Police Use of Excessive Force (Brutality)

My client was thrown to the ground by several officers. He was not resisting and in fact was screaming out Im not resisting over and over. Several officers were holding him down while a rather large officer jumped on his back and began driving his knee into the back of my clients head, crushing his face into the earth so he could not breathe. Each of these officers was kicking and punching my client repeatedly. Next, two officers stood on either side of my client and began kicking him as hard as they could in either side of his ribs until he passed out. They then threw him in the back of the paddy wagon and took him to the police station. The police eventually had no choice but to take him to the hospital after he complained of not being able to breath and began to spit blood.

Brian G. Thompson (Criminal Attorney), 2009

Owing to the nature and demands of their job, police officers have the power  the legal and moral right  to use force, including lethal force in justified circumstances, while performing their day-to-day duties. Normally, physical force is used by responsible officers in an appropriate and reasonable manner, as when making arrests, restraining aggressive suspects in an encounter, dealing with unruly mobs during a demonstration, handling misbehaving prisoners, or during an interrogation in order to elicit answers. Police officers not infrequently come across circumstances when the use of force in an appropriate measure is warranted. But unfortunately this power is often abused when the use of force becomes excessive either in warranted circumstances or in wholly unwarranted circumstances. Granted that there is usually a thin line between the use of force and excessive force in warranted circumstances, the police tend to go way past that line, and even more frequently use force in totally unjustified situations, apparently out of contempt for both law and fellow human beings.

The ruthless beating of a handcuffed prisoner, as described in the passage quoted above, is the most common manifestation of excessive force. Though many police departments have explicit policies that discourage the use of excessive force, traditionally the practice of brutality is readily accepted and condoned by police officers (Dantzker, 2005). As a consequence, the use of excessive force by police is widely prevalent, and even today only a relatively minor fraction of such blatantly brutal incidents come into the light of the media. One might even say that the incidents reported by the media are just tip of the iceberg, but they can still give us a notion of the horrible state of affairs concerning the degree and prevalence of brutality.

The 1991 case of Rodney King is one of the most well-known cases of police brutality, mainly because it was videotaped by a passerby. King was chased for refusing to pull over his car and apprehended. He appeared to be intoxicated, and was forcefully thrashed with batons for several minutes. King sustained serious injuries, but in their report the police dismissed the severity of these injuries and defended their actions by claiming that King had to be beaten as he attacked the officers and strongly resisted. The videotape, however, showed King in a totally defenseless position throughout the encounter. This incident was given much attention by the media and later led to LA riots. In another road incident, in 1998, a man suffering from a hypoglycemic shock was found driving on the wrong side of the road. Without inquiring into his condition, the police released a band of dogs into his car which horrifically mauled the driver. In 1997, a man named Abner Louima was believed to have assaulted a police officer and so underwent grueling torture in the hands of the police. When it was later found out that the person had nothing to do with hitting the police officer, the police tried to cover up the whole incident. In 1999, a man named Danny Dunn was arrested for public drunkenness and since he started shouting from his cell the police used pepper spray against in him, and in the helpless condition that he was in he was repeatedly hit and stomped upon and manhandled in various other ways. Dunn succumbed to his injuries in the hospital a few hours later, and the whole incident was filed off as an accident. The autopsy report revealed gruesome injuries throughout Dunns body including a torn liver and fractured skull.

Case after case such as these illustrate the monstrosity of the use of excessive use of force by the police. Sadly, the incidence of police brutality seems to have significantly increased after 911. The use of excessive violence happens particularly against blacks and other members of minority communities. Women of course tend to be particularly vulnerable to wanton violence inflicted upon them by the police officers, mainly in the form of rape and molestation though they too are not uncommonly beaten up. There are any number of brutality incidents that have come into public scrutiny in the past two decades, but it is really difficulty to gauge the true extent of police use of excessive force except by extrapolation from the known cases and surveys done on the public as well as professionals directly or indirectly involved with law enforcement. For example, a 2009 national survey of 315 ER physicians found that an overwhelming 98 of them believed to have handled at least a few patients subjected to police brutality, though most of these cases were not reported as being such.

Going by the savage stories that surface in media from time to time it would seem that the incidence of police brutality happens in exceptional cases, but going by the indications from other sources the use of excessive force by the police seems to have almost become a norm, more or less of a routine. Brutality seems to be endemic to the police culture in this nation, as it is even in quite a few other countries across the world. It is in this context that we have to investigate the causes and possible remedies for this form of rampant criminal activity, because police brutality is nothing but a form of widespread white collar crime that threatens the stability of our society, besides the untold pain it inflicts on individuals.

It must also be noted that though police brutality has become a serious social issue in the past decades, it has deep historical roots and is therefore that much difficult to eradicate. The U.S. police departments have been considered physically violent organizations ever since most of them were created in the 19th century. Way back in the late 1920s, the Wickersham Commission made an expos of several instances of police brutality and pointed out that the use of the third degree to extract confessions was not an uncommon practice (Siegel 2008). In those times when people had poor sense of civil rights, police brutality was especially marked and occurred on a large scale during public protests and labor strikes. In the 1960s, violence by the police was exacerbated during the civil rights movement, and later during the Vietnam War era as anti-war agitations intensified.

But it was during the 70s and 80s with the advent of war on drugs that the prevailing police ethos of anything goes seems to have emerged. The police have slowly cultivated a mentality of doing things simply going by their primal instincts of aggression, violence, hatred and lust (in cases dealing with females in custody) without considering the need to bring in their higher faculties of discrimination. There are some deep attitudinal problems here. The police may perceive themselves to be above law, as untouchables, or simply as superior human beings. Hence it is that even if there is some slightest deficiency in the level of respect they get from the people unfortunate enough to come into interaction with them, the police officers can wreak havoc.

It has been observed that police have an us vs. them attitude in dealing with offenders and suspects. They generally tend to see the world in black and white, unable to distinguish the shades of gray. The law enforcement officers are more likely to be found in the mode of confrontation than the mode of investigation while on duty or a particular mission. Therefore it becomes easy for them to put aside their rational faculties at the slightest provocation. This is in part because of the quasi-military type of organization the police which tries to inculcate military vales and philosophy. While there is much to be appreciated in the military system of values, it does not encourage discriminative faculties and tends to dumb down ones moral sensitivities.

The militaristic culture emerged strongly in the police departments during the 80s when a holy war mentality pervaded the police departments, in the context of war on drugs (Dempsey, Forst, 2010). Eight hundred years ago, when the European crusaders invaded Jerusalem they butchered every man and child in the whole city. These people could commit such an atrocity because every Muslim was thought to be a sinner and infidel and therefore worthy of dying. Similarly police fail to distinguish between degrees of misdemeanor, felony and crime, for them all criminals are the same. For the police a person speeding on the road and disobeying the order to pull over is perhaps as sinful as a serial killer. And as the police are often not smart enough to nab serial killers and real criminals they take their anger and frustration out on perpetrators of minor felonies. Police brutality thrives.

The trends of police brutality have particularly intensified since 911 after the passing of the Patriot Act which significantly curtailed civil liberties in this country (Greene, 2008). The worsening situation in regard to police brutality does not bode too well for the welfare of the society in the future. People are more and more perceiving police as the oppressors rather than as protectors, even in a perfectly democratic country like the US as if America was some small police state in the Third World. This is indeed a very deplorable situation. We must seriously consider the systemic factors responsible for breeding a culture of violence and animalistic brutality among the police in the hope of finding ways to curb the police use of excessive force.

No doubt, use of force and violence lies at the core of the police role. But the need of the hour is to impart upon police officers the skill and discriminative ability to channelize the force in a responsible manner in the execution of their duties. Though the use of excessive physical force seems to be raging on epidemic proportions and the instances of police brutality are proliferating, studies have shown that only a fraction of the police officers tend to habitually indulge in exhibiting excessively violent behavior (Siegel 2008).  Even in this group there are a few hard-core repeat offenders, and then there are those who sometimes give in to stress of the job and frustration at corruption or incompetence of the superiors or at the liberalness of the judges and take it out on whomever they get their hands on. As such, the phenomenon of police brutality is tied up with the whole of the police system and culture and cannot be effectively dealt with in isolation.

However, simple punitive and disciplinary measures can go some way in counteracting unwarranted brutalization of the victims by the police. To begin with, the repeat offenders can be simply culled out of the system. If the police officers can be made more accountable to the public and to their superiors in all their actions, it would naturally provide more incentive for these policemen to check their violent impulses. Lack of proper accountability is at the crux of the problem as also is lack of transparency and lax investigation procedures. Even in our age of communications where the presence of media is ubiquitous, the police somehow manage to keep most of their acts of brutality away from the public knowledge. Apparently, the organizational procedures that exist to ensure some kind of transparency of police actions within the four walls of the police station are very inadequate.

In the more recent years particularly, the war on terror has created an atmosphere of impunity for certain law enforcement agencies, and many bad apples within the system seem to be taking perfect advantage of it in realizing their sadistic fantasies of inflicting pain on others. According to a 2007 report prepared by a United Nations committee, even the few mechanisms of accountability and transparency that existed in the U.S. police departments have fallen into abeyance. The report concludes in strong words that police brutality and abuse persist unabated and undeterred across the country.  

It is only because the police officers are generally under the impression that they can get away with anything they do that they usually do not think twice before acting out in a brutal manner. Although the police departments have policies and rules that forbid the use of excessive force and can subject the police officers who indulge in it to disciplinary measures, these departments do not have proper investigative mechanisms in place which can establish the truth and nature of an atrocity. The investigative procedures can be easily subverted. And so it is that police abuse goes unpunished and because it goes unpunished and because police officers have great confidence in this system the levels of police brutality continue unabated or most probably keep on escalating.

A 2007 study of the Chicago Police Department found that out of a mammoth number of 10,149 complaints of police abuse that were filed between 2002 and 2004, only a miniscule number of 19 led to meaningful disciplinary action (Gallagher 2007). This is really an astounding statistic, but at the same time it is not all that surprising, considering this is exactly the reason why police brutality prevails in this country.  The meaningful disciplinary action too is most often meaningless, it simply means a few days of suspension, usually a week or two, in which the police officer can recoup his energies and come to the job with a fresh zeal to use excessive force, though this time he would try to do it with more circumspection. Maybe police see the use of excessive force as some kind of hobby that can indulged in sometimes for relaxation or excitement, in the same way as normal people indulge in binge drinking or binge shopping from time to time to get that extra kick.

Many thinkers on human nature have remarked that if there were no police we would all be robbers. Who is there among us who can say he would not steal under any circumstances even if he can be hundred percent certain that he would not be caught and the act of stealing involved no stress or risk of any kind It is simply the way we are, we can gravitate toward evil very easily for the sake for selfish profit or gratification. Similarly, it is of no use to find fault with the police. They can commit any atrocity that pleases their whim and fancy simply because they know beforehand that there is very little risk of being punished. To cite another everyday example, if students are allowed to cheat and copy as they like during an exam, it would be difficult to find more than a couple of students who would come to the exam well prepared and write the exam all on their own. Ideally we can envisage an education system where all the students are inspired by sincerity, honesty and passion for learning, but in practice this is very difficult to implement. The best way to prevent cheating during exams is by instilling the fear of suitable punishment and subsequent stigma attached to it. In the same manner, ideally the police organization and culture can be reformed so that all the police officers start behaving rationally and humanely. There is much room for educating and training police officers in a better manner. But for now such a transformation of the police organization can only remain a distant dream. Systemic changes are needed and can be achieved too, but it is a very long term process and we cannot depend on it to curtail the use of excessive force. What we can depend on though is bringing about more efficiency in the investigative processes and dealing commensurate punishment.

As the earlier cited study of the Chicago Police Department suggests, there should be independent oversight boards on police departments to monitor and investigate police abuse reports. This task should not be left entirely to the police itself. In the role of civilians and civilian watch bodies should increase. Also if the cost of civilian litigation proves too costly for the police department, there would be more pressure on the police officers to restrain the level of violence in their actions.  

In the final analysis, though, this situation cannot really receive a sufficient impetus to change unless there is a massive outcry against police atrocities. Unfortunately, over the years the public seems to have grown into an apathetic attitude of tolerance with regard to police brutality. The atmosphere of public indifference is the biggest encouragement to the use of excessive force by police. When some of the incidents of brutality that have happened in the past ten years come into light as they are bound to sooner or later, a mass revolt could follow, and unless that happens, things cannot really change for the better.

The tendency toward excessive use of physical force is deeply implanted in the entire police system and culture. Only an upheaval in the society can help the police organization to shake off brutality, corruption, incompetence and many such undesirable elements all of which are tied up with one another. Hopefully, we are very close to that critical point where a turn-about can take place.


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