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The recent murder of George Floyd by a police officer has renewed long-standing civilian outrage at police brutality. One unjust death at the hands of a police officer is too many, but it is the culmination of police brutality, particularly against Black Americans, that has caused heated civil unrest. 

Unfortunately, police around the nation have responded to protests with violence. In Austin alone, 159 complaints of excessive force were filed against police officers related to recent protests. As of the time of reporting by the Austin American Statesman, the department also had an additional 250 emails and 30 voicemails related to complaints to review.

The ever-increasing scrutiny surrounding cases of police brutality is meant to push us towards reform. It is up to us to learn what we can about police brutality and work together to prevent it.

What is the definition of excessive force?

Excessive force by a law enforcement officer is any force used which exceeds what is necessary to gain compliance or control. Excessive force is considered a type of police brutality, though the terms are often used interchangeably.

There are five types of police brutality:

How does police brutality violate human rights?

The Supreme Court case Graham v. Connor established that executing an arrest or investigatory stop is a seizure and therefore all claims of excessive violence must be analyzed under the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable seizures. This means that police brutality is a civil rights violation and victims are eligible to pursue justice.

When does police use of force become excessive or unjustified?

The Supreme Court case, Graham v. Connor, also recognized that a law enforcement officer’s right to make an arrest or investigatory stop also necessitates the right to use some degree of physical coercion or threat. However, the level of force used by a law enforcement officer must be proportional to a threat and escalate only in response to that threat. 

While legal experts agree that anything beyond reasonable force needed to subdue a subject is considered excessive force, by definition, reasonable and excessive force are vague concepts. What constitutes as “excessive” is largely based on personal sentiment or judgment calls and varies by jurisdiction. Some guidance on what level of force should be considered reasonable, and what should be considered excessive, is found within the force continuum.

Force is categorized into five levels:

    • Physical presence – Force by physical presence refers to the lowest level of force, in which an officer diffuses a situation merely by being present.
    • Verbalization – The next level of force is when an officer uses verbal statements, ranging from requests to direct orders.
    • Empty-hand control – Empty-hand control occurs when an officer uses physical force, such as grabbing, punching, holding, or kicking someone.
    • Less lethal methods – Using weapons that are not intended to be lethal, including batons, Tasers, chemical sprays, or police dogs, are known as less lethal methods.
    • Lethal force – Lethal force is the highest level of force, in which a lethal weapon such a firearm is used.

If going off of the precedent set by the Supreme Court, a police officer must start an interaction with a subject using the least amount of force possible. Only if they are unable to subdue the individual is the officer allowed to escalate the amount of force used. However, the principle of only using proportional force to a threat is what often draws the most scrutiny in excessive force cases, particularly those resulting in death.

Famous examples of excessive force

Though the murder of George Floyd incited recent nationwide protests, it’s, unfortunately, hardly the first case of its kind. Other notable instances of police brutality include:

  • Rodney King, 1991 – After being caught by police after a high-speed chase on March 3, 1991, Rodney King was brutally beaten by Los Angeles police officers. The beating was caught on camera leading to national outrage. The officers involved were indicted on criminal charges but ultimately acquitted. The acquittal of the officers sparked the Los Angeles riots of 1992.
  • Eric Garner, 2014 – New York police officers approached Eric Garner under the suspicion that he was illegally selling cigarettes. During the course of the altercation, one of the officers put Eric Garner in a chokehold while Garner repeated “I can’t breathe”. Eric Garner was pronounced dead shortly after at a local hospital. The medical examiner ruled the death a homicide, but the officer involved was not indicted.
  • Tamir Rice, 2014 – Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy, was killed by a police officer in Cleveland, Ohio after officers received a report of a male with a gun. The caller reported that the suspect was a juvenile and that the weapon looked fake. However, officer Timothy Loehmann shot Rice almost immediately after arriving on the scene. A grand jury failed to indict Loehmann on criminal charges.
  • Freddie Gray, 2015 – Freddie Gray was arrested by Baltimore police and charged with possessing a knife on April 12, 2015. During transport in a police van, Gray slipped into a coma. Gray died on April 19, 2015, from spinal cord injuries. Eyewitnesses claim that unnecessary force was used during the arrest. All criminal charges against the officers involved were either dropped or acquitted. 
  • Walter Scott, 2015 –  During a traffic stop on April 4, 2015, Walter Scott fled from the responding officer. In response the officer fired eight rounds at Scott; Scott was struck five times. Following the shooting, the officer radioed the dispatcher and claimed Scott grabbed his taser, however, eyewitness video established that this was false. The officer was eventually sentenced to 20 years in federal prison. 
  • Philando Castile, 2016 – Philando Castile was fatally shot by a police officer during a traffic stop on July 6, 2016. During the stop, Castile was asked to produce his license and registration. Before doing so, Castile notified the officer that he had a legal firearm with him. When Castile tried to produce the requested documents, the officer, fearing he was reaching for his firearm, shot him five times at close range. Castile’s partner and her four-year-old daughter were in the car with him at the time of his death. The officer involved was acquitted of criminal charges.

Police violence and excessive force statistics

The following information was obtained from Mapping Police Violence’s report on 2019 deaths caused by police unless otherwise noted.

  • Police killed 1,098 people in 2019.
  • 429 civilians have been fatally shot by police as of June 4, 2020.
  • 24% of the people killed by police in 2019 were Black. 
  • There were only 27 days in 2019 where police did not kill someone.
  • Black people killed by police are 1.3 times more likely to be unarmed than white people.
  • 99% of killings by police officers from 2013-2019 have not resulted in the officers involved being charged with a crime. 
  • From 2013-2019, the Austin Police Department killed 31 people. 42% of these people had a mental illness.
  • From 2013-2019 police in Texas killed 719 people. Texas had the second-most highest number of killings by police in this time period.

What causes police officers to use excessive force?

No problem can be fully understood or solved without considering why the problem exists. This holds true for police misconduct and excessive force as well. 

The following factors have been found to contribute to the use of excessive force:

Fear 

Without a doubt, police officers have an incredibly stressful job that may at times make them fear for their lives. And while heightened awareness is critical for officers engaged in a dangerous situation, fear can cause bad judgment and irreparable mistakes. An officer in fear for their life may use excessive force rather than attempting to diffuse the situation.

Racism and discrimination 

An unfortunate reality of police brutality is that it disproportionately affects Black Americans and other minority groups. The internalized hatred of a race or perceiving a race of people as inherently violent or dangerous can cause a police officer to use excessive force against an individual of that race.

Systemic problems in the police force 

Encouragement of violence by fellow officers and a lack of punishment for excessive force can be an incubator for police violence within a department. If an officer’s work environment condones it, it is more likely the officer will engage in violence. 

While these reasons don’t pardon the offense, they can be used to identify patterns and help determine solutions.

Proposed solutions on how to prevent excessive force by police

The rightful outrage at the abuse at the hands of police has started meaningful discussions on what tangible steps can be taken to reduce police violence. 

Proposed excessive force solutions include:

Additional officer education and training requirements 

Researchers found that police officers with a college education receive fewer complaints and were less to participate in misconduct than officers with only a high school education. Those working to end police brutality propose that all officer prospects must have at least a bachelor’s degree to be hired by a department. Proponents say this, combined with regular training in de-escalation tactics, will help officers develop their ethical values and prevent the use of excessive force.

Additional mental health resources for officers 

As part of their jobs, police officers expose themselves to vicarious trauma, which is composed of both acute trauma and cumulative trauma. This combined with the stress from life’s regular problems can cause an officer to suffer from mental health issues, and poor mental wellness can cause poor performance. As a resolution, police departments and support groups are working to raise awareness on the issue and create resources for officers in need.

Demilitarize the police

Local police departments have become increasingly militarized as time has gone on. Large annual budgets and privileges such as the 1033 program have supplied police departments with military-grade equipment for use against civilians. Research has shown that police departments with more military equipment kill more people per year on average than departments with less. This is why activists and organizations against police violence are calling for the demilitarization of local police forces.

Update department policies 

Researchers of violence by police say that departments can reduce their number of excessive significantly by implementing more restrictive use of force policies. Researchers at the Use of Force Project analyzed 2015 and 2016 data on killings by police and found that the police departments that implemented the following policies saw a decrease in police killings:

  • Requires officers to use all other means before shooting
  • Requires all use of force be reported
  • Bans chokeholds and strangleholds
  • Duty to intervene if another officer uses excessive force
  • Restricts shooting at moving vehicles
  • Requires warning before shooting

What should I do if I’ve been the victim of excessive force by police?

Violent encounters with a law enforcement official are traumatic and can cause you to question the very establishment that is meant to protect you. If you’ve been the victim of such an assault, you are not alone. There’s a number of resources and avenues for justice available to you.

If you’ve been the victim of police violence, you may find these resources helpful:

Below are other options available to victims of excessive force.

File an internal complaint

Every police department accepts civilian complaints about police officers. When you file a complaint with a department, the case is reviewed and investigated by other police officers. If enough evidence is found, the complaint can lead to punishment or even termination. Even if the officer isn’t punished, the complaint is likely to stay on their record and impact future promotion or punishment decisions.

File a criminal complaint

Only 1% of police officers are criminally charged after using excessive force, and an even smaller percentage of such officers are convicted. But this is not to say that criminal charges aren’t possible.

Exact procedures may vary by location, but for state criminal charges, a person can file an application for a criminal complaint at their state district court. After the application is filed, the clerk magistrate will hold a hearing to determine if there is probable cause to issue a complaint.

It is then up to the District Attorney to decide whether or not to prosecute; if prosecuted, the case then goes to trial.

Cases of excessive force may also be eligible for federal criminal charges. Such cases are investigated by the FBI and prosecuted by members of the Justice Department.

Pursue civil litigation

The use of excessive force by a police officer violates your 4th Amendment rights. Because of this, victims of excessive force are able to bring a civil lawsuit against the offending officer or department. In a civil lawsuit, the court can find that excessive force was used and hold the accused accountable for damages.

Typical victim compensation for excessive force includes:

  • Medical bills 
  • Lost wages
  • Loss of future income or benefits
  • Pain and suffering
  • Emotional distress 

An expert excessive force attorney will make sure you receive maximum compensation.

If you’ve been a victim of police brutality, speak with a personal injury attorney today.