Police Harassment Essays

Getting It Straight


Most commonly people have a bitter hatred for the police. This is because the news tends to hype things up and make all police officers look bad. When really there are only a few bad eggs giving these other law abiding officers a bad name. I am not here to state how bad the police are, I want people to know that police misconduct does happen, and it is very wrong. However, it isn’t a problem with every officer out there on watch. These minority officers are making the streets dangerous for the officers who are doing their jobs properly. I believe police brutality is a problem with those who are committing it, and I want to inform the general public who believe that all police are dirty, that not all police commit these crimes, and without the police here we would not be living in such a safe society. We need these police officers who lay their lives down at every watch for the public, but we need to weed out the bad eggs so that we can pave a safer road for the officers and civilians of the future.  

Police brutality has had a long history in the U.S. In the early days of policing, acts of mass brutality were usually attributed to the poor labor workers. From the GreatRailroad Strike of 1877 (Bruce, Robert), to the Pullman Strike of 1894, the Lawrence textile strike of 1912 (McPherson, John Bruce), the Ludlow massacre of1914 where one hundred and forty six men were gun down by the National Guard (Mauk, Ben), the Steel strike of 1919, and the Hanapepe massacre of 1924, where the police would brutally beat striking laborers. Next came Prohibition, The Civil Rights Movement, The Vietnam War and the Nixon administration which all had large scale acts of police brutality spanning from the 20s through the 60s.
However, it did not stop there. Police misconduct and brutality is still very much a problem in our country.

“An extensive U.S. Department of Justice report on police use of force released in 2001 indicates that in 1999, “approximately 422,000 people 16 years old and older were estimated to have had contact with police in which force or the threat of force was used.” Another Department of Justice report issued in 2006 shows that out of 26,556 citizen complaints about excessive use of police force among large U.S. agencies (representing 5% of agencies and 59% of officers) in 2002, about 2000 were sustained.(Hickman, Matthew)

However, other studies have shown that most police brutality goes unreported. In 1982, the federal government funded a “Police Services Study” in which over 12,000 randomly selected citizens were interviewed in three metropolitan areas. The study found that 13 percent of those surveyed had been victims of police brutality the previous year. Yet only 30 percent of those who acknowledged such brutality filed formal complaints. (Woorden, Robert E., and Robin L. Shepard.)A 1998 Human Rights Watch report stated that in all 14 precincts which it examined, the process of filing a complaint was “unnecessarily difficult and often intimidating”. ("Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States.")

Many social justice issues rise out of this. The police have been abusing their power throughout much of U.S. history and creating fearful environments in many cities when they should be making people feel safe. Minorities appear to be the main targets of this violence as well. “In 2002, 32 individuals were shot to death in questionable circumstances, with 90% of the victims being Black or Hispanics, and over 50% of the shooters being Caucasian. In 2003, 17 individuals have been shot to death, with 90% of the victims being Black or Hispanic, while two-thirds of the shooters were Caucasian”. (“Race and the Police”)
Even from the beginning of policing to present day, most police brutality styles have remained the same. However, with the rise in technology since the early days some things have changed. Officers in the early 20th century might have used fists or batons, but now pepper spray and Tasers are more common use of police brutality.

Today officers have a variety of police brutality methods. Most commonly there is the excessive use of force. But that is not the only type of police misconduct. Police brutality can take form in false arrests, malicious prosecution, failure of an officer to intervene, and sexual assault. (“Police misconduct and Civil Rights”)

Excessive use of force is the most common and what most people consider police misconduct, this takes form when an officer physically handles a civilian. It may be that the officer is using his fists in order to take advantage of the civilian, or what is used more often for this is pepper spray or CED’s. The pepper spray is less harmless than Tasers but can sometimes be used more than is necessary. The Tasers are the big problem in America.  Since around 2005 nearly 500 deaths have come out of the misuse of Tasers. Tasers have in some cases not only injured the suspect but the police officer as well. (“Online Safety and Technology Working Group Final Report”)

False arrests are present when police take an individual into custody, without an arrest warrant and without “probable cause.” An officer would have “probable cause” if he or she actually saw the person commit a serious crime or had a reasonable belief that the person had or was just about to commit a serious crime. The reasonableness of the officer’s belief is based on the information available at the time of the arrest, even if it turns out to be wrong. When police lack this legal justification, the person taken into custody may have a claim for false arrest. (“Police Misconduct and Civil Rights”)

A person may be the victim of “malicious prosecution” when a law enforcement official begins a criminal proceeding, without “probable cause,” but with malice toward the victim, and the criminal proceeding ends in the victim’s favor (without a conviction).This claim arises because the law states that no one should be subjected to the extreme emotional stress, embarrassment, and financial expense often involved in a criminal prosecution that lacks a legitimate basis.( “Police Misconduct and Civil Rights”)

When an officer witnesses a possible presence of police brutality and does not report it to the superiors. This in turn becomes a type of police brutality, because just like letting a bully beat your friend up is wrong, a police officer allowing police misconduct to happen is illegal. The officer could face charges if evidence is found that the officer witnessed the incident but did not report it. (“Police Misconduct and Civil Rights”)

Lastly, is police sexual assault? This can take forms in many ways. An officer giving a female a pat down search, could begin groping her or improperly touching her especially in areas that are not intended to be touched in the initial search. An officer could also verbally harass a female victim by using inappropriate language, or saying inappropriate things to the female. Officers can also bribe women to have sexual intercourse with them, in order to get them out of trouble.

Police brutality is not a thing that should be taken lightly, but there is the law Section 1983 of Civil Rights Act which exists to protect victims from police attacks on their constitutional rights. Congress enacted 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in order to protect the rights guaranteed to all Americans by the 14th Amendment. Under Section 1983, a victim can file a lawsuit in federal court for police brutality. Section 1983 allows any person within the United States to sue a government official for depriving them of a constitutional right. (Britnall, Kent)

In police brutality cases, the following violations are common: Fourth Amendment. An officer touching your physical person or even use of a gun is a "seizure" under the Fourth Amendment. Even a police CED may violate this right. Fifth Amendment. Intentionally refusing to read a suspect their Miranda rights and interrogating them can violate this right. 14th Amendment. Slurs and verbal abuse based on race can violate a suspect's right to equal protection. (Britnall, Kent)

Victims of police brutality can sue any police agency or government institution under Section 1983. Depending on who was the one violating your rights you can sue:  Law enforcement officers? It may seem obvious, but you can sue the officers responsible as well as their supervisors for any injuries and violations of your rights. These officers, however, in a lot of cases the officers do not get the blame.

City and county governments. Often this is the common way to sue a police department, which cannot be sued directly. For example, victims often sue "The City of Los Angeles" instead of the "LAPD." Or the mayor of a city. Another way to sue a city department is to sue the mayor of that city. (Britnall, Kent)

The Rodney King case is the prime example of the officers getting tried for their mistakes. But even in this case the officers came out with only a slap to the hand. This in no way teaches other offending officers the lesson they need to change, so the brutality continues to affect innocent people as well as make it dangerous for those officers doing their jobs right. It is a cold reality, but it is a reality we face unless something is done about it.

Police officers can make a difference in this effort though. When an obvious incident of police misconduct is witnessed officers need to be the ones to inform the authorities so that a similar incident does not happen again. In some circumstances this maybe difficult to detect, because there are many cases where it may have appeared police brutality was present when the victim; however was really the one in the wrong.

This is also a community issue as well, it does not have to be the officers that are the ones trying to resolve these types of domestic cases. Neighborhood watches can help officers out and limit the use officers have to do. Civilians could start raising funds for police brutality organizations in order to bring a stop to it. Something is going to have to be done in order to secure the rights and safety of the people, as well as the safety of future officers to come.

Britnall, Kent. Section 1983 outline. San Francisco: Office of Staff Attorneys, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, 2008. Print.
Bruce, Robert V... 1877: year of violence... [1st ed. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959. Print.
Hickman, Matthew. "Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS)." Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). N.p., 25 June 2006. Web. 28 July 2014.
Mauk, Ben. "The Ludlow Massacre Still Matters." The New Yorker. N.p., 18 Apr. 2014. Web. 18 July 2014.
McPherson, John Bruce. The Lawrence strike of 1912. Boston: The Rockwell and Churchill Press, 1912. Print.
 "Online Safety and Technology Working Group Final Report." Scribd. National Institute of Justice, n.d. Web. 30 July 2014.
 "Police Misconduct and Civil Rights - FindLaw." Findlaw. Thomas Reuters, n.d. Web. 30 July 2014.
"Race and the Police." Civilrights.org. The leadership Conference, 13 Feb. 2014. Web. 20 July 2014.
Sheppard, Roland. "The Historic Role of Police Brutality." The Historic Role of Police Brutality. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 July 2014.
 "Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States." Human Rights Watch. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 July 2014.
STUDY DATA." "UC.edu". State University of New York, n.d. Web. 20 July 2014.

In just the last two months, Michael Brown, 18, was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri; Ezell Ford, 25, was killed by a police officer in Los Angeles; Frank Alvarado, 39, was killed by a Salinas police officer; Eric Garner, 43, was killed by a New York police officer; and Marlene Pinnock, 51, was brutally beaten by a California Highway Patrol officer. All of these victims were of color, and all were unarmed.

Since these latest incidents, there has been much talk about the need for retraining officers; and there have been repeated calls from an outraged public for investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI. But training and federal investigations are ineffective responses to allegations of police misconduct. We know how to solve this epidemic; we just need to find the political will to do it.

Before they even don their uniforms, police officers receive hours and hours of training about the appropriate use of force. At the nation’s police academies, they learn how to evaluate situations where force could be an option and when it’s illegal. By the time officers are patrol-ready, they know how to use their firearms, batons, and stun guns. Yet, in response to the chokehold killing of Erin Garner, New York Police Commissioner William Bratton has called for the “retraining” of his officers. Training is, of course, essential to law enforcement. But it would be a serious and dangerous error to shrug off these deaths and beatings by cops and simply attribute them to inadequate training.

Retraining is useless when officers view people of color as “f--king animals”—the words shouted by a police officer at a crowd in Ferguson protesting the killing of Michael Brown. All of the training and retraining in the world are of no moment if officers see the people they are charged to protect and serve as subhuman and dangerous.

And while some investigations by the FBI and the Justice Department have resulted in major and positive changes to police departments, these kinds of costly inquiries frequently take years to complete. Case in point: the fatal shooting of Brown in Ferguson. The FBI has opened a civil rights inquiry in response to the public outcry, but a week after the shooting, critical information such as the name of the officer, and the number of times and where on his body Brown was shot, has not been released. This is not a training problem. It’s a transparency problem.

So, if more training and federal investigations are not the answer, what is? First, police departments must broaden the definition of reasonable use of force. In 1989 the U.S. Supreme Court in Graham v. Connor defined the reasonable use of force as force “judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, and its calculus must embody an allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second decisions about the amount of force necessary in a particular situation.” That definition has been interpreted narrowly by law enforcement agencies across the country to mean that the reasonableness of the force is limited to an examination of only the amount of force used in the moment. The conduct of officers right before the use of force is never examined. Under this definition, officers who provoke individuals and officers who escalate situations get a pass. 

The definition of what constitutes the reasonable use of force must be expanded to include the circumstances leading up to the use of force, so that the inquiry into the misconduct sweeps in whatever the officer did prior to the decision to  use force, along with the conduct of the victim. There is precedent for this. This year, both the Seattle Police Department and the Los Angeles Police Department expanded their definitions of reasonable use of force. Now, in Seattle, officers cannot use physical force “against individuals who only verbally confront them unless the vocalization impedes a legitimate law enforcement function or contains specific threats to harm the officers or others.” And in Los Angeles, the use of deadly force must include “consideration of not only the use of deadly force itself, but also an officer’s tactical conduct and decisions leading up to the use of force when determining its reasonableness.”

Second, cities and counties must establish independent civilian oversight agencies for their law enforcement departments. Civilian oversight of law enforcement is far from novel. Worldwide, countries such as South Africa, Canada, Belgium, and the European Union have police oversight agencies. And there are numerous cities and counties in the United States that have established civilian oversight departments, from Palo Alto, California, to Kalamazoo, Michigan, to Honolulu, Hawaii. (A complete listing of all civilian oversight agencies can be found at nacole.org). In San Jose, California, where I am the independent police auditor, our civilian oversight office has existed for 21 years. The beauty of civilian oversight is that it holds police officers accountable to the public by providing independent review of complaints of police misconduct, instead of relying solely upon internal investigations in which the police investigate themselves.

The 1988 murder of 20-year-old Cara Knott by Officer Craig Peyer, a six-year veteran of the California Highway Patrol, illustrates what happens when independent civilian oversight is not a part of misconduct investigations. After stopping Knott, ostensibly for a traffic violation, Peyer made sexual advances on her. When she refused, he killed her by bludgeoning her with his flashlight, strangling her, and then tossing her body over a bridge. It turned out that a number of young women had also been the victims of Peyer’s advances. And while they had filed complaints with the CHP’s Internal Affairs Unit, the department’s internal investigations dismissed their complaints, finding in favor of Peyer. Peyer is now serving a life sentence in a California prison for Knott’s murder.

Third, and as Reihan Salam argues today in Slate, every single law enforcement officer should be required to wear body-worn cameras, or BWCs; and every single law enforcement agency should adopt a protocol for the operation of these cameras that strictly regulates when the cameras can be turned off by officers. Bystanders with cameras have changed policing forever. Witness the public outrage after the release of videos that depicted the beating of Marlene Pinnock and the chokehold death of Eric Garner. Police officers should have cameras, too.

BWCs promote transparency in policing, they hold officers and the public accountable for their actions, and they reduce civil litigation. The police department of Rialto, California, has 115 sworn officers. In 2009 it became the first known police department to utilize BWCs. A study that analyzed the use of BWCs in Rialto showed that use of force incidents dropped by 59 percent, and that civilian complaints about police misconduct decreased by 87.5 percent. Those numbers are staggering. The benefit to police and the public of recording police interactions clearly justifies its costs. Even the ACLU has concluded that BWCs assist in holding law enforcement more accountable to the communities that they serve.

Over the last decade, claims against cities and counties across the country stemming from police incidents amounted to $22 billion. The special counsel to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department recently reported that between January 2013 and April 2014, 132 cases of excessive force against the department were closed by settlements or court verdicts, totaling $12,175,000. The largest payout in fiscal 2012–2013 was a jury award of $6 million, settled by the County for $3.9 million. The plaintiff in that case claimed that two deputies escalated a traffic stop into violence, pepper-spraying him, punching him in the head, kneeing him in the face, and slamming his head into the pavement. And don’t forget the attorneys’ fees that are often a key driver in the decision of whether or not to settle or proceed to litigation. In Los Angeles County, for every dollar spent on a payout in fiscal 2012, another dollar was spent on the lawyers, amounting to $43 million. Communities policed by officers wearing BWCs will see a dramatic decrease in litigation and the costs associated with it.

All the outrage surrounding the violence against unarmed black people this summer will amount to nothing if we simply settle for more investigations and more training. There are steps we can take to reduce police violence, and they have been proved to work.


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