Police brutality refers to the use of excessive force against a civilian. The controversies that surround the topic of police brutality relate to different definitions and expectations over what is meant by excessive force. Indeed, police officers are expressly authorized to use necessary, reasonable force to perform their duties. As Jerome Skolnick, an influential police scholar in the United States, underscores: “as long as members of society do not comply with the law and resist the police, force will remain an inevitable part of policing.” (Skolnick and Fyfe 1993). Others would quickly point out that there is also a difference between legitimate or legal force and illegitimate or excessive force by the police. They would argue, too, that the use of force is not only a question of reacting to citizen violations of the law and resistance but may also involve an array of actions that do not lawfully conform to the spirit of the law. Police brutality might include, for example, the unlawful beating of a citizen by an officer under the cover of the law or the brutality of other citizens or fellow officers who unjustly harm others that is overlooked or even condoned. Thus, the issue of police brutality turns not simply on the presence of force but on its degree, kind, reasonableness, and even on omission.
Although police brutality may also be said to occur whenever the police use violent force that is excessive, some scholars have limited that definition to include excessive force that is conscious and deliberate, as compared with the good-faith mistake of an officer who uses unnecessary force in the face of an unexpected situation. In contrast, the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) accreditation standard does not contemplate the intent of the officer. Rather, it permits officers to use “only the force necessary to accomplish lawful objectives” and describes excessive force as any level of force that is more than necessary.
II. Key Moments/Events
III. Lawsuits and Other Remedies to Reduce Police Brutality
Modern police forces were established in the 1830s and 1840s and were marked primarily by corruption and inefficiency. Indeed, police agencies throughout the 1800s and early 1900s were as often involved in violence and crime as the alleged perpetrators of crime.
At the turn of the 19th century, police use of excessive force had a widespread and accepted place in law enforcement. In interrogating suspects, the police would routinely beat suspects with fists, blackjacks, and rubber hoses to extract information. These police “interrogations,” otherwise known as the “third degree,” were conducted in hot, tiny, overlit rooms.
In 1928, President Herbert Hoover established the Wickersham Commission, which was charged in part with examining law enforcement police practices. Finding widespread brutality and corruption, in 1931 the Wickersham Commission reported that torture was routinely employed by police officers against suspects to elicit confessions. In one infamous example of police excesses, the commission described a suspect who was held by the ankles out of a third-story window. It also identified rampant corruption within police departments nationwide and linked brutality to routine police practices. The Wickersham Report drew unprecedented attention to the issue of police brutality and coerced confessions.
As a result of the Wickersham Report, the use of the third degree became less common. It did not, unfortunately, eliminate the practice entirely. For instance, a 2006 report issued after a four-year, $6 million investigation revealed that, during the 1970s and 1980s, Chicago police officers, under the leadership of Commander Jon Burge, routinely used torture to elicit confessions from hundreds of suspects. The torture techniques employed by the police included the use of cattle prods placed against a suspect’s genitals, the shoving of a loaded gun into a suspect’s mouth, or the placement of a plastic typewriter cover over a suspect’s head until he lost consciousness. Other suspects were beaten with fists, kicks, and telephone books. Nearly all the victims were people of color. Notwithstanding the public furor over the report, no state prosecutions were planned as of the time of this writing.
The use of the third degree was not the only technique highlighted by the Wickersham Report. Rather, that report brought to light the endemic and institutional nature of police brutality among police departments across the country. Many of the then-identified issues relating to police brutality continue today. In 1991, for instance, 60 years after the Wickersham Report, the Christopher Commission issued its report on the use of force by the Los Angeles police department. That report, which called for new standards of accountability, described a police department and culture where the use of excessive force, primarily against people of color, was not uncommon. Its conclusions and recommendations were eerily reminiscent of its predecessor report.
The Christopher Commission’s conclusions again were echoed several years later. In 1998, Human Rights Watch issued a nearly 400-page report analyzing police brutality and accountability throughout the United States. It concluded that police brutality is endemic to police departments nationwide and that there are inadequate measures in place to address and correct the pervasiveness of the issue. Human Rights Watch also made a series of nonbinding recommendations to increase police accountability and transparency in police practices. Whether any of these recommendations will be implemented in a systemic manner remains to be seen.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, the phrase “police brutality” became inextricably linked with the names of individuals such as Rodney King, Abner Louima, or Amadou Diallo. So too, police brutality has been linked with some of this nation’s worst public riots. The following discussion focuses on several high-profile instances of police brutality. It is not meant to be exhaustive but rather to highlight significant events that altered the nation’s consciousness about police brutality.
Many of the worst riots or rebellions in the 20th century stemmed from allegations of police brutality. The damage from the riots in terms of loss of life and property destruction was massive, while the damage between the community and the police department in some cases has yet to be repaired.
For instance, on March 3, 1991, there were riots in Los Angeles in response to an infamous beating caught on videotape. Rodney King, an African American, was speeding on a Los Angeles freeway. After King refused to pull over for fear that his probation would be revoked, 11 police cars and a police helicopter gave chase. King subsequently refused to exit his car. Police officers forcibly dragged him from the car and shot him twice with a taser gun. Four officers beat him with a nightstick at least 56 times, while dozens of other officers stood by and watched. King suffered brain damage and 16 broken bones. An amateur photographer captured the entire incident on videotape, which was subsequently and repeatedly shown on television throughout the world. After a jury that did not include a single African American person acquitted the officers, five days of rioting erupted in the streets of Los Angeles.
A little more than a decade earlier, on December 17, 1979, Miami erupted in violence. According to police reports, Arthur McDuffie, an African American, made an obscene gesture to a police officer and sped away on his motorcycle. After a police chase through Miami’s streets, which involved at least 12 police cars, McDuffie was captured and severely beaten by six white police officers. He died four days later. Although it was revealed at trial that the officers initially had lied about the source of McDuffie’s injuries, an all-white jury acquitted the officers. After the verdict, Miami erupted in three days of racially charged rioting.
Of course, not all instances of police brutality result in rioting. Indeed, there was no rioting in response to one of the worst cases of brutality in recent years. On August 9, 1997, Haitian immigrant Abner Louima was arrested outside a Brooklyn nightclub after a fight in which he had not participated. At the 70th precinct in Brooklyn, several officers, including Justin Volpe, brutalized Louima. Volpe sodomized Louima by plunging a broomstick into his rectum and mouth while his hands were cuffed behind his back. Louima suffered extensive internal injuries and required several surgeries.
In another high-profile example of brutality, Johnny Gammage, an African American, was driving a luxury car when he was pulled over by the Pittsburgh police on October 12, 1995. Gammage exited his car carrying a cell phone, which officers claimed appeared to be a gun. Officers on the side of the road detained him, and he died there. The coroner identified the cause of death as suffocation caused by pressure on the back and neck. Although all three officers charged with involuntary manslaughter were acquitted, Gammage’s death led to an extensive Justice Department investigation into police practices in Pittsburgh.
Under strikingly similar circumstances, Amadou Diallo, a 22-year-old unarmed street vendor from Guinea, was mistakenly shot and killed by the police. As he stood in the doorway to his apartment on February 4, 1999, four police officers in plain clothes fired 41 shots, hitting him 19 times. The officers later claimed that he was drawing a gun when they opened fire. What the officers took for a gun was, in fact, his wallet. Although the four officers were acquitted after trial, which was moved from the Bronx to Albany, New York, the City of New York agreed to pay $3 million dollars to resolve the Diallo family’s civil rights lawsuit.
Lawsuits and Other Remedies to Reduce Police Brutality
Lawsuits have proven to be one effective way of controlling police practices. The U.S. Department of Justice is empowered to bring suit against police departments under the 1994 Violent Crime Control Act. This act authorizes the Justice Department to sue police departments where there has been an alleged “pattern or practice” of abuse. The impact of these “pattern” suits has been dramatic. The Justice Department has sued and entered into consent decrees with numerous police departments: the New Jersey Police Department to limit its reliance on racial profiling in traffic stops; an Ohio police force to reduce its use of excessive force; the Pittsburgh police department to institute increased oversight and accountability; and the Los Angeles police department (LAPD) over the Rampart scandal, where, in August 2000, a federal judge ruled that the government’s antiracketeering statute—known as the RICO Law, created to fight organized crime—could be used against the police. A court-appointed monitor works to ensure that the departments are in compliance with consent decrees. These pattern lawsuits have the potential to bring broad, sweeping change to police practices and reduce the use of excessive force.
Individual citizens who have been abused by the police can also sue police departments for monetary damages. The cost of these lawsuits can be significant. For instance, in the 1990s, the Detroit police department paid an average of $10 million dollars per year to resolve lawsuits arising from police misconduct. In response to these and other lawsuits, some police departments have taken steps to address and reduce police misconduct. For instance, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors arranged for a special counsel to investigate problems within the LAPD, recommend reforms, and ultimately reduce the cost of litigation.
Criminal prosecution is an additional legal avenue that can be used to deter police brutality. Prosecutors, however, traditionally have been reluctant to pursue criminal charges against individual police officers. This, in part, reflects the dependent relationship of prosecutors, who rely on the police to secure convictions and do not wish to damage these institutionalized relationships. Moreover, convictions against police officers are difficult to obtain both because it is hard to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that an officer used excessive force with criminal intent and jurors tend to empathize with the police and therefore are reluctant to convict them of crime.
Criminal convictions against police officers are relatively rare, but they do occur. In the case of Abner Louima, for instance, Justin Volpe pled guilty to anally penetrating Louima with a broomstick and was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison. Charles Schwarz also went to trial in the Louima case. Although was initially convicted of obstruction of justice and was sentenced to 15 years federal imprisonment, his conviction was overturned by an appellate court. Schwarz finally pled guilty to perjury and was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. And the convictions of the remaining three police officers were overturned by a federal appeals court. Whether these types of convictions and their mixed results will deter other officers from brutality is not clear. In contrast, an acquittal often, albeit unintentionally, sends a public message that the police can “get away” with murder.
Another potential mechanism for controlling police brutality is through the use of civilian complaint boards. These boards may serve as independent reviewers of citizen complaints, aid in monitoring police departments, or help with policy review. Although many of these boards have been criticized for a wide range of reasons, they may aid in increasing the transparency of police departments, which in turn may improve public confidence in the complaint process. However, complaint review boards are only as effective as the mandate given to them by the community and the degree of cooperation demonstrated between the police, prosecutor, politicians, and review board.
Police brutality remains a challenge within law enforcement today. The frequency with which police brutality occurs may decline in the future, with effective mechanisms to ensure police accountability and a continued emphasis on police professionalism. Although isolated instances of police brutality may be unavoidable, a number of accountability measures can be implemented in an effort to reduce overall patterns of police brutality.
Police departments traditionally have turned inward in an effort to regulate the conduct of their officers. An internal affairs unit (IAU) is responsible for investigating allegations of misconduct and brutality. The “blue curtain” or the “blue wall of silence” refers to the informal code among police officers that constrains them from reporting the misdeeds of other officers. The refusal to “rat out” a fellow officer remains a cultural norm within police departments. Therefore there are significant cultural limitations to an IAU investigation. Moreover, the investigations conducted by IAUs are typically cloaked in secrecy. Thus it is extremely difficult to assess whether and to what extent police departments in fact are monitoring their operations.
There are, however, external methods of monitoring and curbing police brutality, as discussed in the previous section. These accountability measures together may begin to affect the national police culture in which brutality is accepted, overlooked, or ignored. Until measures such as these are implemented, however, the excessive use of force by individual police officers is unlikely to come to an end.
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- Alpert, Geoffrey P., and Roger G. Dunham, Understanding Police Use of Force: Officers, Suspects, and Reciprocity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
- Chevigny, Paul, Edge of the Knife: Police Violence in the Americas. New York: New Press, 1995.
- Holmes, Malcolm D., Race and Police Brutality: Roots of an Urban Dilemma. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008.
- Human Rights Watch, Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States. New York: Human Rights Watch, 1998.
- Nelson, Jill, Police Brutality: An Anthology. New York: Norton, 2001.
- Skolnick, Jerome, and James J. Fyfe, Above the Law: Police Practices and Procedures. New York: Free Press/Macmillan, 1993.
- Williams, Kristian, Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America, rev. ed. Boston: South End Press, 2007.