Police brutality has been a significant problem in the United States of America and other countries for a very long time. Many efforts that have been put forward to try and mitigate this issue have been rendered futile as many police officers still continue to assault innocent citizens who have less power compared to them. This research paper looks at different cases of police brutality to try and determine the main reasons why there are many cases of police brutality in the United States and whether there is a cure for this problem. It analyzes the history of police brutality to determine how this started and what has been done to try and stop it. It looks at the different strategies that the government has set aside to reduce the cases of police brutality and why they have not been effective so far. The paper will also recommend some methods that can be used to reduce the cases of police brutality in the United States of America. The paper will also look at the effects of police brutality on the parties involved, namely the victims, police officers and the community in general.
Police Brutality: Is There a Cure?
Police officers are usually given a lot of power to help them to perform their duties effectively. In their line of duty, the police officers are usually expected to confront violent individuals, thus are legally allowed to resort to violence under certain circumstances. However, police officers may sometimes misuse this power by using force when it is not necessary or use more force than is necessary to perform their duty (Worden, 1996). Police brutality can be defined as the unjustifiable use of excess force by a police officer on a civilian. In most cases, it is usually physical assault, but it can also be in the form of psychological intimidation or verbal attacks. Police brutality has been a problem for very many countries in the past decades. This act can be witnessed in different forms. Some of the examples of acts that show police brutality may include racial profiling, false arrest, intimidation, political repression, sexual abuse, surveillance abuse and police corruption. Although this act is illegal, it can be done under the collar of the law such that the police officers end up getting away with their illegal acts (Worden, 1996).
Most people in the population perceive police brutality as a form of oppression of victims who are more often than not people from a relatively minor society such as the young people, the poor and the Black Americans (Worden, 1996). The broad and unique powers wielded by the police department are supported by the constitution of the United States of America. For this reason, they are acting on behalf of the government. There are certain limits to governmental powers that the constitution has set aside (Skolnick & Fyfe, 1993). These constitutional constraints also apply to the police officers because they are potent agents of the government. For this reason, a citizen who feels brutally attacked by a police officer has the right to sue them (Skolnick & Fyfe, 1993). Nonetheless, many cases of police brutality end up unpunished because the police officers always end up getting away with their brutal mistakes despite the pressure from civil rights movements.
History of Police Brutality
Modern policing can be dated to the seventeenth and the eighteenth century, when the modern police departments were first formed in France. In the twentieth century, almost all countries had already established their modern police departments. The cases of police brutality appeared to be more frequent during that time (Johnson, 2004).
There were some cases of large-scale cases of brutality that led to different incidents such as the 1877 great railroad strike, the 1894 Pullman strike and the Ludlow massacre in 1914. In the above cases, the police would brutally assault the striking laborers and participants in the massacre respectively (Uchida, 1993). Police brutality can be dated back to the 1800s. This word was first used by the American press when there were reports of a civilian under arrest being physically assaulted by police officers from the Harrison street police station. After this, acts of police brutality were witnessed in the prohibition, civil rights movements, the Nixon administration and later the Vietnam War that had large-scale cases of police brutality from the 1920s to the 60s (Uchida, 1993).
Police brutality did not end in the historical era. It is still very much a problem in the United States until now. In an extensive report by the United States justice department in 2001, it was stated that in the year 1999, there were approximately 422,000 civilians aged 16 and older who had been in violent contact with a police officer. Another report was issued by this same justice department in 2006 stating that there were more than 26,000 citizens complaining about the excessive use of force by the police department. Studies show that there are many cases of police brutality that have gone unreported hence the cases are likely to be actually more that the figures presented in the different reports. In 1982, the federal government did their own research on this issue where over 2000 civilians from three different metropolitan areas were interviewed and it was found that over 13% of all the interviewed people had been victims of police brutality in the preceding year. However, only 30% of all the individuals who acknowledged that they were victims of brutality had reported their cases formally. In 1998, there was a human rights report that was made after the examination of three different precincts that stated that the process of making a formal complaint on police brutality was unnecessarily hard and intimidating (Feder, 1998). The police department is supposed to make people feel safe, but contrary to the expectations of the civilians, a good number of police officers have been abusing their power by creating fearful environments throughout the history of the United States of America justice system. In the year 2002, there were over 52 cases of civilians being shot under mysterious circumstances. Over 90% of all the victims of these cases are either black Americans or Hispanics (Weitzer, 2002). A 2003 report also shows that there were 17 victims who were shot by the police under mysterious circumstances and the bigger percentage of the victims is made of the black American people (Dowler, 2003).
This could be termed as a sign of racism in America, but it can also be a case of underrepresentation of the lower class thus leading to them being termed as criminals. Either way, these acts lead to the creation of fear among different individuals and fear is not at all close to justice (Worden, 1996).
The Causes of Police Brutality
Every single case of police brutality lies at least subliminally on some theory of police behavior. Over the past twenty-five years, there have been different social scientists who have tried to analyze some of these behaviours and come up with theories that can help to explain at least part of these behaviours. A number of studies have been done to account for the behaviour police officers who use force in conducting their arrests. There has been some substantial empirical evidence, though still inadequate that has been collected that helps to analyze the use of deadly force by police officers. However, there has been no evidence collected to prove that the formulated theories apply to the non-lethal forms of violence by police officers too. This chapter helps to connect the theories of police behaviour with the newly collected evidence on the use of unnecessary force by the police. The chapter briefly reviews the various theories of police behaviour and the empirical evidence that supports these theories. The paper connects these theories to some empirical evidence on the use of both lethal and non-lethal force. The chapter will also discuss how further research can be done to contribute to these theories and help to reform the police justice system.
Theories of Police Behaviours
The current research that exists explaining police behaviour mainly focus on the different backgrounds and trainings of the people who have studied the policing system. These include the sociologists, psychologists and political scientists among others. From the above backgrounds, we can deduce three different theories of police behaviour, namely the psychological, sociological and organizational theories (Worden, 1996).
- Sociological theory
The sociological approach that is used to understand the behaviours of police officers states that their behaviours are influenced by social dynamics as a result of the police-civilian encounters. For instance, the sociological theory of law by Donald Black holds that law is influenced by the social attributes of the concerned parties. These parties include the victims or suspects and the agents of social control (Black 1983). According to this theory, it is least likely for the police officers to take either legal or any other coercive action when the victims are of the minority class. These people may include the poor, the racial and ethnic minorities. Generally, this line of thought has directed all the systematic attention to the basic characteristics of the circumstances under which the police officers and the civilians interact. Most of the research based on this theory mainly examines the way the police officers use their arrest powers (Sidanius & Pratto, 2001). Most of the research shows that the nature of the arrest is mainly influenced by the behaviour of the suspect being arrested. Violence is likely to arise if the suspect is antagonistic or disrespectful to the police. There are also some inconsistent findings that were presented from this research, such as the fact that the non-white suspects had more chance of being arrested than the white suspects. There are some researchers who show that there is no relationship between race and arrests while others show that this relationship is spurious. The black are said to be more likely to be arrested by the police because they have more tendency of being rebellious (Sidanius & Pratto, 2001).
One hypothesis related to this theory based on the research done on the use of deadly force against victims states that the minorities are more likely to be shot by the police. Empirical evidence indeed shows that the minority class in more represented in the group of people who have been shot at by the police officers. However, these studies also show that it is mainly the minorities who engage in actions that precipitate the use of deadly violence by the law enforcers. Only a few analyses have supported that victims of deadly violence, mainly experience this because of their race (Black, 1983).
- Psychological Theory
The second line of thought that tries to understand why police officers behave the way they do is the psychological approach. This theory mainly analyzes the variations in the behavior of the law enforcers that have been overlooked by the psychological theory (Kania & Maleckey, 1977). The theory directs its attention to the different personality traits of different police officers that make them react differently in different situations. There are behavioural differences in different police officers. These differences are brought about by their gender, race as well as their educational background. The black, female and college educated police officers are expected to have a different attitude from the conventional white, male and non-college educated officers (Kania & Maleckey). This difference in attitude is believed to be witnessed in the way they behave. There are different hypotheses that try to link behaviour and attitude. The socio-psychological research shows that people’s behaviour is almost always inconsistent with their attitude. It states that social behaviours and attitudes relate to a degree that ranges from small to moderate (Worden, 1996). Some versions of the psychological theory have been reflected in the Christopher report (1991) which identifies a small group of officers who were involved in the misuse of force. After these officers had been identified, it was deduced that their behaviour had some form of psychological trigger. A more specific hypothesis in the psychological theory of police behaviours states that the police officers with the authoritarian personalities have more predisposed to use force.
A large volume of evidence has also been collected on the hypothesis that the behaviours of the police officers are affected by their characteristics and backgrounds. Some of the characteristics that are likely to affect the behaviour of the law enforcers include their race, gender, education and also the length of time in which they have served in the police service (Christopher, 1991). The educational background in particular has been a subject of study by many researchers. Most of the systematic evidence produced from these studies shows that there is a feeble relationship between the attitudes of the law enforcers and their educational background. Education background does not have any direct relationship with the use of deadly force on civilians (Worden, 1996). These studies also show that there are fewer complaints about the conduct of the officers who have attained college education. Their reason for this difference has not yet been clearly proven.
Systematic comparison has been conducted between the male and female officers and the evidence shows that there is no big difference in their attitudes other than their job satisfaction. However, the research shows that there is a difference between the frequency in which the female and male officers initiate arrests (Worden, 1996). However, their behavioural differences are negligible. Studies have also been done on the effects of race on the behaviour of police officers. One research showed that the black American officers usually patrol more aggressively and they have a more likelihood of making arrests compared to the white officers. Another research conducted revealed that the black American officers are more likely to be involved in acts of deadly violence against their suspects. These differences can however be attributed to the different types of assignments that the officers are usually subjected to (Worden, 1996).
Finally, the studies on the length of service of different officers show that the less experienced officers usually patrol more aggressively and are likely to arrest people. According to studies, they are also likely to be involved in acts of deadly violence.
- Organizational Theory
The organizational theories try to understand the behaviours of police officers in relation to the features of the organizations that they work for (Worden 1989). This theory tries to emphasize that the organizational structures have the greatest effects on the attitudes of the police officers. This theory is believed to have the greatest potential of reforming the police system because the organizational factors can be altered more easily relative to the social and the psychological factors (Worden, 1989). However, the analyses conducted on the organizational structures were not easy, mainly because there was difficulty in the collection of data from different police agencies. For this reason, there is no adequate empirical evidence on the organizational theories (Worden 1996).
A research was done on the use of deadly force. This study shows that organizational influences can significantly affect the frequency with which the police officers make use of their firearms. Different policies have been set clearly to show the boundaries that limit officers from using deadly force and effective enforcement. These policies are said to have reduced the number of shootings. A certain theory makes an analysis on the type of influence that the changes in organizational structure has on the behaviour of the police officers. Evidence shows that organizational control has an effect on the use of deadly violence by the police officers (Roberg, Kuykendall & Novak, 2002)
The Effect of Police Brutality
Police brutality, whether physical or psychological, usually has adverse effects to the society and mainly to the victims. Sometimes the effects of the incidents may be felt even years after the brutality took place. The most common effect of police brutality is death. Incidents of unnecessary use of force by the law enforcers may sometimes lead to the death of the victims (Smith & Holmes, 2003). In this case, the people closely related to the victims are those who will be adversely affected by the incident. These kinds of cases usually receive media attention and the support of the society. For instance, in 1999, Amadou Diallo, who was 19 years old, was shot 19 times by members of the police force while he was trying to reach for his wallet. The police officers in this case were acquitted of the brutality charges.
Other effects of police brutality may be psychological. The most common psychological effect that the victims of these incidents go through is known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This condition mainly leads to depression, substance abuse, panic attacks and in some very serious cases it may lead to suicidal tendencies. However, it is not a guarantee that all the victims of brutal acts in the hands of the police officers undergo this psychological trauma. It is usually triggered by certain factors such as the severity of the incident and the amount of time that it takes the victim to be in safer situations (Horowitz, 1997).
The victims of police brutality may choose to pursue court cases against the police officers who assaulted them. In 2004, Stanley Miller, 39 who had been assaulted by a police officer chose to sue the Los Angeles police department. He managed to settle the case for $450,000. However, not all the victims of brutality are always as lucky as Miller. Many people pursue these cases, but they never work out in their favour. For instance, in the year 2008, the Danny Reyes case between four civilians who were shot at by state troopers had their cases dismissed and all charges against the police officers dropped.
The media’s attention associated with police brutality puts the private lives of the assaulted victims on the spotlight (Lawrence, 2000). This can affect their trauma significantly. Such a thing happened to Abner Louima in 1997. He was sodomized by police officers using a plunger while being held at the station. This case received a lot of media attention, but Louima refused to speak publicly about his assault and what he went through (Mazelis, 1997).
With proper understanding of the main causes and effects of police brutality, it will be easier to formulate some strategies that can be used to stop police brutality completely in all police forces. The following is an analysis if some of the strategies that have been applied before and their successes and failures. This chapter will also analyze some of the things that can be done to help reduce the cases of police brutality among citizens of the United States of America.
What has been done?
Due to the many cases of police brutality, the government of the United States decided to take action that will help to reduce these incidents. Despite the implementation of these strategies, there are still a significant number of police brutality cases up to date. This means that some of these strategies have failed in deterring this problem. In 1982, a civil rights section was added to the constitution giving the citizens the power to sue the police officers if they witness any form of professional misconduct while they are on duty. Even years after the enactment of the 42 U.S.C section 1983 to the constitution, there are still rampant cases of police officers getting away with their actions (Patton, 1992). This has led to the citizens questioning of this law. There are certain weaknesses that make this action ineffective. First, lawsuits are usually very expensive to pursue. More often than not, the assaulted people are usually from the minority class; hence they lack the financial capability of paying a good lawyer to help them get justice (Patton, 1992). For this reason, many officers end up being acquitted of any charges against them. Another reason this strategy is probably ineffective is because of the complicated procedures that the victims are forced to go through when they want to make a complaint. In fact, many civilians do not even know what they are supposed to do in case they are brutally handled by the police (Patton, 1992).
Media action and public demonstrations are also some of the actions that have been taken against police brutality. In spite of this, there are still many cases of police brutality among the American citizens. This is mainly because the media and the public have no direct power over what the police officers do. These actions can only be effective if they can affect the organizational structure of the police department.
What can be done?
The citizens of America will have to come to terms with the fact that police brutality is real and it is the responsibility of every individual to do something about it. As seen in the theories of police behaviour, both the police officers and the victims of police brutality have a role to play in stopping this act. In most cases of police brutality, it is usually partly the fault of the victim as most of them either resist arrest or get disrespectful to the officers. As a result, the fight against police brutality can be empowered through the education of the masses on ways they can relate with the law enforcers. Parents need to educate their children on ways in which they are required to relate with the officers. The way in which one deals with a police officer is a matter of life and death because these people have deadly firearms. However, citizens must know their rights to avoid being mishandled by police officers.
It is also the duty of the police department to provide adequate training to their officers on ways in which they can handle violent situations. In the current police department, there is inadequate training for the police officers and for this reason, the incidents of police brutality traits keep on skyrocketing.
With adequate reforms in the police department, it is very possible to reduce or even completely stop the cases of police brutality. After all, it is not the whole department that is rotten, but just a few bad apples that need to be disposed of.
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