Police brutality in the United States

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March 7, 1965: Alabama police attack the Selma-to-Montgomery Marchers on "Bloody Sunday"
External video
3/7/91: Video of Rodney King beaten by police.

Police brutality is the use of excessive and/or unnecessary force by personnel affiliated with law enforcement duties when dealing with suspects and civilians. The term is also applied to abuses by corrections personnel in municipal, state and federal penal facilities including military prisons. Highly publicized incidents of police misconduct have adverse effects not only on the victims of abuse but also on public perceptions of the police departments implicated in the incident; The magnitude and longevity of such effects have rarely been investigated.[1]

While the term police brutality is usually applied in the context of causing physical harm to a person, 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 Movement era. In the modern era, individuals who engage in 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.[2] The term police brutality has been in use since at least 1833 when it appeared in the London paper The Poor Man's Guardian.[3]

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.[4] Specific suggestions for how to decrease the occurrence of police brutality include body cameras and civilian review boards.

The Federal government attempted tracking the number of people killed in interactions with US police, but the program was defunded.[5]


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.[6] 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.[7] It is believed that without substantial social change, the control of police deviance is improbable at best.[8]

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 (1929–1933), 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.[9] 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".[10] In the years following the report, landmark legal judgments such as Brown v. Mississippi helped cement a legal obligation to respect the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.[11]

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.[12] In addition, there is a perception that victims of police brutality often belong to relatively powerless groups, such as racial or cultural minorities, the disabled, and the poor.[13]

The war model of policing has been offered as a reason for why police brutality occurs. Through this model, police brutality is more likely to occur because police see crime as a war and have people who are their enemies.[14] Police who have been exposed to war have more than a 50% higher rate of excessive force complaints than non-veterans according to internal Boston PD documents.[15]

Academic theories such as the threat hypothesis and the community violence hypothesis have been used to explain police brutality. The threat hypothesis implies that "police use force in direct response to a perceived threat from racial and/or economic groups viewed as threatening to the existing social order".[16] According to the community violence hypothesis, "police use force in direct response to levels of violence in the community".[16] This theory explains that force is used to control groups that threaten the community or police themselves with violence.


Many policies have been offered for how to prevent police brutality. One proposed solution is body worn cameras. The theory of using body cameras is that police officers will be less likely to commit misconduct if they understand that their actions are being recorded.[17] The United States Department of Justice under Obama's administration supplied $20 million for body cameras to be implemented in police departments.[18] During a case study attempting to test the effects that body cameras had on police actions, researchers found evidence that suggested that police used less force with civilians when they had body cameras.[17] Police are supposed to have the cameras on from the time they receive a call of an incident to when the entire encounter is over.[19] However, there is controversy regarding police using the equipment properly.[20] The issue regarding an officer's ability to turn on and off the record button is if the police officer is trustworthy. Recording police officer's entire shift and not allowing access for police officers to turn on and off the record button would cause an issue from the large amount of data the camera would accumulate and large costs. However, developers are still researching for other alternatives. For example, another possible solution for the controversies surrounding police body cameras is to develop real-time storage technology for the body cameras.[21] To address the possibility of police misusing their body cameras, technology that will enable the cameras to send real-time information back to police departments for analysis. The stream of information will hold police officers accountable for their actions and won't allow them to manipulate the video after the incident. Taser, now known as Axon since 2017, has already started to work on developing this technology to implement it into their products.[22] However, this alternative solution also brings up more issues concerning surveillance and citizen privacy. While it does address the problem of police officers handling their own footage, it also contradicts the purpose of the cameras to limit police brutality and prioritize civilian safety by placing civilians under surveillance that will be analyzed. The real-time analysis can then be used to determine dangerous people by referencing the police database, but it can also cause police officers to suspect innocent civilians of criminal activity when their body language and facial expressions are analyzed to be a threat.

In Upstate New York, Orchard Park is using software-defined storage (SDS) to store large amounts of data with limited resources. "SDS is an approach to data storage in which the programming that controls storage-related tasks is decoupled from the physical storage hardware, enabling the use of industry standard hardware.  It allowed the department to economically store footage from more cameras and to retain additional data for legal purposes."[23] Other data source providers are on-premises solutions and it is a preferred method for many police departments. On-premises solutions, such as the cloud, "can determine who and what data is added or removed. Then, they can leverage the cloud to make safety copies because the encryption of that data is rendered by the in-house software before it goes to the cloud."[24] Police departments can save forty to sixty percent by using an on-premise solution.

According to a survey done by Vocativ in 2014, "41 cities use body cams on some of their officers, 25 have plans to implement body cams and 30 cities do not use or plan to use cams at this time."[20] There are other issues that can occur from the use of body cameras as well. This includes downloading and maintenance of the data which can be expensive. There is also some worry that if video testimony becomes more relied upon in court cases, not having video evidence from body cameras would decrease the likelihood that the court system believes credible testimony from police officers and witnesses[17]

Civilian review boards have also been proposed as another solution to decreasing police brutality. Benefits of civilian review boards can include making sure police are doing their jobs and increasing the relationship the police have with the public.[25] Civilian review boards have gotten criticism though. They can be staffed with police who can weaken the effectiveness of the boards. Some boards do not have the authority to order investigations into police departments. They can also lack the funding to be an effective tool.[25]

Police brutality lawsuit settlements

Ultimately, when a municipal or state police department cannot implement fruitful policy driven measures to combat police brutality, they will often find themselves as defendants in some type of lawsuit. The theory behind this solution to police brutality is that by taking the civil action to a federal court level, the case will be heard fairly and the financial judgments are intended to have a deterrent effect on future police misconduct in that department.[26] A 2001 settlement called for New York City to pay Abner Louima $7.125 million and the union, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, to pay him $1.625 million. It is the most money the city has ever paid to settle a police brutality case and is believed to be the first time that a police union anywhere in the country has paid a claim to settle a brutality suit.[27]

In 2019, the database CAPstat was introduced by the Legal Aid Society with New York Police Department misconduct data, from NYC Federal Civil Rights lawsuits, for the years including 2015 to 2018 June.[28][29]

Civil Rights Movement era

The 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 formed in response to police brutality from disproportionately white police departments that were perceived as oppressing black communities.[30] The conflict between the Black Panther Party and various police departments often resulted in violence with the deaths of 34 members of the Black Panther Party[31] and 15 police officers.[32]

The Civil Rights Movement was also targeted by the FBI who utilized a program called COINTELPRO. Under this program, the FBI would use undercover agents to create violence and chaos within nationalist groups. The police would harm organizers and assassinate leaders like Mark Clark and Fred Hampton for example, who were killed in a 1969 FBI raid in Chicago.[33]

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 civilian 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.

Anti-war demonstrations

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.[34]

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. War on drugs policing - notably stop and frisk and Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams - has contributed to police brutality, especially targeting black communities.[35]

The war on drugs has been seen as responsible for police misconduct towards Blacks and Hispanics. While middle and upper middle class Whites use more drugs, police have focused more on communities of color.[33]

Specifically, the use of stop and frisk tactics by police have increased towards Blacks and Hispanics. In looking at data from New York in the early 2000s up to 2014, people who had committed no offense made up 82% to 90% of those who were stopped and frisked. Of those people stopped, only 9% to 12% were White. People who were stopped saw these police actions as psychological violence. These included police using insults against those being stopped. Stop and frisk tactics caused people to worry about being outside because of the fear of being harassed.[35]

SWAT teams have been used more frequently in drug possession situations. SWAT teams can be armed with weapons like diversionary grenades. In cases where SWAT teams were used, only 35% of the time were drugs found in peoples' homes. Blacks and Hispanics are often the targets of these raids.[35]

Post 9/11

Protest against police brutality in New York City, December 2014

Numerous human rights observers have raised concerns about increased police brutality in the U.S. after the attacks of September 11, 2001. An extensive report prepared for the United Nations Human Rights Committee, published in 2006, states that in the U.S. 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."[36] During the "war on terror", there has been noted increases in enforcement power for officers. Discussion on the appropriateness of using racial profiling and force against people of color has decreased since 9/11.[36] Racial profiling has specifically increased for those of South Asians, Arabs, Middle Eastern and Muslim origins.[36] An example of increased use of police use of force has been in the use of TASERS. Since 2001, at least 150 deaths have been reported and many injuries have occurred. People of color have been the main people who have been targeted the most with regards to increased TASER use.[36]

A decision by the House and the Senate in Hawaii was expected in May 2014 after police agreed in March 2014 not to oppose the revision of a law that was implemented in the 1970s, allowing undercover police officers to engage in sexual relations with sex workers during the course of investigations. Following initial protest from supporters of the legislation, all objections were retracted on March 25, 2014. A Honolulu police spokeswoman informed Time magazine that, at the time of the court's decision, no reports had been made in regard to the abuse of the exemption by police, while a Hawaiian senator stated to journalists: "I suppose that in retrospect the police probably feel somewhat embarrassed about this whole situation." However, the Pacifica Alliance to Stop Slavery and other advocates affirmed their knowledge of police brutality in this area and explained that the fear of retribution is the main deterrent for sex workers who seek to report offending officers. At a Hawaiian Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, also in March 2014, an attorney testified that his client was raped three times by Hawaiian police before prostitution was cited as the reason for her subsequent arrest.[37]

Cultural factors unique to the United States

In a 2014 analysis titled, "Coming Home to Roost: American Militarism, War Culture, and Police Brutality" published by The Hampton Institute, Colin Jenkins provides an in-depth look at the potential cultural roots of police violence in the United States. These cultural factors include "Objectification, Empathy Erosion, an Internalized Culture of War and Oppression, White Supremacy" and the development of an intensely hierarchical and class-based society. Jenkins also makes a connection between the proliferation of U.S. wars abroad and the soldier-to-police officer transition that has become common, bringing veterans of foreign wars home to patrol mostly poor and working-class communities of color. Using his own experience in the U.S. military, Jenkins provides some insight on the mentality that is shaped by combat training and how these mentalities are then turned on target populations, which include American citizens.[38]


The prevalence of police brutality in the United States is not comprehensively documented, and the statistics on police brutality are much less available. The few statistics that exist include a 2006 Department of Justice report, which showed that out of 26,556 citizen complaints made in 2002 about excessive use of police force among large U.S. agencies (representing 5% of agencies and 59% of officers), about 2000 were found to have merit.[39]

Protest march in response to the Philando Castile shooting, St. Paul, Minnesota, July 7, 2016

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.[40] 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".[41]

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".[42] 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.[43]

Police brutality can be associated with racial profiling. Differences in race, religion, politics, or socioeconomic status often exist between police and the citizenry. Some police officers may view the population (or a particular subset thereof) as generally deserving of 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 disabled, and the poor.[13] A 1968 study in three large cities found that police brutality was "far from rare", and that the most likely victim was a "lower-class" man of either race.[44]

Race was suspected to play a role in the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. Brown was an unarmed 18-year-old African American who was shot by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri after Brown attacked the officer, tried to grab his gun, and came back towards him. The predominately black city erupted after the shooting. Riots following the shooting generated much debate about the treatment of African-Americans by law enforcement.

Recent Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports have found 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.[45]


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.[46] 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.[47] 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.

Logo on T-shirts sold at Daytona Beach Police Department headquarters in Florida, cited in a lawsuit against the DBPD alleging police brutality, is said to show the DBPD condones violence.[48][49]

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."[50]

Within this climate, the police misconduct provision of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 was created, which authorized the Attorney General to "file lawsuits seeking court orders to reform police departments engaging in a pattern or practice of violating citizens' federal rights."[51] As of January 31, 2003, the Department of Justice has used this provision to negotiate reforms in twelve 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, Seattle Police Department, and the Montgomery County, Maryland Police Department).[52]

Data obtained by The Associated Press showed a racial disparity in officers' use of stun guns.[53]

Public reaction

It has been noted that local media rarely report scandals involving out-of-town police unless events make it onto a network videotape.[54] There is often a dramatic increase in unfavorable attitudes toward the police in the wake of highly publicized events such as the Rampart scandal in the late 1990s and the killings of Amadou Diallo (February 1999) and Patrick Dorismond (March 2000) in New York City.[55] Experiments have found 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.[56]

Public opinion polls following the 1991 beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles and the 1992 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 black people, and markedly less effect on broader perceptions of the extent of discrimination against them.[57]

To draw attention to the issue of police brutality in America, multiple basketball players for the Brooklyn Nets, including Kyrie Irving and LeBron James, wore shirts labeled "I Can't Breathe", referring to the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the New York City Police Department on July 17, 2014.[58] Concerned African-Americans also started a movement referred to as "Black Lives Matter" to try to help people understand how police are affecting African-American lives, initially prompted by the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman of the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, and further sparked by the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014.[59][60] In a related action, Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback then playing for the San Francisco 49ers, started a protest movement by refusing to stand for the national anthem at the start of games,[61][62] receiving widespread support and widespread condemnation, including from President Donald Trump.[63]

While many celebrities have joined in on the "Black Lives Matter" campaign, many of the initiatives occurring in communities across the country are led by local members of the Black Lives Matter Global Network. The purpose of this network is to demand change at the local level and stop unfair punishment or brutality towards Black communities.[64] The group has 22 chapters in many major cities across the United States.

Legal and institutional controls

Responsibility for investigating police misconduct has mainly fallen on local and state governments. The federal government does investigate misconduct but only does so when local and state governments fail to look into cases of misconduct.[65]

Laws intended to protect against police abuse of authority include the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures; the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which protects individuals against self-incrimination and being deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process; the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which bans cruel and unusual punishments; 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.[66] The federal government can place charges on police officers who commit police misconduct. These prosecutions do not often occur as the federal government tends to defer to local and state governments for prosecution.[65] The federal government also has the ability to investigate police departments if they are committing unlawful actions. When an investigation reveals violations by a police department, the Department of Justice can use §14141[67] to file a lawsuit. Like other tools at their disposal, the federal government also rarely uses this statute.[65] In a 1996 law journal article, it was argued that Judges often give police convicted of brutality light sentences on the grounds that they have already been punished by damage to their careers.[68] 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.[69]

In 1978, 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.[70]

In Tennessee v. Garner (1985), the Supreme Court ruled that the Fourth Amendment prevents police from using deadly force on a fleeing suspect unless the police has good reason to believe that the suspect is a danger to others.[71]

The Supreme Court in Graham v. Connor (1989) stated that the reasonableness of a police officer using force should be based off what the officer's viewpoint was when the crime occurred. Reasonableness should also factor in things like the suspect's threat level and if attempts were made to avoid being arrested.[72]

Police brutality in art

In July 2019, the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York premiered Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson′s opera Blue about African-American teenagers as an ′endangered species′; often falling victim to police brutality.[73]

See also


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