Police brutality is the abuse of authority by the unwarranted infliction of excessive force by personnel involved in various aspects of law enforcement while in performance of their official duties. The term is also applied to abuses by corrections personnel in municipal, state and federal penal facilities including military prisons.
While the term police brutality is usually applied in the context of causing physical harm, it may also involve psychological harm through the use of intimidation tactics beyond the scope of officially sanctioned police procedure. In the past those who engaged in police brutality may have acted with the implicit approval of the local legal system, e.g. during the Civil Rights era. In the modern era individuals who engage in cases of police brutality may do so with the tacit approval of their superiors or they may be rogue officers; in either case they may perpetrate their actions under color of law, and more often than not engage in a subsequent cover-up of their illegal activity.
The word “brutality” has several meanings; the sense used here (savage cruelty) was first used in 1633. The first known use of the term “police brutality” was in the New York Times in 1893, describing a police officer’s beating of a civilian.
Efforts to combat police brutality focus on various aspects of the police subculture, and the aberrant psychology which may manifest itself when individuals are placed in a position of absolute authority over others.
Numerous doctrines, such as federalism, separation of powers, causation, deference, discretion, and burden of proof have been cited as partial explanations for the judiciaries’ fragmented pursuit of police misconduct. However, there is also evidence that courts cannot or choose not to see systemic patterns in police brutality. Other factors that have been cited as encouraging police brutality include institutionalized systems of police training, management, and culture; a criminal-justice system that discourages prosecutors from pursuing police misconduct vigorously; a political system that responds more readily to police than to the residents of inner-city and minority communities; and a racist political culture that fears crime and values tough policing more than it values due process for all its citizens. It is believed that without substantial social change, the control of police deviance is improbable at best.
In the United States, the passage of the Volstead Act (popularly known as the National Prohibition Act) in 1919 had a long-term negative impact on policing practices. By the mid-1920s, crime was growing dramatically in response to the demand for illegal alcohol. Many law enforcement agencies stepped up the use of unlawful practices. By the time of the Hoover administration (1929–1932), the issue had risen to national concern and a National Committee on Law Observation and Enforcement (popularly known as the Wickersham Commission) was formed to look into the situation. The resulting “Report on Lawlessness in Law Enforcement” (1931) concluded that “[t]he third degree–that is, the use of physical brutality, or other forms of cruelty, to obtain involuntary confessions or admissions–is widespread.” In the years following the report, landmark legal judgements such as Brown v. Mississippi helped cement a legal obligation to respect the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Police brutality can be associated with racial profiling. Differences in race, religion, politics, or socioeconomic status sometimes exist between police and the citizenry. Some police officers may view the population (or a particular subset thereof) as generally deserving punishment. Portions of the population may perceive the police to be oppressors. In addition, there is a perception that victims of police brutality often belong to relatively powerless groups, such as minorities, the young, and the poor.
Civil Rights era
The African-American Civil Rights Movement has been the target of numerous incidents of police brutality in its struggle for justice and racial equality, notably during the Birmingham campaign of 1963–64 and during the Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965. Media coverage of the brutality sparked national outrage, and public sympathy for the movement grew rapidly as a result. Martin Luther King Jr. criticized police brutality in speeches. During this time, the Black Panther Party (BPP) formed in response to police brutality from disproportionately white police departments that were perceived as oppressing black communities. The conflict between the BPP and various police departments often resulted in violence with the deaths of 34 members of the BPP and 15 police officers.
In the United States, race and accusations of police brutality continue to be closely linked, and the phenomenon has sparked a string of race riots over the years. Especially notable among these incidents was the uprising caused by the arrest and beating of Rodney King on March 3, 1991 by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department. The atmosphere was particularly volatile because the brutality had been videotaped by a bystander and widely broadcast afterwards. When the four law enforcement officers charged with assault and other violations were acquitted, the 1992 Los Angeles Riots broke out.
During the Vietnam War, anti-war demonstrations were sometimes quelled through the use of billy-clubs and tear gas. The most notorious of these assaults took place during the August 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The actions of the police were later described as a “police riot” in the Walker Report to the U.S. National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence.
War on drugs
As was the case with Prohibition during the 1920s and 1930s, the “War on Drugs” initiated by President Richard M. Nixon in 1969 has been marked by increased police misconduct. Critics contend that a “holy war” mentality has helped to nurture a “new militarized style of policing” where “confrontation has replaced investigation.”
Numerous human rights observers have raised concerns about increased police brutality in the U.S. in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. An extensive report prepared for the United Nations Human Rights Committee tabled in 2006 states that in the United States, the “War on Terror” has “created a generalized climate of impunity for law enforcement officers, and contributed to the erosion of what few accountability mechanisms exist for civilian control over law enforcement agencies. As a result, police brutality and abuse persist unabated and undeterred across the country.”
Other studies have shown that most police brutality goes unreported. In 1982, the federal government funded a “Police Services Study,” in which over 12,000 randomly selected citizens were interviewed in three metropolitan areas. The study found that 13.6 percent of those surveyed claimed to have had cause to complain about police service (including verbal abuse, discourtesy and physical abuse) in the previous year. Yet only 30 percent of those who acknowledged such brutality filed formal complaints. A 1998 Human Rights Watch report stated that in all 14 precincts it examined, the process of filing a complaint was “unnecessarily difficult and often intimidating.”
Statistics on the use of physical force by law enforcement are available. For example, an extensive U.S. Department of Justice report on police use of force released in 2001 indicated that in 1999, “approximately 422,000 people 16 years old and older were estimated to have had contact with police in which force or the threat of force was used.” Research shows that measures of the presence of black and Hispanic people and majority/minority income inequality are related positively to average annual civil rights criminal complaints.
Recent Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports confirm that prison guard brutality is common in the U.S. A 2006 Human Rights Watch report revealed that five state prison systems permit the use of aggressive, unmuzzled dogs on prisoners as part of cell removal procedures.
In the United States, investigation of cases of police brutality has often been left to internal police commissions and/or district attorneys (DAs). Internal police commissions have often been criticized for a lack of accountability and for bias favoring officers, as they frequently declare upon review that the officer(s) acted within the department’s rules, or according to their training. For instance, an April, 2007 study of the Chicago Police Department found that out of more than 10,000 police abuse complaints filed between 2002 and 2003, only 19 (0.19%) resulted in meaningful disciplinary action. The study charges that the police department’s oversight body allows officers with “criminal tendencies to operate with impunity,” and argues that the Chicago Police Department should not be allowed to police itself. Only 19% of large municipal police forces have a civilian complaint review board (CCRB). Law enforcement jurisdictions that have a CCRB have an excessive force complaint rate against their officers of 11.9% verses 6.6% complaint rate for those without a CCRB. Of those forces without a CCRB only 8% of the complaints were sustained and the compliment (92%) were dismissed. Thus, for the year 2002, the rate at which police brutality complaints were sustained was 0.53% for the larger police municipalities nationwide.
The ability of district attorneys to investigate police brutality has also been called into question, as DAs depend on help from police departments to bring cases to trial. It was only in the 1990s that serious efforts began to transcend the difficulties of dealing with systemic patterns of police misconduct.
Beyond police departments and DAs, mechanisms of government oversight have gradually evolved. The Rodney King case triggered the creation of the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department, informally known as the Christopher Commission, in 1991. The commission, mandated to investigate the practices of the LAPD, uncovered disturbing patterns of misconduct and abuse, but the reforms it recommended were put on hold. Meanwhile, media reports revealed a frustration in dealing with systemic abuse in other jurisdictions as well, such as New York and Pittsburgh. Selwyn Raab of the New York Times wrote about how the “Blue Code of Silence” among police officers helped to conceal even the most outrageous examples of misconduct.”
Within this climate, the police misconduct provision of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 was created, which authorized the Attorney Manager to “file lawsuits seeking court orders to reform police departments engaging in a pattern or practice of violating citizens’ federal rights.” As of January 31, 2003, the Department of Justice has used this provision to negotiate reforms in eleven jurisdictions across the U.S. (Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, Steubenville Police Department, New Jersey State Police, Los Angeles Police Department, District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department, Highland Park, Illinois Police Department, Cincinnati Police Department, Columbus Police Department, Buffalo Police Department, Mount Prospect, Illinois Police Department, and the Montgomery County, Maryland Police Department).
Copwatch is a U.S.-based network of organizations that actively monitors and videotapes the police to prevent police brutality.
It has been noted that local media rarely report scandals involving out-of-town police unless events make it onto a network videotape. There is often a dramatic increase in unfavorable attitudes toward the police in the wake of highly publicized events such as the Rampart scandal and the killings of Amadou Diallo and Patrick Dorismond in New York City. Experiments have shown that when viewers are shown footage of police arrests, they may be more likely to perceive the police conduct as brutal if the arresting officers are caucasian.
Public opinion polls following the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles and the killing of Malice Green in Detroit indicate that the incidents appear to have had their greatest effect on specific perceptions of the way local police treat blacks, and markedly less effect on broader perceptions of the extent of discrimination against them.
Legal and institutional controls
Laws intended to protect against police abuse of authority include the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution – protects against unreasonable searches and seizures; the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which includes the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses; the Civil Rights Act of 1871; and the Federal Tort Claims Act. The Civil Rights Act has evolved into a key U.S. law in brutality cases. However, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 has been assessed as ultimately ineffective in deterring police brutality. Judges often give police convicted of brutality light sentences on the grounds that they have already been punished by damage to their careers. Much of this difficulty in combating police brutality has been attributed to the overwhelming power of the stories mainstream American culture tells about the encounters leading to police violence.
Surveys of police officers found that police brutality, along with sleeping on duty, was viewed as one of the most common and least likely to be reported forms of police deviance other than corruption.
- Police misconduct
- Pitchess motion
- Proactive policing
- List of killings by law enforcement officers in the United States
- List of cases of police brutality in the United States
- Torture in the United States
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- PoliceCrimes.com – news on police brutality and other police misconduct
- Stolen Lives Project – project documenting cases of killings by U.S. law enforcement
- San Jose police to investigate brutality claim
- Pickets, Riots & Police Beatings – The 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City – by documentary filmmaker Justin Nathanson