Police Brutality

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. 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.

The use of excessive violence seems to happen particularly against blacks and other members of minority communities, though usually because of circumstantial reasons rather than any systematic racial prejudice. Studies have shown the lack of any marked racist tendencies among the police (MacDonald, 2003). Women too tend to be particularly vulnerable to unrestrained violence inflicted upon them by the police officers, in the form of rape and molestation. There are any number of brutality incidents that have come into public scrutiny in the past two decades. However, it is really difficult to gauge the true extent of police use of excessive force except by extrapolation from the known cases and surveys, such as those done on the public or on the 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, despite the fact that most of these cases were not reported as being such (Johnson).

There are some systemic problems with the police. For example, police departments in the US have a quasi-military type of organization which nurtures military values and outlook in the officers. 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). Every criminal and potential criminal is seen to be on the opposite side. Police fail to distinguish between degrees of misdemeanor, felony and crime for them all criminals tend to be 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, some 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 the 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 given more freedom to act 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.

The present situation cannot gather momentum toward 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 such a thing happens, the situation 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 a sort of 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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