Police brutality in the United States

March 7, 1965: Alabama police attack the Selma-to-Montgomery Marchers on "Bloody Sunday"

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. The term is also applied to abuses by corrections personnel in municipal, state and federal penal facilities including military prisons.

While the term police brutality is usually applied in the context of causing physical harm, it may also involve psychological harm through the use of intimidation tactics beyond the scope of officially sanctioned police procedure. In the past, those who engaged in police brutality may have acted with the implicit approval of the local legal system, e.g. during the Civil Rights Movement era. In the modern era, individuals who engage in police brutality may do so with the tacit approval of their superiors or they may be rogue officers. In either case, they may perpetrate their actions under color of law and, more often than not, engage in a subsequent cover-up of their illegal activity.

The word brutality has several meanings; the sense used here (savage cruelty) was first used in 1633.[1] The term police brutality has been in use since at least 1833 when it appeared in the London paper The Poor Man's Guardian.[2]

Efforts to combat police brutality focus on various aspects of the police subculture, and the aberrant psychology which may manifest itself when individuals are placed in a position of absolute authority over others.[3] Specific suggestions for how to decrease the occurrence of police brutality include body cameras and civilian review boards.

Causes

Numerous doctrines, such as federalism, separation of powers, causation, deference, discretion, and burden of proof have been cited as partial explanations for the judiciaries' fragmented pursuit of police misconduct. However, there is also evidence that courts cannot or choose not to see systemic patterns in police brutality.[4] Other factors that have been cited as encouraging police brutality include institutionalized systems of police training, management, and culture; a criminal-justice system that discourages prosecutors from pursuing police misconduct vigorously; a political system that responds more readily to police than to the residents of inner-city and minority communities; and a racist political culture that fears crime and values tough policing more than it values due process for all its citizens.[5] It is believed that without substantial social change, the control of police deviance is improbable at best.[6]

In the United States, the passage of the Volstead Act (popularly known as the National Prohibition Act) in 1919 had a long-term negative impact on policing practices. By the mid-1920s, crime was growing dramatically in response to the demand for illegal alcohol. Many law enforcement agencies stepped up the use of unlawful practices. By the time of the Hoover administration (1929–1933), the issue had risen to national concern and a National Committee on Law Observation and Enforcement (popularly known as the Wickersham Commission) was formed to look into the situation.[7] The resulting "Report on Lawlessness in Law Enforcement" (1931) concluded that "[t]he third degree—that is, the use of physical brutality, or other forms of cruelty, to obtain involuntary confessions or admissions—is widespread".[8] In the years following the report, landmark legal judgments such as Brown v. Mississippi helped cement a legal obligation to respect the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.[9]

Police brutality can be associated with racial profiling. Differences in race, religion, politics, or socioeconomic status sometimes exist between police and the citizenry. Some police officers may view the population (or a particular subset thereof) as generally deserving punishment. Portions of the population may perceive the police to be oppressors. In addition, there is a perception that victims of police brutality often belong to relatively powerless groups, such as racial or cultural minorities, the disabled, and the poor.[10]

The war model of policing has been offered as a reason for why police brutality occurs. Through this model, police brutality is more likely to occur because police see crime as a war and have people who are their enemies.[11] Police who have been exposed to war have more than a 50% higher rate of excessive force complaints than non-veterans according to internal Boston PD documents.[12]

Academic theories such as the threat hypothesis and the community violence hypothesis have been used to explain police brutality. The threat hypothesis implies that "police use force in direct response to a perceived threat from racial and/or economic groups viewed as threatening to the existing social order".[13] According to the community violence hypothesis, "police use force in direct response to levels of violence in the community".[13] This theory explains that force is used to control groups that threaten the community or police themselves with violence.