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Excessive Force and Police Brutality

Law enforcement officials play an important role in society. When trouble arises, police officers, FBI agents, and other law enforcement officers respond to face the potential threat.

One defining feature of law enforcement's role is their ability to use force to respond to a situation. As sociologist Egon Bittner wrote in Functions of the Police in Modern Society (1970), “...every conceivable police intervention projects the message that force may be, and may have to be, used to achieve a desired objective."

Some situations may require a law enforcement official to use force. However, that does not mean they have unlimited authority to do so. Federal and state law requires police officers to use only the necessary amount of force in a given situation. Sometimes, that means the police officer only needs to issue a direct command to someone. Other times, a police officer may use justifiable deadly force.

This article discusses excessive force and police brutality. It first defines excessive force before describing the spectrum of force police officers may use. It concludes by discussing possible remedies for those who experience police brutality.

Excessive Force Explained

Certain government officials may use force to diffuse dangerous situations and threats to the public. For example, a police officer may use reasonable force to apprehend a suspect. A correctional officer may use reasonable force to stop inmates from fighting.

In general, excessive force refers to situations where government officials use force that exceeds the minimum amount necessary to diffuse an incident. When law enforcement uses excessive force, it's sometimes referred to as police brutality.

There is no exact definition of excessive force. The legal test for excessive force involves determining whether the law enforcement officer reasonably believed the amount of force they used was necessary to accomplish a legitimate police purpose. However, there are no exact definitions for either "reasonable belief" or "necessary." Therefore, jurors must determine whether a law enforcement officer used excessive force.

Supreme Court Interpretation of Excessive Force

In the Supreme Court case Tennessee v. Garner, the Court found that police used excessive force. There, police shot a teenager in the head while he fled a house he had allegedly burglarized. The police later admitted they reasonably believed he did not have any weapons on him.

At the time, a Tennessee law authorized all the necessary means to effect the arrest of fleeing suspects, regardless of the situation. The Court overturned the state law. It concluded the law violated the Fourth Amendment by allowing an unreasonable use of force. The Court ruled law enforcement officers may only use deadly force during an arrest if the following conditions apply:

  • The use of deadly force is necessary to prevent the escape.
  • The officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.

Excessive force and police brutality don't apply to cases of deadly force alone. A court may find a police officer liable for excessive force or police brutality if they caused minor injuries to someone and the injuries resulted from an unreasonable use of force.

Constitutional Rights and Protections Against Excessive Force

The U.S. Constitution protects people against the government's use of excessive force. The Fourth Amendment protects people against unreasonable searches and seizures. In a 1989 case, the Supreme Court expanded the reasonableness" requirement to a police officer's use of force when they arrest or stop someone.

The Use-of-Force Spectrum

The Supreme Court has recognized that the right to make an arrest or investigatory stop necessarily carries with it the right to use some degree of physical coercion or threat. However, the degree of coercion or force must be proportional to the threat. The force must also escalate only in response to the threat.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) and the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) created an example of a Use-of-Force Continuum. In an ideal situation, an officer would use the following methods and types of force to diffuse a situation:

  • Physical presence: Using the officer's mere presence to diffuse a situation
  • Verbalization: Using verbal statements, beginning with non-threatening requests and escalating to direct orders
  • Empty-Hand Control: Using physical bodily force through grabs, chokeholds, punches, or kicks
  • Less Lethal Methods: Using non-lethal weapons such as batons, Tasers, or police dogs
  • Lethal Force: Using lethal weapons such as firearms

To comply with the U.S. Constitution, police use of force generally must stop when the need for the force ceases. For example, when police successfully restrain a suspect or de-escalate a situation, police should stop using force. An escalation of force after disposing of a threat may lead to a claim of police brutality against the officer. The specific rules regarding escalation force may vary by jurisdiction.

Police Misconduct

Claims of excessive force often lead to investigations of police misconduct. In some circumstances, the investigation may focus on entire local law enforcement agencies or police departments.

Minneapolis Police Department

In the wake of George Floyd's murder in 2020, the DOJ investigated the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD). A Minnesota federal district court found Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering Floyd.

The DOJ concluded that the MPD had engaged in a pattern or practice of conduct that deprived people of their rights under the Constitution and federal law. The DOJ found that the MPD's use of excessive force exceeded the allowed amounts of force and types of force. The DOJ also found the MPD's accountability systems deficient. According to the DOJ, the MPD's system “consistently [failed] at its core purpose: to find, address, and prevent officer misconduct."

The Minnesota Department of Human Rights and the MPD reached an agreement in 2023. The agreement requires Minneapolis and the MPD to change their organizational culture. Specifically, it must address race-based policing and focus on civil rights.

Available Remedies

Excessive force is a constitutional violation. Any person subjected to excessive force may file a civil rights complaint for monetary or injunctive relief under Section 1983 of the United States Code. You can also file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice, which may decide to investigate your case.

When deciding whether a government official such as a police officer engaged in excessive force, courts look to the totality of the circumstances to determine whether the actions were objectively reasonable.

In making this determination, judges use the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, lacking the benefit of hindsight. With this perspective, courts analyze factors such as:

  • The severity of the underlying crime or circumstances
  • Whether an immediate threat to the safety of the officer or others existed
  • Whether the individual actively resisted arrest or attempted to flee
  • Whether the law enforcement officer had other alternatives
  • Whether the officer provided warnings to the alleged victim

Courts may also give officers qualified immunity. This protects public officials from civil liability for rights violations. It applies so long as they reasonably perform their duties and the rights are not clearly established.

Specific Questions About Excessive Force and Police Brutality? Ask an Attorney

If you have questions about what to do in your excessive force case, contact an experienced civil rights attorney. An attorney can provide you with helpful legal advice, such as:

  • Your burden of proof regarding a lawsuit alleging police abuse or racial profiling
  • General information about criminal lawcriminal charges, and use of force by police
  • Specific information about a pending criminal case and strategies for your criminal defense

If the government has charged you with a crime, do not delay in contacting a criminal defense attorney. If law enforcement caused serious injuries to you, consider contacting a civil rights attorney.

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