By law, the police have the right to use legitimate force
if necessary to make an arrest, maintain order, or keep the peace. Just how much force is appropriate under various circumstances can be debatable. When an officer uses excessive force
, he or she violates the law. Jerome Skolnick and James Fyfe define police brutality
as a conscious and deliberate action that a police officer undertakes toward suspects who are usually members of a powerless social group (for example, racial minorities or homosexuals).
The incidence of police brutality
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 percent of those surveyed had been victims of police brutality the previous year. Yet only 30 percent of those who acknowledged such brutality filed formal complaints.
Most brutality is directed against minority groups or otherwise powerless populations. Officers who engage in brutality rationalize their use of extralegal force; they claim they are punishing those groups that threaten to disrupt the social order. The importance of understanding racism in the context of police brutality cannot be underestimated. Many police automatically regard racial minority group members as potentially dangerous regardless of their particular activities, gestures, or attire. This perception of racial minority citizens as “trouble” sometimes translates into racially discriminatory police behavior.
Some police expect citizens to always defer to police authority. When citizens challenge it instead, some officers perceive such behavior as constituting the unofficial crime of contempt of cop and use physical force to elicit compliance. Situational variables, such as the use of force by a suspect against a police officer, are good predictors of police use of force.
A few officers are chronic offenders who are responsible for a disproportionate number of brutality complaints. Those receiving most of the complaints are younger, less experienced, and prone to initiate aggressive actions toward suspects.
To curb brutality, police administrators must be proactive. Departments in some cities, for example, have adopted special training programs to reduce incidents of police brutality. Other departments have formulated rules that limit the use of force by the police. Preventive control also requires supervising officers (for example, conducting surveillance of officers' work) and disciplining those who violate departmental standards. A growing number of cities, for instance, are developing early warning systemsto identify officers with high rates of citizen complaints. These incidents should be investigated, and if verified, the officers involved should be charged, disciplined, restrained, and/or counseled. Pittsburgh, for example, launched a $1.5 million computer system. It monitors every aspect of an officer's professional life—from the number of citizen complaints filed against the officer to the race of every person the officer arrests. Police unions consider the aggressive monitoring to be an invasion of officers' privacy. But liberal reformers are pushing to increase the scrutiny of officers throughout the country.
Internal affairs units receive and investigate complaints against officers. These units inquire into suspicions of corruption, complaints of brutality or other kinds of excessive force, and situations in which police officers discharge weapons. If an investigation discloses enough evidence to prove the allegations in a complaint, the unit recommends disciplinary action. Major problems in the effectiveness of internal affairs units include the unwillingness of citizens to file complaints (because they don't trust the police to police themselves) and the unwillingness of police to testify against one another.
Civilian review boards consist of persons who are not police officers. They review complaints against police and recommend disciplinary actions. By 1997, almost three‐fourths of the largest U.S. cities had civilian review procedures. The boards try to restrain problem cops who engage in brutality, harassment, and other forms of citizen abuse. Additionally, they strive to ensure an impartial investigation of all citizen complaints. In practice, however, departments often ignore citizens' recommendations. During the mid 1990s, for example, the New York Police Department failed to take action on a third to half of the police misconduct cases that had been substantiated by an independent civilian review board.
Citizens can seek either damages (money) or injunctions (court orders requiring police and departments to start or stop doing something that violates individual rights) and can file under state or federal law. State laws provide that citizens can sue the police for wrongful death, assault, battery, false arrest, breaking and entering, and false imprisonment. In addition to state laws, Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 (now 42 U.S.C. 1983) allows citizens to sue public officials for violations of their civil rights. Each year courts order officials and municipalities to pay millions of dollars in damages in these suits. According to Paul Chevigny, an expert on police misconduct, civil lawsuits have little deterrent effect because officers almost never pay the damages themselves, even when the courts hold them personally liable. Chevigny points out that general city funds, not police budgets, serve as the source for paying damages.
Prosecutors can file charges only after the police misconduct has taken place. The high burden of proof in criminal court (for example, a prosecutor must show criminal intent and must establish guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt”) makes the likelihood of success low. Even convictions may have no impact on police policy if police executives disagree with the decision to prosecute.
When local prosecution fails, the federal government can act to control abuses. But even though federal constitutional rights limit police powers, the federal government rarely prosecutes such violations. An exception was the federal prosecution of the Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney King. After a jury had acquitted the officers in a California court, federal prosecutors convicted the officers in federal court for depriving King of his constitutional rights.
The creation of the position of inspector general was one of the key recommendations of theChristopher Commission in the aftermath of the 1991 police beating of Rodney King, a black motorist, and the rioting that ensued. The Commission—led by Warren Christopher, who became U.S. secretary of state in 1993—proposed the position as one of several changes to better monitor citizen complaints against the police and oversee the discipline system by which officers are governed.