A Research Of The Inappropriate Use Of Force By Law Enforcement

Force and the use of it in law enforcement, is rather like water. Without it, we could achieve little. We could not build houses, roads, or skyscrapers. We could not transport ourselves to faraway places. Indeed, without the use of force by law enforcement agencies, societies would collapse. Great philosophers have tried in vain to construct ways in which societies could function without the use of police force, and revolutionaries have, contradictorily, tried to impose these grand political visions on people in many lands and have failed. Generally speaking, the use of force by police officers is often needed and is allowable during certain situations. These certain allowable circumstances that allow the use of force is in officer safety or the defense of another human and the performance of his/her job. The problem arises whereas in water without it we could achieve little, but too much of it will cause even more problems to arise.

The inappropriate use of force by law enforcement officers is commonly referred to as police brutality. Police brutality generally takes one of two forms: excessive force or unnecessary force. Excessive force involves using more force than necessary to control a suspect. Unnecessary force can take many forms, including using force when a subject did not resist arrest; using force when a subject could be easily controlled in other ways; using force against a handcuffed suspect, or continuing to use force after a subject has been subdued. There is no one completely nationally consistent definition of the “use of force”. The International Association of Chiefs of Police has said that the use of force can be defined as 'amount of effort required by police to compel compliance by an unwilling subject'. Black's Law Dictionary defines the use of force as the amount of force used in the use of physical restraint – usually by a member of a law enforcement agency – to gain control of an unruly person or situation. As stated earlier, the use of force is required by law enforcement in modern society to keep in check the balance between order and chaos. For the most part, society accepts this as a means of control of the' non-law abiders'.

As with anything that is designed by man, there are flaws and there is no 'perfect mousetrap'. Within law enforcement, the use of force has always been coupled with an additional flaw which law enforcement officers have sometimes abused, which is the excessive use of force. Law enforcement agencies provide officers with guidance, but no universal set of rules governs when officers should use force and how much. Excessive use of force can be defined as in a given situation, the use of aggressive capability above expectation and the capability used deem unreasonable or unwarranted. There is no national database of officer-involved shootings or incidents in which police use excessive force. Most agencies keep such records, but no mechanism exists to produce a national estimate. Excessive use of force has existed over numerous decades within U.S. law enforcement. Law enforcement agencies have been documented using excessive use of force throughout history but no true tracking system has existed. It has been documented not limited to, but from 1874 where New York Police Department violently attacked unemployed workers in Thompkins Square Park, to the 1965 Watts riot and presently Baltimore Police Department.

Over the last two decades, there has been a steady increase in the number of cases where officers have used excessive force. Allegations of the use of excessive force by U.S. police departments continue to generate headlines more than two decades after the 1992 Los Angeles riots. On Staten Island, N.Y., the July 2014 death of Eric Garner because of the apparent use of a 'chokehold' by an officer sparked outraged. A month later in Ferguson, Mo., the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson ignited protests. In November of that same year, Tamir Rice was shot by police in Cleveland, Ohio. He was 12 years old and playing with a toy pistol. On April 4, 2015, Walter L. Scott was shot by a police officer after a 'routine' traffic stop in North Charleston, S.C. The same month, Freddie Gray died while in police custody in Baltimore, setting off widespread unrest. These follow other recent incidents and controversies, including an April 2014 finding by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), following a two-year investigation that the Albuquerque N.M., police department 'engages in a pattern or practice of use of excessive force, including deadly force, in violation of the Fourth Amendment'. As stated earlier, there has been no true documentation or tracking of these excessive force cases until recent years. It has become paramount to understand the very reason for this increase, the causes and ways to deter it to prevent civil unrest and unjust actions by law enforcement.

As state earlier, the use of force is like water within law enforcement, without it little would be achieved. In contrast to that, too much water or excessive force can crumble the very foundation on which society has been built and established. The problem is can accountability early in an officer's career deter excessive force in law enforcement. Accountability in law enforcement can be looked at as having three important parts. All three of these parts that make up accountability in law enforcement must work dependently together. First, the officer must have self-accountability. Each police officer, from the lowest level recruit all the way up to the director of the agency, has an extremely important as well as critical role in the organizational structure of the police agency (Sutton, 2009). Consider a police agency as being a human being, which is a breathing, living and constantly changing. The officers and staff would be the organs, the legs, the arms, the nervous system, the bones, blood, etc. For the body to be in top form, all of its body parts and organs must be working in coordination with each other. When even a body part that is considered minor, for example a big toe, is not operating correctly, it alters the equilibrium and functioning of the entire system. For example, a missing big toe, will make the body less stable as well as limiting the agility, creating a more vulnerable officer during self-defense. As a result of this nonfunctioning limb, the complete body is somewhat weakened and the officer himself is in continual threat. Therefore, no matter how small a part is in the body, it is extremely important; every officer within an organization is important and a key component in the beneficial function of an agency (Sutton, 2009). Thus, when even one officer no matter the rank or status within an organization commits any act that alters or breaks the trust the public has, the entire agency will suffer.

Almost every police agency has an Internal Affairs Bureau and/or Professional Standards Inspectors but, let's face it, they cannot force a person to act honestly and ethically. An individual's actual behavior, despite whatever oaths he or she takes to uphold, can only be determined by that individual's personal response/action to a given set of circumstances. Those behavioral choices come from within the individual and this taking responsibility for one's actions is determined by one's internal set of values (Greenfield, 1997). Taking responsibility for one's actions is the essence of self-accountability. The next component is supervisory accountability. When law enforcement officers go through the promotional process and take on supervisory roles for the first time, there is too often not enough preparatory training to 'ready' them for their transition. Officers are usually promoted based on seniority and/or field experience but such a background, no matter how essential it is for one in a supervisory capacity, does not prepare an officer for what he will encounter. A promoted officer, usually a sergeant, leaves behind being 'one of the guys' and that change alone is a difficult change for many. The familiar squad room/locker room playfulness that the officer once enjoyed and could participate in suddenly ceases once the newly promoted supervisor enters the scene. Sometimes the new supervisor faces resentment from his former peers who believe that the promotion was unearned and occurred because of 'politics' or because he or she was 'a better test taker.'

The final aspect of accountability is administrative accountability. Law enforcement agencies throughout the country all have similar hierarchical structures that progress upward to eventually include the head of the agency, most often a chief or sheriff. If the agency is small, the administrative staff above the first-line supervisors may just include a captain or a couple of lieutenants or their equivalents. If the agency is large, there may be a full complement of staff officers or agents who make up 'the administration.' There is no doubt that the entire 'ethical personality' of an agency is determined by the head of that organization and, accordingly, by those who the leader has chosen to surround himself or herself with. If, upon appointment or election, the chief or sheriff selects men or women who are perceived as competent, fair and ethical, the entire organization, as a body, will respect the decisions made on their behalf and will be optimistic as to how these decisions will affect their professional, even personal, lives. If, however, the head of the agency enjoys a less than savory reputation or if he/she appoints or promotes 'administrative bullies,' the less-than-a-leader will surely destroy morale and set a low bar for ethical behavior for the agency's employees. It is essential that administrative staff truly and decisively 'walk the walk' ethically, if not morally. If they don't, lower-ranking personnel, when facing discipline for their transgressions, will view any punishment as hypocritical and as having no value. They will feel unsupported and unsubstantiated. Furthermore, it is equally important that whatever discipline is to be administrated is done so in a manner that is Firm, Fair and Fast and that personal grudges and past relationship issues be put aside when both conducting internal investigations and in determining and administrating discipline. None of this is possible if the administration is less than accountable for its actions or less than stellar in its ethical stance. Incidents involving the use of excessive force by the police frequently receive attention from the media, legislators, and, in some instances, civil and even criminal courts. Whether the excessive force is aberrant behavior of individual officers or is a pattern and practice of an entire law enforcement agency, both the law and public opinion condemn such incidents.

There are few acts committed by the local government that draw more controversy than a police department's excessive use of force. Broad cross-sections of the public have lost trust in local law enforcement agencies due to their perception of biased investigations of such use of force incidents. This loss of trust can threaten the legitimacy of local law enforcement institutions. Systemic reforms are necessary to regain trust. Many law enforcement agencies are trying to address the issue of excessive force by requiring police officers to wear body cameras while on duty. The cameras, which attach to the uniforms officers wear on patrol, can offer visual evidence in he-said-she-said encounters between the police and the public. Cameras may seem like an ideal solution — if a police officer is accused of using excessive force the video footage should allow the jury to make a decision. But cameras also create new problems for this already problematic area of the law. Police officers may be more focused on the fact that they are wearing cameras, and less focused on their duties. For example, police officers who are wearing cameras during highly charged situations may not react in a manner in which an officer normally would. In other words, officers may become more concerned with whether their actions will result in a troublesome encounter and, thus, prevent them from responding to how they normally would in a dangerous situation. To counteract this problem, some agencies are beginning to follow California's lead and allow the officers to decide when to turn the cameras on. However, leaving this decision to the officers' discretion may continue to lead to the analysis of claims of excessive force by police officers under the Fourth Amendment's objective reasonableness standard as addressed in Johnson v. Glick, which addresses the area:

  1. The need for the application of force
  2. The relationship between that need and the amount of force that was used
  3. The extent of the injury inflicted, and
  4. Whether the force was applied in a good faith effort to maintain and restore discipline or maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm.

To determine if the officer acted appropriately, courts will have to examine how a reasonable officer in a similar situation would act. In order to gain a complete understanding of how officers being held accountable early in their career reduce the chance of excessive force, it is necessary to conduct a large study that examines all aspects of the use of force. This includes but not limited to the justifiable use of force which requires the officer to use deadly force, their training on the use of force and their articulation in training situations. The development of this research on police use of force, there should be special attention given to issues of excessive force, should be guided by these general considerations:

Within that general framework, more work is required on what various people — the general public, minorities, police administrators, patrol officers, judges, offenders, etc. — have in mind when they refer to excessive force and how they judge specific instances of police behavior when questions of excessive force arise. This research is important because social problems often require shared solutions, and shared solutions require a common basis of understanding and mutual respect for differences in views. In addition to this research, research is required on how the use of force by police varies across time, cities, and individual police departments. Additional research is also needed on individual, situational, and organizational factors related to variations in use-of-force levels, along with excessive force levels and should focus on the relation between excessive use of force, meaning the frequency with which police use force, and excessive force, meaning instances in which police use more force than is necessary.

Finally, interventions, changes, and reforms that may mitigate police use-of-force problems should be identified, documented, and evaluated to help aid in the reduction and possible causes of excessive use of force.


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  2. Greenfeld, L. A., Langan, P. A., & Smith, S. K. (1997). Police use of force: Collection of
  3. National Data / by Lawrence A. Greenfeld, Patrick A. Langan, Steven K. Smith; with assistance from Robert J. Kaminski. Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, [1997].
  4. IV, C. K., Frank, J., & Liederbach, J. (2014). Understanding police use of force Rethinking the Link between conceptualization and measurement. Policing, 37(3), 558. doi:10.1108/PIJPSM-08-2013-0079
  6. Knutsson, J., & Kuhns, J. B. (2010). Police Use of Force : A Global Perspective. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO
  7. Police use of force. (2015). Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, 1p. 1.
  8. Prusinski, T. (2015). WHEN DOES FORCE BECOME EXCESSIVE?. Touro Law Review, 31(4), 851-870.
  9. Sutton, R. (2009, December) Policing with honor. Retrieved from http://Policeone.com
14 May 2021
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