Police Brutality

The term police brutality refers to the use of unnecessary, or excessive force by police officers when handling civilians. Examples of police brutality can include the use of pepper spray, nerve gas, or batons, though it does not have to be physical abuse or attack. This behavior can extend to such actions as pulling a gun on someone in order to intimidate him, or falsely arresting someone. To explore this concept, consider the following police brutality definition.

Definition of Police Brutality


  1. The use of excessive and unnecessary force by a police officer toward a civilian.
  2. The willful infliction of pain and/or suffering on someone

Origin of Brutality

1540-1550       English

What is Police Brutality

Police brutality is the use of excessive and unnecessary force on the part of a police officer when he is interacting with a civilian, resulting in a violation of the civilian’s civil rights. The use of such tools as pepper spray, batons, and tasers, as well as hitting, choking, throwing a non-combatant civilian to the ground, and sexual abuse are all examples of police brutality that is physical in nature. While it may sound like police brutality is strictly physical, this is not the case. Examples of police brutality that are not physical in nature include false arrests, verbal abuse, and racial profiling.

While many countries have laws on the books that address the issue of police brutality, and while it is considered a serious offense, many complaints made by civilians do not even reach the investigation stage. Research suggests that, because police are permitted to use physical force when necessary, it is often difficult to prove that excessive force was used in a particular situation. Verbal abuse is never permitted legally, or by policy, but once again, this is a difficult thing to prove in many cases.

Civilians have been using their mobile devices to record interactions with police in order to stream instances of what they believe are police brutality online, alerting the public that this kind of behavior is occurring. Similarly, though, police officers have begun recording their interactions with civilians in order to protect themselves from false claims of police brutality.

Excessive Force

“Excessive force” is defined as force that is beyond that which would be appropriate for the situation. That said, there are no two situations that are alike. Police officers must be able to swiftly decide on a course of action in the moment, and often when they feel their safety, or even their lives, are at stake.

Force is allowed to a certain extent in all jurisdictions when police are trying to secure an arrest, but there is a fine line separating the justified use of force from that of excessive force. Once a police officer crosses that line, his behavior is considered assault, and he can be held criminally liable for his actions. “Brutal” or “cruel” actions have to be evaluated on an individual case-by-case basis, as what may seem brutal in one case may have been entirely necessary in another.

Levels of Force Used by Police

Police officers must exert control over people in a wide variety of situations, whether to gain control of a potentially dangerous situation, to protect themselves or other civilians, or to make an arrest. There are many factors that influence the level of force that may be required, and justified, in any given case. According to the National Institute of Justice, there are levels of force that may be used by police on a continuum:

  1. Verbal restraint – instructing an individual on where to stand or sit, or telling him to stay put, or telling him that he is under arrest.
  2. Physical restraint – using hands to physically control an individual, whether causing him to lean against a patrol car, pulling an arm behind the individual’s back, placing handcuffs on the individual, or placing the individual into a police vehicle.
  3. Less-lethal force – the use of a weapon that is unlikely to cause death, such as pepper spray, and tasers.
  4. Lethal force – the use of physical force that is likely to cause the death of the individual, such as shooting the individual.

How to File a Complaint against a Police Officer

It may be intimidating for someone to file a complaint against a police officer, especially in light of the fact that many of those complaints have historically gone uninvestigated. However, there are complaints that are looked into further, and for that reason, a civilian with a valid police brutality issue should definitely file a complaint against a police officer.

The first step in this process is to visit the website of the police department where that particular officer is based, because each jurisdiction has its own process for filing a complaint. For instance, one cannot file a complaint against a county sheriff at the city police department. The website should direct the individual to the specific forms that need to be filled out, and give instructions on how to submit them.

Some websites actually post the number to a hotline that is specifically set up for complaints of police brutality and misconduct. It may also be possible to make a complaint in person, depending on the department, though some people find that intimidating. Those with complaints are advised to act immediately after the incident in question because some jurisdictions actually set time limits on when a complaint should be filed. If the deadline is missed, then the chance to file a complaint may be lost forever.

If the officer’s conduct is an illegal act – such as physical brutality or assault, or sexual assault – the law enforcement agency’s deadline has no bearing on the legal statute of limitations. The deadlines for filing criminal charges, or filing a civil lawsuit, against the officer accused of such acts is specified in the laws of the individual jurisdiction.

Once the complaint has been filed, a department known as Internal Affairs will investigate it. Internal Affairs is a division specifically established within law enforcement agencies to investigate complaints made against law enforcement officials. An officer can generally only be disciplined or fired for his behavior if a complaint has been filed against him, and even if he is not disciplined or terminated, the complaint typically remains on his permanent record.

Officers who receive several complaints may be investigated by the department, even if the complaints were not considered strong enough to investigate in the beginning. For this reason, it is recommended that citizens file complaints as necessary, even if they do not see an immediate result, the complaints may stack up against the officer to the point where his previously undetected behavior comes to light. Those who are unsatisfied with the results of an Internal Affairs investigation can choose to either file a criminal complaint against the officer, or sue him in civil court.

Police Brutality Statistics

Examples of police brutality have been coming to light at a terrifying rate, mostly due to the increase in the number of civilians who carry mobile devices capable of recording video and audio. This has led to new study of police brutality statistics, which have become more accurate and, unfortunately, more disturbing.

What follows are some of the police brutality statistics that have been reported in recent years, most of which encompass police shootings in particular as being excessive use of force:

  • A study showed that 550 officers lost their jobs or licenses because of sexual assault, from 2009-2014. This included rape, sexual touching, and pat-downs that were excessive so as to be “groping.”
  • In May of 2015, The Washington Post reported that there were 385 fatal police shootings in the United States. This was estimated to be about two officer-involved shootings each day. This number was twice the rate that had been recorded by the government over the course of the past decade.
  • That same report found that blacks are killed three times more often than are whites and other minorities, and a quarter of those who were killed were identified as being mentally ill by their family members or by police. However, fewer black people die from police shootings than do whites and Hispanics.
  • In 98% percent of officer-related shootings, the officer(s) involved were not charged with a crime.
  • While civilians are indicted in 90% of cases involving murder, only 1% of police officers are indicted for the same charge, when the death was caused by their on-duty actions.

Police Brutality Example Involving a Pretrial Detainee

In May of 2010, Michael Kingsley was being held at the Monroe County Jail during the time leading up to his trial. While at the jail, Sergeant Stan Hendrickson repeatedly ordered Kingsley to remove a piece of paper that was covering the light above his cell bed, but he refused each time. Finally, Lieutenant Robert Conroy, the administrator for the jail, ordered the staff to take the paper down and to move Kingsley to a different cell.

During the transfer, however, Kingsley refused to cooperate, making it necessary for the officers to pull him to his feet in such a way that his feet struck his bedframe. He complained then of pain, saying that he was unable to walk or stand. Once he was finally in his new cell, Kingsley resisted the officers’ attempts to take off his handcuffs, so Hendrickson put his knee in Kingsley’s back to hold him. Kingsley kept yelling, and being combative, later claiming that Hendrickson had smashed his head into the concrete bunk.

After Kingsley and Hendrickson argued for a bit, another officer used a taser on Kingsley’s back. Kingsley was then left alone in his cell to suffer in pain, writhing around with his hands cuffed behind his back, for 15 minutes.

Kingsley later sued Hendrickson and the other jail staff, claiming their actions violated his due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. The jury didn’t agree, and Kingsley lost. He appealed the verdict, claiming that, during the trial, the judge had instructed the jury that they must find Hendrickson and the jail staff not guilty unless Kingsley could prove that the officers knew that their actions could harm Kingsley, but went through with them anyway. Kingsley argued that the jury had not been properly instructed as to what standards to use in determining whether or not excessive force was used. The U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision.

The question then became: can the requirements of an excessive force claim be properly satisfied if it can be proven that an official deliberately used unreasonable force on a pretrial detainee? The Supreme Court found, in a 5-4 decision, that yes, Kingsley’s excessive force claim had merit, and that the jury had indeed been given bad instructions insofar as the standard by which to measure excessive force.

The Court held that Kingsley was not required to prove that the he believed the force to be excessive, only that the force was excessive based on a previously established standard. The Court, therefore, had to take on the role of a reasonable officer who would have been on the scene at that time to determine whether or not the force that was used against Kingsley was excessive.

The Court concluded that the force that was used against Kingsley was equivalent to being a punishment for bad behavior, rather than a means to establish control, and ensure the safety of the officers. Such punishment was not reasonable, especially considering the fact that Kingsley was merely a pretrial detainee who had not yet convicted of a crime.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Criminal Charge – A formal accusation by a prosecuting authority that an individual has committed a crime.
  • Detainee – A person held in custody by law enforcement, or military armed forces.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Racial Profiling – The use of someone’s race as justification for suspecting them of committing a crime.