Police brutality

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Police overuse of force at a Montreal protest. Montreal police brutality protest.jpg
Police overuse of force at a Montreal protest.

Nine police officers subduing a member of the public in Egypt Police brutality in Egypt (4602240333).jpg
Nine police officers subduing a member of the public in Egypt

Police brutality is the excessive and unwarranted use of force by law enforcement against an individual or a group. It is an extreme form of police misconduct and is a civil rights violation. Police brutality includes, but is not limited to, asphyxiation, beatings, shootings, "improper takedowns, and unwarranted use of tasers." [1] [2]



The origin of modern policing can be traced back to 18th century France. By the 19th and early 20th centuries, many nations had established modern police departments. Early records suggest that labor strikes were the first large-scale incidents of police brutality in the United States, including events like the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the Pullman Strike of 1894, the Lawrence Textile Strike of 1912, the Ludlow Massacre of 1914, the Great Steel Strike of 1919, and the Hanapepe Massacre of 1924.

The term "police brutality" was first used in Britain in the mid-19th century, by The Puppet-Show magazine(a short-lived rival to Punch ) in September 1848, when they wrote:

Scarcely a week passes without their committing some offence which disgusts everybody but the magistrates. Boys are bruised by their ferocity, women insulted by their ruffianism; and that which brutality has done, perjury denies, and magisterial stupidity suffers to go unpunished. [...] And police brutality is becoming one of our most "venerated institutions!" [3]

The first use of the term in the American press was in 1872 when the Chicago Tribune [4] reported the beating of a civilian who was under arrest at the Harrison Street Police Station.

In the United States, it is common for marginalized groups to perceive the police as oppressors, rather than protectors or enforcers of the law, due to the statistically disproportionate number of minority incarcerations. [5]

Hubert Locke wrote:

When used in print or as the battle cry in a black power rally, police brutality can by implication cover several practices, from calling a citizen by his or her first name to death by a policeman's bullet. What the average citizen thinks of when he hears the term, however, is something midway between these two occurrences, something more akin to what the police profession knows as "alley court"—the wanton vicious beating of a person in custody, usually while handcuffed, and usually taking place somewhere between the scene of the arrest and the station house. [6]

Sometimes riots, e.g. the 1992 Los Angeles riots, are a reaction to police brutality. [7] [8] [9]


Ian Tomlinson after being pushed to the ground by police in London (2009). He collapsed and died soon after. Ian Tomlinson remonstrates with police.jpg
Ian Tomlinson after being pushed to the ground by police in London (2009). He collapsed and died soon after.
Protest against police brutality after the eviction of unemployed demonstrators occupying the Post Office in Vancouver, Canada, 1938 Citizens protest police terror.jpg
Protest against police brutality after the eviction of unemployed demonstrators occupying the Post Office in Vancouver, Canada, 1938

The persistence of police brutality in many nations can be linked to a collective failure of the criminal justice system. Governments enacting "hard on crime" policies, poor police training, and a lack of legal repercussions for officers who use excessive force against civilians all increase the likelihood of police brutality occurring. Additionally, social issues like racial discrimination and poverty can exacerbate the brutality and its effects on marginalized communities.

Hard on Drugs Campaigns

In nations with a reputation for having a high number of drug-related issues, including gang violence, drug trafficking, and overdose deaths, one common solution that government will enact is a collective campaign against drugs that spans the entirety of the state's establishment. Changes to address these issues encompass education, bureaucracy, and, most notably, law enforcement policy and tactics. Law enforcement agencies expand and receive more funding to attack the drug problems in communities. Acceptance of harsher policing tactics grows as well, as an "any means necessary" philosophy develops within the law enforcement community and the militarization of local police forces. [10] However, many studies have concluded that these efforts are in vain, as the drug market has grown in such nations despite anti-drug policies. For example, in the United States, critics of the War on Drugs waged by the American government have been very vocal about the ineffectiveness of the policy, citing an increase in drug-related crimes and overdoses since President Nixon first introduced this policy. [11]

A type of government failure that can result in the normalization of police brutality is a lack of accountability and repercussions for officers mistreating civilians. While it is currently commonplace for civilians to hold officers accountable by recording them, the actual responsibility of police oversight rests heavily on the criminal justice system of a given nation, as police represent the enforcement of the law. One method of increasing police accountability that has become more common is the employment of body cameras as a part of police uniforms. [12] However, the effectiveness of body cameras has been called into question due to the lack of transparency shown in police brutality cases where the footage is withheld from the public. In many cases of police brutality, the criminal justice system has no policy in place to condemn or prohibit police brutality. Certain nations have laws that permit lawful, violent treatment of civilians, like qualified immunity, which protects officers from being sued for their use of violence if their actions can be justified under the law. [13]

Police officers are legally permitted to use force. Jerome Herbert Skolnick writes in regards to dealing largely with disorderly elements of the society, some people[ who? ] working in law enforcement may gradually develop an attitude or sense of authority over society, particularly under traditional reaction-based policing models; in some cases, the police believe that they are above the law. [14]

There are many reasons why police officers can sometimes be excessively aggressive. It is thought that psychopathy makes some officers more inclined to use excessive force than others. In one study, police psychologists surveyed officers who had used excessive force. The information obtained allowed the researchers to develop five unique types of officers, only one of which was similar to the bad apple stereotype. These include personality disorders; previous traumatic job-related experience; young, inexperienced, or authoritarian officers; officers who learn inappropriate patrol styles; and officers with personal problems. Schrivers categorized these groups and separated the group that was the most likely to use excessive force. [15] However, this "bad apple paradigm" is considered by some to be an "easy way out". A broad report commissioned by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on the causes of misconduct in policing calls it "a simplistic explanation that permits the organization and senior management to blame corruption on individuals and individual faults – behavioural, psychological, background factors, and so on, rather than addressing systemic factors." [16] The report continues to discuss the systemic factors, which include:

The use of force by police officers is not kept in check in many jurisdictions by the issuance of a use of force continuum, [19] which describes levels of force considered appropriate in direct response to a suspect's behavior. This power is granted by the government, with few if any limits set out in statutory law as well as common law.

Violence used by police can be excessive despite being lawful, especially in the context of political repression. Police brutality is often used to refer to violence used by the police to achieve politically desirable ends (terrorism) and, therefore, when none should be used at all according to widely held values and cultural norms in the society (rather than to refer to excessive violence used where at least some may be considered justifiable).

Studies show that there are officers who believe the legal system they serve is failing and that they must pick up the slack. This is known as "vigilantism", where the officer-involved may think the suspect deserves more punishment than what they may have to serve under the court system. [20]

During high-speed pursuits of suspects, officers can become angry and filled with adrenaline, which can affect their judgment when they finally apprehend the suspect. The resulting loss of judgment and heightened emotional state can result in inappropriate use of force. The effect is colloquially known as "high-speed pursuit syndrome". [21]

Global prevalence

Australian police use illegal pain hold on activist at University of Sydney. NSW police use illegal pain hold on activist at University of Sydney.JPG
Australian police use illegal pain hold on activist at University of Sydney.


In England and Wales, an independent organization known as the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) investigates reports of police misconduct. They automatically investigate any deaths caused by or thought to be caused by, police action.

A similar body known as the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (PIRC) operates in Scotland. In Northern Ireland, the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland has a similar role to that of the IPCC and PIRC.

In Africa, there exist two such bodies: one in South Africa and another one in Kenya known as the Independent Policing Oversight Authority.

In the United States, more police are wearing body cameras after the death of Michael Brown. The US Department of Justice has made a call to action for police departments across the nation to implement body cameras into their departments so further investigation will be possible. [40]


Police brutality is measured based on the accounts of people who have experienced or seen it, as well as the juries who are present for trials involving police brutality cases, as there is no objective method to quantify the use of excessive force for any particular situation.

In addition to this, police brutality may also be filmed by police body cameras, worn by police officers. Whereas body cams could be a tool against police brutality (by prevention, and by increasing accountability). However according to Harlan Yu, executive director from Upturn, for this to occur, it needs to be embedded in a broader change in culture and legal framework. In particular, the public's ability to access the body camera footage can be an issue. [41] [42] [43]

In 1985, only one out of five people thought that police brutality was a serious problem. Police brutality is relative to a situation: it depends on if the suspect is resisting. Out of the people who were surveyed about their account of the police brutality in 2008, only about 12% felt as if they had been resisting. [44] Although the police force itself cannot be quantified, the opinion of brutality among various races, genders, and ages can. African Americans, women, and younger people are more likely to have negative opinions about the police than Caucasians, men and middle-aged to elderly individuals. [45]

Independent oversight

Various community groups have criticized police brutality. These groups often stress the need for oversight by independent civilian review boards and other methods of ensuring accountability for police action.

Umbrella organizations and justice committees usually support those affected. Amnesty International is a non-governmental organization focused on human rights with over 3 million members and supporters around the world. The stated objective of the organization is "to conduct research and generate action to prevent and end grave abuses of human rights, and to demand justice for those whose rights have been violated".

Tools used by these groups include video recordings, which are sometimes broadcast using websites such as YouTube. [46]

Civilians have begun independent projects to monitor police activity to try to reduce violence and misconduct. These are often called "Cop Watch" programs. [47]

See also

US specific

Related Research Articles

The blue wall of silence, also blue code and blue shield, are terms used to denote the supposed informal code of silence among police officers in the United States not to report on a colleague's errors, misconducts, or crimes, especially as related to police brutality in the United States. If questioned about an incident of alleged misconduct involving another officer, while following the code, the officer being questioned would perjure themselves by feigning ignorance of another officer's wrongdoing.

James J. Fyfe was an American criminologist, a leading authority on the police use of force and police accountability, and a police administrator.

Police misconduct refers to inappropriate conduct and illegal actions taken by police officers in connection with their official duties. Types of misconduct include among others: coerced false confession, intimidation, false arrest, false imprisonment, falsification of evidence, spoliation of evidence, police perjury, witness tampering, police brutality, police corruption, racial profiling, unwarranted surveillance, unwarranted searches, and unwarranted seizure of property.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Copwatch</span>

Copwatch is a network of activist organizations, typically autonomous and focused in local areas, in the United States, Canada and Europe that observe and document police activity while looking for signs of police misconduct and police brutality. They believe that monitoring police activity on the streets is a way to prevent police brutality.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Law enforcement in the United States</span> Major component of the American criminal justice system

Law enforcement in the United States is one of three major components of the criminal justice system of the United States, along with courts and corrections. Although each component operates semi-independently, the three collectively form a chain leading from an investigation of suspected criminal activity to the administration of criminal punishment.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Columbus Division of Police</span> Law enforcement agency in Columbus, Ohio

The Columbus Division of Police (CPD) is the main policing unit for the city of Columbus, Ohio, in the United States. It is the largest police department in the state of Ohio, and among the twenty-five largest in the United States. It is composed of twenty precincts and numerous other investigative and support units. Chief Elaine Bryant assumed leadership of the Division in 2021. Special units of the Columbus Division of Police include a Helicopter Unit, Canine Unit, Mounted Unit, Community Response Teams, Marine Park Unit, and Special Weapons and Tactics Team (SWAT).

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Civilian Complaint Review Board</span>

The NYC Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) is the oversight agency of the New York City Police Department (NYPD), the largest police force in the United States. A board of the Government of New York City, the CCRB is tasked with investigating, mediating and prosecuting complaints of misconduct on the part of the NYPD. Its regulations are compiled in Title 38-A of the New York City Rules.

Police accountability involves holding both individual police officers, as well as law enforcement agencies responsible for effectively delivering basic services of crime control and maintaining order, while treating individuals fairly and within the bounds of law. Police are expected to uphold laws, regarding due process, search and seizure, arrests, discrimination, as well as other laws relating to equal employment, sexual harassment, etc. Holding police accountable is important for maintaining the public's "faith in the system". Research has shown that the public prefers independent review of complaints against law enforcement, rather than relying on police departments to conduct internal investigations. There is a suggestion that such oversight would improve the public's view on the way in which police officers are held accountable.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ferguson Police Department (Missouri)</span> Law enforcement agency of the city of Ferguson, Missouri, United States

The Ferguson Missouri Police Department (FPD) is a law enforcement agency serving Ferguson, Missouri. Since July 14, 2021, the Current Chief of Police has been Frank McCall since Former Chief Jason Armstrong resigned.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Police brutality in the United States</span> Use of excessive force by a police officer

Police brutality is the repression by personnel affiliated with law enforcement when dealing with suspects and civilians. The term is also applied to abuses by "corrections" personnel in municipal, state, and federal prison camps, including military prisons.

In the United States, certification and licensure requirements for law enforcement officers vary significantly from state to state. Policing in the United States is highly fragmented, and there are no national minimum standards for licensing police officers in the U.S. Researchers say police are given far more training on use of firearms than on de-escalating provocative situations. On average, US officers spend around 21 weeks training before they are qualified to go on patrol, which is far less than in most other developed countries.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Body camera</span> Video camera worn on the body

A body camera, bodycam, body worn video (BWV), body-worn camera, or wearable camera is a wearable audio, video, or photographic recording system.

Police reform in the United States is an ongoing left-wing political movement that seeks to reform systems of law enforcement throughout the United States. Many goals of the police reform movement center on police accountability. Specific goals may include: lowering the criminal intent standard, limiting or abolishing qualified immunity for law enforcement officers, sensitivity training, conflict prevention and mediation training, updating legal frameworks, and granting administrative subpoena power to the U.S. Department of Justice for "pattern or practice" investigations into police misconduct and police brutality.

The Ferguson effect is an increase in violent crime rates in a community caused by reduced proactive policing due to the community's distrust and hostility towards police. The Ferguson effect was first proposed after police saw an increase in violence following the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The term was coined by Doyle Sam Dotson III, the chief of the St. Louis police, to account for an increased murder rate in some U.S. cities following the Ferguson unrest. Whether the Ferguson effect really exists is subject of discussions with many published studies reporting contradicting findings concerning whether there is a change in crime rates, number of 911 calls, homicides, and proactive policing. Furthermore, the effect and influence of the portrayal of police brutality in the media is also contested.

Campaign Zero is an American police reform campaign launched on August 21, 2015. The plan consists of ten proposals, all of which are aimed at reducing police violence. The campaign's planning team includes Brittany Packnett, Samuel Sinyangwe, DeRay Mckesson, and Johnetta Elzie. The activists who produced the proposals did so in response to critics who asked them to make specific policy proposals. Subsequent critics of Campaign Zero and of their 8 Can't Wait project point out that some of the policies it recommends are already in place as best practice policies at many police departments. Some of these include the Milwaukee policing survey and the PRIDE act. However, a 2016 study by Campaign Zero found that only three of the eight policy recommendations were adopted by the average police department and that no law enforcement agency had adopted all eight.

Police brutality is the abuse of authority by the unwarranted infliction of excessive force by personnel involved in law enforcement while performing their official duties. Police brutality can also include psychological harm through the use of intimidation tactics beyond the scope of officially sanctioned police procedure. In the United States, Native Americans experience disproportionately high amounts of violence from law enforcement.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Police body camera</span> Body cameras used by law enforcement

In policing equipment, a body camera or wearable camera, also known as body-worn video (BWV), body-worn camera (BWC), or bodycam, is a wearable audio, video, or photographic recording system used by police to record events in which law enforcement officers are involved, from the perspective of the officer wearing it. They are typically worn on the torso of the body, pinned on the officer's uniform. Police body cameras are often similar to body cameras used by civilians, firefighters, or the military, but are designed to address specific requirements related to law enforcement. Body cameras were first worn by police in the United Kingdom in 2005, and have since been adopted by numerous police forces worldwide.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">George Floyd Justice in Policing Act</span> Bill in the United States Congress

The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021 was a policing reform bill drafted by Democrats in the United States Congress. The legislation was introduced in the United States House of Representatives on February 24, 2021. The legislation aims to combat police misconduct, excessive force, and racial bias in policing.


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Further reading