A young man’s family reports that he was brutally beaten by police during a shoplifting arrest; police are photographed smearing pepper spray in the eyes of non-violent protestors—these are but two of the recent reports of alleged police brutality throughout the U.S., a problem that has been described as epidemic.
This article discusses police brutality and the rights of victims subjected to it. For more information on police misdeeds in general, see Police Misconduct.
Police Brutality: Abuse of Power
Police officers are given a great deal of latitude in performing their duties. Because they are expected to protect the public and confront potentially violent individuals, they can legally use physical, and even deadly, force under certain circumstances. However, an officer who uses force when it is not called for, or who uses more force than is necessary to perform his or her job, may cross the line into police brutality. The term is not a legal term and the definition is therefore a bit soft; it may be best described by way of example.
A driver who failed to stop at a Walmart parking lot stop sign endured a lot more than just an embarrassing chat with the cops and a hefty ticket. The Deming, New Mexico, the police officers who pulled him over, claimed that he was “clenching his buttocks” in a suspicious fashion, so they arrested him, obtained a search warrant, and forced him to submit to an anal probe and colonoscopy to determine if he was hiding illegal drugs. No drugs were found.
In November 2013, police officers in Tullytown, Pennsylvania, arrested a 14-year-old boy on charges of shoplifting at a local Walmart. The boy’s mother alleges that the cops viciously beat her son, leaving him with a broken nose and swollen eyes. She said the officers also used a Taser on the boy’s face.
In Humboldt County, California, police officers applied pepper spray directly on the eyes of hand-cuffed and immobilized nonviolent anti-logging protestors. Photographs of the officers swabbing the eyes of the writhing young people with the chemical agent made headlines around the globe. A similar incident of officers in Davis, California, pepper spraying university student protestors at close range led to international outrage and a class action lawsuit.
And, in 2009, 22-year-old Oscar Grant was killed by a transit police officer who had him pinned to the ground, face-down, in an Oakland, California, rail station, a tragedy depicted in the 2013 movie, Fruitvale.
Given that the unique and broad powers wielded by police officers are conferred by the state, police officers are essentially acting on behalf of the government. The U.S. Constitution defines the limits of governmental powers.
Police officers as agents of the government
These constitutional constraints apply to police officers as agents of the government. While a citizen who is subjected to police brutality may be able to sue the police officer or even the department for personal injury damages under state tort law, many cases of police brutality involve civil rights violations under the Constitution or federal laws construing constitutional rights.
Among the constitutional claims a victim of police brutality may raise are:
- denial of the due process rights guaranteed by the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution
- unreasonable searches prohibited by the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, and
- violation of civil rights under the Civil Rights Act of 1871 (42 U.S.C. §1983).
Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 provides for a private civil action for damages by any person deprived of his or her civil rights by anyone acting under “color” of law (in other words, in an official, governmental capacity).
Constitutional implications where race is a factor
If a police officer brutalizes a person based on that person’s race (by using unnecessary force, humiliating tactics, or the like), the victim may also raise a claim of violation of his right to equal protection under the law. This claim is in addition to a claim under Section 1983, which he may also bring. Racial profiling by the police is explained in depth in Racial Profiling and the Police.
Another harm inflicted by police officers who engage in brutality is the loss of trust by members of the community they have sworn to protect, a trust officers need if they are to be effective in their jobs. Victims and witnesses of crimes are much less likely to report crime or cooperate in investigations if the cops have betrayed their trust by brutalizing their neighbors, family members, and friends. This collateral effect is explained in Opportunistic NYPD Leaks: Undermining Public Safety and Community Trust, a blog entry on the Huffington Post.
Talk to a Lawyer; Take Action
If you believe that you or someone you know has been the victim of police brutality, contact a lawyer in your area with experience in civil rights law. And, learn more about the problem of police brutality and how to get involved to stop it.