This paper will differentiate between reasonable force and excessive force. I will describe when excessive force turns into police brutality and how the police culture can influence police brutality. I will discuss some of the many negative repercussions that excessive force / police brutality have on the law enforcement officers, agency, city, community and profession. The Price of Police Brutality Is there a difference between excessive force and police brutality? Is one worse than the other? What are some of the negative aspects associated with excessive force or police brutality?
Are there any positive side effects resulting from an agency dealing with an excessive force stigma? This paper will examine the various aspects of excessive force and police brutality has upon a police agency and law enforcement in general. I will explain the difference between excessive force and police brutality, and will examine if there are any positive benefits associated with these labels. Police work is unique in that it is one of the few jobs that require using force in the performance of your duties. On a daily basis, officers working in the field use some degree of force.
This may range from telling someone to sit down during a detention to the use of deadly force against an armed assailant. In order to determine what may constitute excessive force, we first need to define what reasonable force is. In California reasonable force is defined under Penal Code section 835a as, any peace officer who has reasonable cause to believe that the person to be arrested has committed a public offense may use reasonable force to effect the arrest, to prevent escape or to overcome resistance (C. P. C 835(a). This provides an officer the authority to use orce while in the performance of their duties. What one officer may consider reasonable another may deem excessive. Here lies the first hurdle, who gets to decide what is considered reasonable. The first person is the officer involved in the use of force. It is incumbent upon the officer to determine what force is considered reasonable force for each situation. Often that decision has to be made in a split second. An officer has to interpret a situation, identify a threat, determine what force if any is required and then apply that force.
The second person with input on the justification of the reasonableness of the applied force is the officer’s sergeant or supervisor. The use of force must be properly documented in the arrest report, and it is up to the reviewing supervisor to determine if the force was reasonable for the situation. If it is determined the force was not reasonable, then the incident may be forwarded through the chain of command for a use of force review board. If it is determined that the force used was not reasonable, then the officer can be responsible for using excessive force.
Every department is different in how they review the application of force, but let’s look at a hypothetical scenario. An officer drives through a known gang area and sees a subject that he knows is wanted on an outstanding theft warrant. The subject runs and the officer chases him for a few hundred yards and tackles him. The officer gets up and notices the suspect is pushing himself off the ground and is about to run away again. Before the suspect gets up, the officer kicks the suspect in the face rendering him unconscious. The officer puts handcuffs on the suspect and he is arrested.
With no other information, this may be a case where the force was excessive for the situation, a kick to the head for someone trying to flee. Same scenario, but this time the officer has additional information. The officer works this area and knows many of the gang members by sight. He has arrested several of the gang members in the past for carrying weapons including handguns. He has reliable information that many of the gang members stash weapons in a specific bush for easy access, but not on their persons so they won’t get arrested for possession of the weapons. The officer has located and collected weapons from this area in the past.
At the time of the incident the wanted subject was within 10 or 15 feet from this area. The officer has firsthand knowledge that sometimes gang member entice officers into chasing them and while involved in a struggle other gang members ambush the officer. The suspect is telling the officer that he and his friends are going to get him. Utilizing all relevant facts, a kick to the face may not have been excessive in this situation. It is extremely important that officers document all relevant information in their reports to help others understand and justify the use of force.
In the scenario above, the use of force gets reviewed through whatever policy or procedure is in place at the agency, and the force is deemed excessive. During the heat of battle the officer made a decision to apply force in order to overcome resistance and take someone into custody. Again, each agency is different, but that officer may be subject to negative discipline, re-training or some other measure to address the issue. In extreme cases, the officer may be terminated or subject to criminal prosecution for his actions. The balance between reasonable force and excessive force is razor thin.
There may be times when an officer is striking someone with an impact weapon. Three of the blows may be determined reasonable and justified, but the fourth, fifth and sixth were not. An officer must continue to evaluate the force that he is applying and must justify every application of the force. There may be circumstances when no matter how much an individual officer may believe the force he applied was reasonable and just, the powers to be at that particular agency may deem it excessive. If an officer goes out every day with common sense and good moral character and does what he believes is right, sometimes these things happen.
What turns an excessive force situation into police brutality? It is the mindset of the officer involved in the incident and his justification of the use of force. If an officer applies force to an individual to inflict punishment instead of over-coming resistance, then by definition it becomes brutality. Brutal is defined as grossly ruthless or unfeeling, cruel, cold-blooded, harsh, severe (merriam-webster. com/dictionary/brutal). An example may be an officer stops an individual in a park drinking a beer in violation of park rules. During the contact the individual pushes the officer and flees.
The officer catches the fleeing suspect and tackles him to the ground. As suspect is on the ground he begins to put his hands behind his head he tells the officer he’s sorry and will comply, the officer sprays pepper spray in the suspect’s eyes. The officer gets up off the suspect, takes out his baton and strikes the suspect three times in the back while yelling at him he should never run from the police. Chasing the fleeing suspect and tackling him would constitute reasonable force. Deploying pepper spray on an individual who is in the process of giving up may be considered excessive force.
Using and impact weapon on an individual who is complying with your commands because you are punishing him from running from you is brutality, and in this case may be criminal. Another factor that may escalate excessive force into the brutality category is the culture of the organization, especially at the patrol level. If it is common practice amongst most officers that they will dole out street justice, than some cases of reasonable force and most cases of excessive force could fall into the category of police brutality. Challenges to police control of their territories are sometimes corrected with acts of street justice-violence or rude treatment carried out against citizens” (Caldero & Crank, 2011, p. 47). If it is common practice that if an individual runs from the police, they go to the hospital before they go to jail, the culture of the organization is playing a role in determining what is reasonable force. If it required that officers falsify their police reports in order to justify that application of force either by them or another officer, how could anyone determine what reasonable force may have been justified.
If it is common practice to dispense punitive force on suspects, but write it up in the arrest report to justify the force, no matter what, then the culture is elevating the use of force to the brutality level. The bottom line is this, if an officer approaches his job each day with a clean slate and common sense, then he is on the right track. There are going to be times when he must use force while in the performance of his duties. Sometimes the application of the force will be reviewed by the command staff and deemed excessive.
The officer may not like that result, but if he believes he did the right thing at the time, then he should have a clear conscious. That’s the world he lives in, doing what he thinks is right, but sometimes being over ruled by staff. But if the officer believes in administering street justice and that any resistance be meet with crippling force. If it is the culture of the organization to falsify reports in order to justify the use of force. If it is demanded that people who resist officers pay a price physically before going to jail, then we have crossed a line into a state of police brutality.
Agencies that chose to live in this state will ultimately pay a very steep price. There are significant ramifications that result from excessive force or police brutality incidents. These ramifications are felt by individual officers involved in an incident, other officers not involved, the police agency as a whole, the city, the citizens of the community and law enforcement as a whole. They may consist of discipline or prosecution for the individual officer. Change in policy and procedure for the officers. Federal or state investigations of the police agency.
The city may assume costs associated with civil litigation and civil unrest, and it casts a black eye to law enforcement in the region or nation depending on the severity of it. In order to illustrate the above mentioned points, I will use a hypothetical situation. Two Caucasian officers contact a 20-year-old Hispanic male to the rear of a convenience store at ten o’clock at night. During the contact the subject is arrested for a misdemeanor warrant and handcuffed. He is argumentative but does not resist. He uses profanity at the officers and while being escorted to the police car he spits in the direction of one of the officers.
That officer, officer 1, punches the handcuffed suspect knocking him to the ground. While on the ground the officer strikes him twice with his baton before being stopped by the other officer, officer 2. The officers take the subject to jail for the warrant and assaulting an officer. Both officers write their police report to reflect the suspect struck and kicked one of the officers prior to being handcuffed and arrested. The entire incident is captured on a surveillance video from the convenience store. The suspect is charged with the crimes and his defense attorney discovers the store security video and releases it to the news media.
This demonstrates a clear case of police brutality on officer 1, but how about officer 2. Officer 1 is clearly in a lot of trouble. First, he would have to face disciplinary proceedings with his agency. An internal investigation would commence to determine any policy and procedure violations that may have been committed. These may range from a written reprimand up to termination of his employment. Next, were his actions criminal? Along with an internal investigation, the department or prosecuting agency may start a criminal investigation. Did his actions result in an assault under color of authority? In this case, it most certainly would.
This officer would lose his job, be prosecuted and most likely get convicted. Who else pays the price, maybe he is married, has children and a mortgage. The first person that pays the price for police brutality is the officer and his family. The second person in this case, officer 2. Officer 2 didn’t strike the suspect, in fact he stopped officer 1 from continuing the assault. But officer 2 covered for officer 1 by filing a false police report justifying the actions of officer 1. Was it the culture of the organization that made officer 2 write the false report? Maybe it is the unwritten rule at that agency to cover your partner at all costs.
It would cost officer 2 quite a bit, at the very least his job as a law enforcement officer. Although he may not be prosecuted criminally, most assuredly officer 2 would be terminated and lose all his credibility. As a result of the incident, there is an immediate lack of trust in the officers of the department by the community. The officers are viewed as vicious thugs who are committing crimes rather than protecting victims. All of the good work that the officers had been doing is suddenly erased and the officers must start at the beginning to earn the trust of the community.
Court cases are now in jeopardy due to the false reporting allegations brought to light because of the incident. Criminal defendants will challenge the officers’ word in court utilizing the media attention in an attempt to discredit all members of the department. The loss of integrity by a police agency can have severe negative consequences. In order to help combat the trust issue, the agency puts video camera in all patrol vehicles. New policy mandates that all police contact be recorded at all times. Moral at the agency goes down because the officers feel they aren’t trusted.
Some of the officers who forget to use or don’t use the cameras and are disciplined. Supervisors review the recordings of officer’s shifts. Officers are now disciplined for minor policy violations like using tobacco products while on duty in uniform. The actions by two members of the department have now had an effect on every member of the agency even though they were not specifically involved in the incident. There are repercussions for the agency as a whole as well. Aside from losing trust and integrity from the community, city leaders and other police agencies, new allegations of police brutality begin to surface.
Other victims come forward with accusations of the same treatment at the hands of the officers. State or federal agencies, concerned with the allegations, begin independent investigations into the agencies. City leaders, under public pressure replace the chief and command staff vowing to get new leadership and take the department in a new direction. These elected officials may request state and federal investigations into the actions of the department. In Anaheim the mayor recently requested the U. S. Attorney investigate recent officer involved shooting (Salazar et al. 2012), For the foreseeable future, the first thing associated with that agency will be the image of a police officer assaulting a handcuffed prisoner with a baton. When the story breaks and the video is plastered all over the media, the community is outraged. By the next day people show up at the police department demanding answers. As the media blitz continues, more people get involved and for the next several days and weeks protesters take to the streets. Officers are required to work on their days off to help control the crowds, all on overtime.
The protest requires help for the fire department and public works, again all on overtime. The suspect involved in the incident files a civil suit against the city for violation of his civil rights. All told, it could cost the city millions of dollars all because of the actions of two officers. As evident by a recent protest in Anaheim, the police department spent $1. 7 million on officer overtime during a four-week protest (Salazar & Carpenter, 2012) What kind of toll does this type of incident take on the general population of the city where this incident took place can be extensive.
First, the money the city pays out in civil litigation could be spent elsewhere benefitting and improving the community. Damage to public or personal property as a result of the civil unrest and protests. During the recent unrest in Anaheim, crowds set trash fires, smashed windows at about 20 downtown businesses, threw rocks and other projectiles, two Register reporters received minor injuries (Salazar et al. , 2012) While outrage over the incident may be relegated to a specific area of the community, the fallout has far reaching effects throughout the city.
The city of Los Angeles has many multi-million dollar residential communities. In 1992 during the L. A. riots, who wanted to claim that they lived in Los Angeles, no matter what the neighborhood was. Anytime there is a well document police brutality or excessive force incident, it gives a black eye to all law enforcement. I was a patrol officer in 1991 when the most infamous police brutality incident occurred, the Rodney King beating. After a high speed pursuit LAPD officers surrounded Rodney King and used a TASER and when that didn’t work they beat him mercilessly with their batons (“Time
Specials,” 2007) Months after the incident was broadcasted night after night for weeks at a time, I was still dealing with people who asked me if I was going to beat them like Rodney King. How did a young Garden Grove police officer get associated with an LAPD brutality case, because we all wear a badge, no matter what city seal is on it. When negative press occurs involving law enforcement, it doesn’t matter where it happened, we are all guilty by association. These are a few of the negative effects that an excessive force or police brutality incident may have upon an officer, agency, city and community.
In the last 18 months in Orange County there have been several high profile incidents in Anaheim and Fullerton. Both incidents have sparked protests, cost millions of dollars for the cities and led to negative press for the agencies. If you were play word association with most people and ask them to say the first word that pops into their head, if you said Anaheim, they’d say Disneyland. If you said Fullerton, they’d say Kelly Thomas. What’s the difference between the two? In Anaheim, although the use of force led to the death of an unarmed man, the application of force was determined to be legal and reasonable.
In Fullerton, the use of force has led the death of a homeless man, charges against three police officers and a negative connotation of the Fullerton Police Department. I’m not implying that the incident in Fullerton is reasonable or excessive, a jury will decide that. I think it is abundantly clear that there is no upside to an excessive force or police brutality incident. An agency that fosters a police culture based on brutality is on a one way road to disaster. In this day of video cell phone cameras in the hands of everyone, it is only a matter of time before an incident shows up all over the media.
Along with the discussed items, police brutality is wrong. As law enforcement officers we are sworn to uphold the law and arrest criminals. It’s one thing to administer force that an officer believes is reasonable, but when he starts to deliver strikes and blows as punishment, then the line has been crossed. Each morning we get up and out of bed, head into the bathroom and brush our teeth. The question that we all have to ask ourselves is if we can look ourselves in the mirror each morning and like what we see.
Caldero, M. , & Crank, J. (2011). Police Ethics The Corruption of Noble Cause (Rev. rd ed. ). Burlington, Ma: Elsevier. Reasonable Force, P. C 835(a) California Penal Code Salazar, D. , & Carpenter, E. (2012, September 9). Unrest cost Anaheim $1. 7 million in officer OT. The Orange County Register Salazar, D. , Hernandez, S. , Carpenter, E. , Irving, D. , Emery, S. , & Mello, M. (2012). Mayor asks for calm as feds agree to investigate. Retrieved from http://www. ocregister. com/articles/police-365369-diaz-officer. html The L. A. Riots: 15 Years After Rodney King. (2007). Retrieved from www. time. com/time/specials/2007/la_riot/article/0,28804,1614117_1614084_1614831,00. htlm