries the people air their grievances by conducting mass rallies and demonstrations after they have secured the necessary clearances from the government. The function of the police officers deployed to places where mass demonstrations are being held is to ensure that the people stay within the area covered by their permit. They also seek to ensure that people do not commit any criminal acts or disturb the peace and order of the city. In case the demonstrators commit any violations the task of police officers is to apprehend them.

Concerns have been raised on the issue of the use of force by the police in performing their functions. There are those who say that police brutality is a general trend in our society. They say that the use of excessive force by the law enforcement officers is a violation of the human rights. Research shows that in the Los Angeles Police Department and the Cincinnati Police Department alone, these two cities have spent a total amount of $63.4 million from 1990-1999 for judgments or settlements in civil liability lawsuits involving use of excessive force by a male officer while they have spent $2.8 million for excessive force involving a female police officer. (Male, Women and Police Excessive Force: A Tale of Two Genders, p.3)

On the other hand, these police officers defend themselves by declaring that these are isolated events and that the use of force was reasonable. Studies (2005) show that from 1968 to 1975, an average of 483 persons per year were shot dead by police rounds. That average has dropped significantly since then. Overall, the annual average of lethal shootings is down 33% since 1968. (Destroying Myths & Discovering Cold Facts About Controversial Force Issues, p.3)

This research paper is concerned with the issue of police brutality. Police Brutality is a term that is very emotionally charged and needs to be clarified. A distinction will be made between the use of reasonable force and the imposition of excessive force amounting to police brutality. In the concluding part of this paper I aim to take my stand on this issue.

Police Brutality

Police brutality is a term used to describe the excessive use of physical force, assault, verbal attacks, and threats by police officers and other law enforcement officers. (Police Brutality) It may come in the form of unjustified shooting, severe beatings, fatal choking, and unnecessarily rough treatment, misuse of baton, and chemical sprays. Police brutality happens not only in the streets but it may also happen inside the prison walls involving convicted defendants. Cases of police brutality have been reported not only in rural areas, but also in suburban and urban areas as well. Research shows that between Dec. 2005 and Dec. 2006, police misconduct complaints received from around the country have increased by 40 percent, from 239 to 336. (Hazel Trice Edney, 2006 p.2)

Ambrose Bierce once described the police as “an armed force for protection and participation.” (Use of Force by Police: Overview of National or Local Data) If we are to dissect this definition then this means that the law enforcement officers or the police are given guns and other weapons in the performance of their functions. Consequently if they have guns then they are also allowed to utilize the same not only in the performance of their functions but also in the defense of their lives and limbs.

The second term is protection. One of the most important functions of law enforcement officers is the protection of life and property. If necessary they are also allowed to make use of reasonable force to achieve this objective. The third term is participation. Law enforcement officers are not detached from the society but are part of the society. It is as if an implied contract is created whereby the police was entrusted with the duty of serving the society by protecting them. In return, the society thereby respects the authority and power of the police officers.

These are the same reasons why police abuse and police brutality are emotionally charged terms. As the only people entitled to carry guns and utilize them, the law enforcement officers have the responsibility to use these weapons properly. Any improper use of these weapons may definitely cause injury and damage to life and property. As the protectors of the people and the guardians of peace, every reported act of violence or use of force committed by law enforcement officers generate not only fear but also feelings of betrayal. The citizens, especially the helpless and the marginalized are the ones who immediately seek the assistance of law enforcement officers for their protection. It is therefore discouraging and disappointing to hear cases of police brutality and police abuse.

Crime is considered loathsome and hateful. They disrupt the peace of the community, adversely affect the quality of life of the people, and violate people’s freedom and rights. This however does not warrant the imposition of any physical punishment against the individual. Firstly, the individual is not yet convicted of any offense. Prior to his conviction, the individual is considered innocent and no form of punishment should be imposed upon him. Every person is presumed innocent unless proven otherwise in the court of law. The suspect is still entitled to avail for himself of any means by which he could defend himself. He is entitled to a competent counsel and is entitled to the benefits of the Miranda doctrine.

Any act of violence imposed by the law enforcement officers against civilians is a violation of Art. 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to wit: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” (Art 5, Universal Declaration of Human Rights) In 1998, Amnesty International released a report that

“There is a widespread and persistent problem of police brutality across the USA. Thousands of individual complaints about police abuse are reported each year and local authorities pay out millions of dollars to victims in damages after lawsuits. Police officers have beaten and shot unresisting suspects; they have misused batons, chemical sprays and electro-shock weapons; they have injured or killed people by placing them in dangerous restraint holds.” (Kate Randall, 1998, p.1)

Police brutality must be stopped also because of the pattern of racial discrimination every time a police officer unnecessarily uses force. Research shows that an overwhelming number of racial and ethnic minorities have fallen victims of police brutality. This is contrary to the spirit and intent of the United States Constitution which aimed to uphold equality and justice regardless of race or sex.

Even if the individual has already been convicted for commission of a crime and that he is already serving his sentence in jail, there is still no basis for inflicting any force and injury upon him. The Eighth Amendment to the U.S Constitution is very emphatic on this, to wit: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

Newspaper reports however state that there are five state prison systems in the United States that permit the use of aggressive, unmuzzled dogs to terrify and even attack prisoners in efforts to remove them from their cells. (US: Attack Dogs Used against Prisoners, 2006 p.1) It was reported that in Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, South Dakota and Utah, if a prisoner will not voluntarily leave his cell when ordered to do so, officers may bring a trained attack dog to the cell front to terrify the prisoner into compliance. If the prisoner still refuses, the dog is let into the cell to bite the prisoner. While the prisoner tries to fend off the dog, correctional officers place restraints on him and then remove him from the cell.

Police brutality undermines the trust and confidence of the public in the law enforcement officers. Police officers have the weapons necessary to protect peace and defend themselves. They are also empowered to employ appropriate force to protect society. The society trusts that these weapons and this power given to the police officers will be used to protect the society and the public, most especially the ethnic and the racial minorities. When this trust is abused by any act of employing excessive physical force or even verbal attacks, the public will lose their trust on the police officers. The possible repercussion of this is that the public may no longer cooperate with the police.

What adds to this problem of police brutality is the refusal of the high ranking public officials to admit that this problem exists in our society and that this problem must be immediately addressed. Consider Dr. Darell Ross, an Associate Professor at the CJ Department in the East Colombia University. He states that “In reality, Ross insists, officers’ use of force is miniscule in the totality of police-citizen contacts. Force incidents -both lethal and nonlethal – actually are down by significant percentages in recent years.

And the oft-repeated accusation that police deliberately and discriminatorily target racial minorities in employing force is not substantiated when important contextual information is taken into account. “(Are Cops Wild on the Streets? New Study says No Way! 2005, p.1) They say that some people who have political agenda of their own seek to “magnify this isolated issue.” It bears stressing that the act of police officers beating people up is a disturbing sight and strikes a chord in every person’s heart. It is something that should not happen. To say that recurring acts of police violence are merely isolated incidents is discouraging. These people only make the problem of police violence worse by not making the erring law enforcement officers accountable for their actions but they also encourage other police officers to do the same.

In Defense of the Necessity of Using Force

Before proceeding to a comprehensive discussion on the necessity of using force, there are a few principles that are presumed in this discussion. Police officers must respect and uphold the rule of law. In the performance of the functions of a law enforcement officer, the police officer must always bear in mind that this is a government of laws and not of men. His conduct must always be in keeping with the principle that no one man is above the law. The police officers owe to the public the foremost duty to obey the law so that the public may emulate their actions.

The second principle is that police officers support and respect the principles of integrity, respect for human dignity and rights. As police officers, they must always be at the forefront of treating every person with respect always keeping in mind that these people have their dignity. Though absolute goodness is not demanded from them, the people expect from them a standard of behavior that is above all other men. They are enjoined to live up to this standard otherwise the very basis of respect and trust upon which the law enforcement function is founded will be destroyed.

The third principle is that the law enforcement officers are given the license to use a particular level of force in making their arrests and in apprehending a suspect. Perhaps there is no job in this world more dangerous than the job of a police officer. Everyday he gets to deal with the bad elements of the society. It is part of the “implied contract” between the police officer and the public that he risks his life while in the performance of his function.

Because of the danger of the job and the fact that he deals with the lawless elements of the society that he is justified in making use of force, at times even deadly force, not only to faithfully perform his function but also to defend himself against his aggressors. Consider the Truro Police Department Manual provides for the use of deadly force by the police, it says that Officers shall not use deadly force, except to protect themselves or another person from imminent death or serious bodily injury. Officers may discharge their firearms only when so doing will not unreasonably endanger innocent persons.

There is no law that says that police officers should run away from an aggressor who violently resists an arrest nor is there any law that says that police officers should allow themselves to be injured or killed if the arrestee attempts to refuse arrest and fight the police officer in the course of an arrest.

It is now settled that law enforcement officers have the license to employ force, or even deadly force if necessary, in making an arrest. This is affirmed by John C. Hall (1995) in his article “Deadly Force: A Question of Necessity.” He states that Federal constitutional standards permit law enforcement officers to use deadly force to apprehend criminal suspects when there is probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm to the officer or to others and if deadly force is necessary to effect the apprehension. (p.1) The question left to be determined is when are they allowed to use force?

The governing law applicable in cases of whether the employment of force was justifiable prior to the arrest is the Fourth Amendment which is the right against unreasonable searches and seizure. It is necessary to refer to the rulings of the Supreme Court interpreting this provision. In the case of Graham v. Connor (1989), the Supreme Court ruled that there is no objective standard in determining whether the police officer should make use of reasonable force neither is the standard of reasonableness susceptible of any mechanical application. It added that the use of force depends on the “reasonableness of the use of force at the moment.” Equally important, the Court held that the inquiry must be limited to “the facts and circumstances confronting the officers to be determined from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight….” (Graham v. Connor 490 US 386, 1989)

According to John C. Hall (1997), the following factors are to be taken into consideration in determining whether the use of force was reasonable: a) the severity of the crime; 2) whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others; and 3) whether the suspect actively is resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight. (p.2)

The first is the severity of the crime. In cases where the police officer knows that the person about to be arrested has committed a grave crime such as assault against a police officer or manslaughter, it is reasonable to presume that the person about to be arrested is dangerous and that he will probably use violence in resisting arrest. In these cases, the police officer is justified in using violent force in effecting the arrest.

In the case of Dean v. City of Worcester, 924 F.2d 364 (1st Cir. 1991), police officers were in possession of a warrant to arrest a man with a previous history of violence. The police officers immediately seized the man who fit the description of the suspect, threw him to the ground and handcuffed him. It turned out that the police arrested the wrong suspect. The Supreme Court ruled that though the police officers arrested the wrong person, they were however justified in using force while effecting the arrest because of the suspect’s previous history.

The second is threat to the safety of the officers or others. Law enforcement officers have the duty not only to protect the public but to protect themselves as well from threats coming from lawless elements. The law does not wish to place the life and limb of the police officers in peril. As such they are given sufficient discretion to defend themselves if based on their assessment the nature of the danger is real and imminent.

There is likewise no objective standard in determining the realness and imminence of threat or danger to the police officer. It is true that an unarmed suspect does not present the same level of threat or danger compared to a suspect who is armed. It is however still possible that the police officers may be killed or seriously injured by an unarmed suspect.

Research shows that 10% of the officers killed by criminal assailants are shot with their own firearms. This is significant cause of concern since the public have this perception that if the suspect is unarmed then the police should not employ force. It is not always true that an unarmed suspect will not resist a police officer and engage the police officer in physical combat. If this happens and the suspect grabs hold of the gun of the police officer then that police officer’s life is in serious danger.

The perception of the public insofar as the use of violent force by the police officer is that the police officers have the obligation to choose the least deadly alternative. It must first be stressed that there is no law that requires law enforcement officers to first choose the least deadly alternative. Perfect equality between the weapon used by the police officer and the attacker is not essential because the police officer ordinarily does not have sufficient tranquility of mind to think, to calculate and to choose which weapons to use. Reasonableness does not mean material commensurability between the means of the attack and the defense.

It is only required that there be rational equivalence, in which the following factors must be considered: the emergency; the imminent danger to which the person attacked is exposed; and the instinct, more than reason, that moves or impels the defense; and the proportionateness thereof does not depend upon the harm done but rests upon the imminent danger of such inquiry. In the case of Scott v. Henrich 39 F.3d 912, police officers responded to a request for assistance coming from a witness who said that he heard a man fire a couple of shots.

When the officers knocked on the door of the apartment building and identified themselves, a man confronted them with a gun. One of the officers fired a shot and the other officer thinking that the suspect fired, shot and killed the suspect. The issue is whether the police officers should have used other alternatives which are least deadly. The Supreme Court ruled in this case ruled that to require the police officers to find and chose the least intrusive alternative would require them to exercise superhuman judgment.

In the heat of the battle with lives potentially lie in the balance, an officer would not be able to rely on training and common sense to decide what would best accomplish his mission. Instead, he would need to ascertain the least intrusive alternative (an inherently subjective determination) and choose that option and that option only. Imposing such a requirement would inevitably induce tentativeness by officers, and thus deter police from protecting the public and themselves. It would also entangle the courts in endless second-guessing of police decisions made under stress and subject to the exigencies of the moment.” (Scott v. Henrich)

The third factor to be considered in determining whether the use of force is reasonable is when the suspect is actively or passively resisting arrest or is attempting to evade arrest by flight. The most number of complaints for alleged human right violations of police officers are cases of police officers using force to suspects resisting arrest. Again, the Supreme Court has upheld the authority of the police officers in employing necessary force while making their arrest. In the case of Forrester v. City of San Diego 25 F. 3d 804, 805-806 (CA9 1994), there were several anti-abortion demonstrators ignoring the police command to disperse.

The police officers used every method possible to convince the protestors to disperse otherwise they may resort to the use of force if they refuse to do so. Because of their refusal to disperse the law enforcement officers used pain compliance technique to arrest several demonstrators. The issue is whether the police officers should have used other alternatives which are less painful and more reasonable.

The Supreme Court ruled that the force employed upon the demonstrators was not excessive or unreasonable since the tactic employed by police officers consisted only in administering physical pressure which resulted in pain. Further, in determining the reasonableness of the force employed the police officers are not required to use the least intrusive degree of force possible. (Forrester v. City of San Diego)

The Supreme Court issued the same ruling in the case of Mayard v. Howood, 105 F. 3d 1226 (8th Cir. 1997). In this case, Mayard was cited by the police officers for selling liquor without a license. At that time the police officers did not intend to make an arrest. However the suspect began screaming and shouting against them and become agitated. She was then escorted to the police car with a handcuff placed on her hand. When she refused to get inside the car, the police officers lifted her and placed her inside the car. They also placed a hobble restraint on her legs when she began kicking. The Supreme Court ruled that the force employed against her was objectively reasonable in view of her resistance. (Mayard v. Howood)


Police officers have the duty to protect the lives and the property of the public. In the protection of the life and property of the public they must always keep in mind the principle of the rule of law. No one man is above the law. They must always observe the principle of respect for the inherent dignity, integrity and rights of all people.

The responsibility falling upon the shoulders of the police is great but the law has given them sufficient discretion to determine their response to a particular situation. They were given ample discretion to determine the level of force they need to efficiently carry out their mission of protecting the public. In protecting the public, the law also enjoins them to protect themselves. Otherwise, if the law will not empower them to protect themselves then there may come a time when we no longer have police officers to protect our lives and property.

I believe that a significant number of cases of police brutality stem from a lack of understanding of the nature of police work. The law enforcement officers are empowered to employ force depending on the following circumstances: a) the severity of the crime; 2) the level of threat to the police officer and the public posed by the suspect; and 3) active resistance of the suspect in the course of an arrest or attempt to evade arrest by flight. The level of force they employ is always commensurate with the need for it. The public must realize that the police officers are merely performing their duty when they make their arrests and that the employment of force was merely reasonable.

Cited Works

Dean v. City of Worcester 924 F.2d 364 (1st Cir. 1991).

Edney, Hazel Trice. Police Brutality Charges on the Rise Nationwide. New America Media.

Forrester v. City of San Diego, 25 F. 3d 804, 805-806 (CA9 1994)

Graham v. Connor 490 US 386, 1989

Hall, John C. (1995) Deadly Force: A Question of Necessity. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. Retrieved February 28, 2007 from: https://www.lectlaw.com/files/cjs04.htm

Hall, John C. (1997) Police Use of Non Deadly Force to Arrest. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin.

Mayard v. Hopwood, 105 F. 3d 1226 (8th Cir. 1997)

“Men, Women and Gender: A Tale of Two Genders. A Content Analysis of Civil Liability Cases, Sustained Allegations and Civil Liability Complaints. (2002) The National Center for Women and Policing.

Scott v. Henrich, 39 F.3d 912

Use of Force by the Police: Overview of National and Local Data. Retrieved March 2, 2007 from: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/176330-1.pdf

“US:Attack Dogs Used Against Prisoners.” Human Rights News. Retrieved February 28, 2007 from: https://hrw.org/english/docs/2006/10/06/usdom14362.htm