Police Brutality: The Use of Excessive Force"
Members of the police force are government officials who enforce the laws and maintain order. They are engaged in a dangerous and stressful occupation that can involve violent situations that must be controlled. In many of these confrontations with the public it may become necessary for the police to administer force to take control of a situation. Sometimes this force takes the form of hand-to-hand combat with a suspect who resists being arrested. The police do have strict guidelines to follow when using force. Force should be used in only the minimum amount needed to achieve a legitimate purpose. The New York Police Department has these five stages set through which the use of force can progress. 1) verbal persuasion, 2) unarmed physical force, 3) force using non-lethal weapons, 4) force using impact weapons, 5) deadly force (AIUSAPolice Brutality 1999:2). They also have many tools at their disposal when the need for using force arises. These include the police baton, mace, tasers, handcuffs, police dogs, and firearms. An officer of the law can be properly trained to administer the law in an unbiased way that will not violate a citizens rights, however, this is not happening across the United States.
According to a recent Amnesty International study, there are thousands of reports each year of assault and ill treatment against officers who use excessive force and violate the human rights of their victims (AIUSA Rights 1999:1). Police officers are injuring and even killing people through the use of excessive force and brutal treatment. A significant problem in this area is that police behavior is abusive of civilian rights, but it is also considered necessary and appropriate police procedure (Geller, 1996:7). In many cases police go too far when they excessively punch, kick, beat, and shoot people who pose no threat. Injuries and sometimes death result from the police use of restraints, chemical sprays, electro-shock weapons, batons, dogs, flashlights, radios, and guns (AIUSA Rights 1999:1-3). Police brutality cases have received more attention due to some of the high profile cases that reach the media. The use of excessive force is a criminal act, it is in fact a type of white collar crime.
To understand the causes of police brutality requires an interdisciplinary approach. The criminal justice system, police profession and the psychology profession ought to work together to identify these possible causes and their prevention and law treatment. As I will discuss later there is difficulty in pursuing brutality offenders because there is a lack of coordination between the justice system and police organizations. The justice system wants to punish offenders, but the police structure seems to encourage excessive use of force. The police profession must come to recognize that brutality is a crime and all three of the professions must work to discourage future acts.
By operating in the occupation of a police officer and committing a brutalizing act, an officer commits a punishable offense. It can be defined as a crime on many different levels. Police brutality and the use of excessive force is an occupational crime because, according to Friedrichs, it is a "violation of the legal codes in the course of activity in a legitimate occupation" (1996:96). Police brutality is a direct violation of the laws within the police force. The use of force is also a direct violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution regarding cruelty and protection of the laws. Police are given a great deal of trust by people that they will act with honor and integrity. They also have a certain amount of respectability for the position police hold and the power that comes with their position. An act of brutality abuses this power and violates the trust placed upon the police and their position. The violation of these three attributes are key elements of white collar crime (Friedrichs 1996:11, 12-13, 141-143). Police brutality is a criminal act regardless of the extent and it is affected by the organizational practices of police departments. I am going to use the Rodney King case to examine my thesis and to apply it to my knowledge of white collar crime.
The following are compiled accounts of police brutality cases which have left the victims in a state of emotional and physical stress, and in some cases the victims did not survive. Most brutality cases occur during the course of arrest, disputes or other incidents in the street or public places. Some even occur while the victim has already been constrained and is in police custody either on the way to the station or while at the station (AIUSA Police Brutality 1999:2-3).
In August 1997, police officer Justin Volpe was knocked to the ground while at a bar. Officer Volpe erroneously believed that a man named Abner Louima had done this. While handcuffed in the squad car, officer Volpe and another officer struck Louima in the face with their fists. When they returned to the station, officer Volpe and another officer then shoved a wooden stick up Louimas rectum, and then held it in his face. Louima who had nothing to do with knocking the officer down, was arrested and tortured. The officers involved threatened Louima not to tell anyone and then tried to cover up their excessive use of force. Officer Volpe violated Brooklyn police codes on force, and Louimas civil rights. (Petterson, 1999:1-4).
Several suspects have died while in police custody from positional asphyxia which is death by being placed in a position which restricts breathing. Dwayne Nelson died in September of 1998 after being placed in a Total Appendage Restraint Procedure, a form of hog-tie, while being transported to jail. On the way to a hospital he lost consciousness and died. In January 1999, Luis Enrique Hernandez died after being hog-tied by three officers. This act was in direct violation of a departmental ban on the procedure (AIUSA USA section 4 1999:1-2). Hog-tying is known to be dangerous, but the officers in these cases disregarded the safety of the suspects. In the Luis case the officers violated the laws of the department.
In February 1999, Danny Dunn was arrested for public drunkenness and placed in a padded cell. Danny was already in a cell and there was no need for restraint, but he was being loud and the officers didnt like it. Three officers entered his cell, one sprayed him in the face with pepper spray while one put his foot on Dannys chest and applied a choke hold. He was then dragged into the hallway where the choke hold was repeated and his stomach was stomped on. He died within minutes of his stomach being stomped on, but the officers didnt take him to the hospital until six hours later. The autopsy reported that Danny had a torn liver due to the struggle, three rib fractures, and a skull fracture. The manner of death was given as an accident (AIUSA USA section 4 1999:2). There was no need for Danny to be restrained further because he was already locked in a cell. The officers committed homicide by using excessive force in their choke hold.
In April 1997, students at the University of California engaged in a non-violent occupation of a university building in Berkeley were beaten by police. The police struck the students with batons as they were lying on the ground. Police also sprayed students in the face at close ranges with pepper spray. At least two students suffered asthma attacks and other injuries resulting from the attack (AIUSA USA section 4 1999:3-4).
In February 1999, Roy Lynn Weeaks was brutally attacked by a police dog. Weeaks had surrendered to police and was lying face down on the ground. Police then released the dog and ordered it to attack him. The dog bit him in the groan and nearly severed his penis (AIUSA USA section 4 1999:4-5).
In March 1998 a man was stopped for driving erratically on the wrong side of the road. It was later determined that the man was suffering from hypoglycemic shock. Once the man had stopped, police ordered a K-9 unit into the car and the canine repeatedly bit the driver. He was then beaten and pepper sprayed by police (AIUSA USA section 4 1999:5).
In New York City in February 1999 Amaduo Diallo was shot 19 times and killed by four white officers who fired 41 shots at him. He had no criminal record and carried only a beeper and a wallet. The officers were looking for a rape suspect. Diallo did not even fit the profile except for the fact that he was a black man (Schulz, 1998:1).
The preceding cases all have some recurring themes. All of the victims were unarmed and in a state of helplessness or acting in a non-violent way albeit in some instances erratic. Never the less, none of these victims were involved in an activity that required officers to use any force at all much less excessive force. A few of them had already surrendered or were in custody before the police began using excessive force upon them. All of these victims were at the mercy of the officers within whom they trusted to receive fair treatment. The officers involved in these cases all had something in common as well, they were all white collar criminals. Each one of them violated Constitutional rights, human rights, police codes of conduct, and they abused their power.
On March 3rd, 1991 Rodney King was being pursued by the Los Angeles Police Department for refusing to pull his car over and stop. They had been chasing him for eight miles when King finally stopped. Sergeant Koon ordered four officers to jump on King and subdue him. King appeared intoxicated to the officers and was very strong, he got away from the officers and began to do things which the police said gave the appearance that King was on PCP. Koon fired two volleys of electronic darts into King. He got up and ran in the direction of Powell and the attack began (Leibovich, 1999:1-3). King suffered numerous injuries during the attack. He was hit with batons between 53 and 56 times over a period of three to four minutes. The bones holding his eye in its socket were broken, and King suffered 11 broken bones at the base of his skull. Reports concerning that incident were falsely reported in an attempt to cover up the excessive use of force. The Los Angeles police officers and supervisors downplayed the injuries to King as minor scraps and bruises. Koons had reported that King felt no pain, but Kings friend in the car said he could hear King screaming as the officers detained him. The California Highway Patrol were so shocked by the level of brutality that they took note of the officers names. The police officers involved in the beating reported that King attacked officers, resisted, and increased his level of resistance. In the videotape however, King is seen in a defenseless position on his hands and knees as officers circle him and beat him repeatedly with their batons. Koons report contained no information regarding other people in Kings car. Koons report of minimal use of force was also backed up by a lieutenant (Berger, 1991:1-8).
One of the primary ways in which this case is applicable to white collar crime is that it is representative of Friedrichs (1996) three attributes of trust, respect, and power. The first being that the LAPD in this instance had an obligation to perform their duties with honor and integrity. The officers who did the beating violated this implied trust because 53 baton hits to a suspect who is defenseless does not constitute honor much less integrity. One consequence of this action according to Friedrichs is an increase in distrust (Friedrichs, 1996:11-12). In later statements made by King he said " I fear the police. I fear them" (Berger, 1991:7). In a free democratic society citizens should not be afraid of law enforcement officials.
Officers in the case also had a degree of respectability because they are enforcers of the law. Freidrichs writes that respectability is a powerful force in society that is striven for by many professionals. There are three meanings to respectability. The first is an assessment of moral integrity which police officers usually possess. The second is that they occupy a legitimate occupation in society. The third is that there is the outward appearance of superior status (Friedrichs, 1996:12-13). Police officers do have a superior status because they are the people who enforce laws and have authority over people. The officers in the King case match Friedrichs definition of criminals because they lack moral integrity, but exert the outward appearance and the status of professionals. The moral integrity is absent due to the documenting of officers making racial slurs and lack of concern for the beating of King. One officer is overheard saying "I havent beaten anyone this bad in a long time" (Berger, 1991:1, 7-8). Then there is the fact that LAPD officers beat this man as he lay on the ground and screamed.
Finally, officers in the Rodney King case abused their power as representatives of the law. Brutalizing the public in a free society is a clear example of abuse of power. Police are similar to other professionals to whom we give special rights to do things that other persons are not permitted to do (Geller, 1996:2). Therefore police have the power to choose when to administer their professional judgment concerning law enforcement. Officers of this case abused their power by beating King. They also thought themselves above the law by the fact that they falsely reported the incident (Berger, 1991:4).
The LAPDs actions to apprehend and detain Rodney King resulted in violations of Kings Constitutional rights. The first of these violations concerned the eighth Amendment. The eighth Amendment prohibits the imposition of cruel and unusual punishment. After King was taken into custody he had been beaten with a baton over fifty times and had over ten broken bones in his body. The attack lasted a couple of minutes through which most of it King was lying on the ground. King was also deprived of his fourteenth Amendment rights. This states that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. King was not granted equal protection of the laws and was the helpless victim of the officers abuse of power.
The position of a police officer, in this case as LAPD officer, is a legitimate occupation. And, as Friedrichs (1996) writes, that within any legitimate occupation there will be unique opportunities for individuals to engage in fraudulent activities. He further defines occupational crime as any act that is punishable by law, which is committed through opportunity created in the course of an occupation that is legal (Friedrichs, 1996:96). Officers in the Rodney King case committed assault on King while at the same time being employed by Los Angeles to be enforces of the law and not its breakers. Officers violated LAPD policies and Kings civil rights. They also falsified reports by not reporting the truth in order to keep themselves from being investigated. In several fundamental ways the LAPD officers involved with the King beating were not unlike professional thieves. (Sutherland, 1949).
LAPD officers became criminals after they violated federal law-Title 18 of the United States Code, section 242, "Criminal Liability for Deprivation of Civil Rights" (Geller, 1996:3). Often criminals, like the officers who beat Rodney King, show no remorse for their actions some even deny responsibility. According to Sutherland, a thief sees them self as a criminal and since they have no desire for favorable public opinion the professional thief takes pride in their work of taking from others (Sutherland, 1949:229-231). Two of the officers, Powell and Koon, were heard on police radio after the beating calmly joking about it as if the beating were normal. Powell was heard making a racial slur concerning black individuals when he said "It was right out of Gorillas in the Mist." He then later said "oops, I havent beat anyone this bad in a long time." Koon was heard talking to his watch commander saying " just had a big time use of force tased and beat the suspect of CHP pursuit, big time" (Berger, 1991:1-2). Powell and Koon did not view themselves as criminals when they violated federal laws, police codes, and Constitutional rights.
Another similarity between the police and professional thieves is that both choose victims that will not fight back or that will result in less detection (Sutherland, 1949:236-237). In most cases police brutality has been directed toward minorities, the poor, political dissidents, and members of the counterculture (Friedrichs, 1996:141). Complaints against an officer are not easily filed. In most jurisdictions a victim cannot file a complaint unless a prosecutor passes the review. Also, the court will apply greater weight to an officers testimony than to that of a suspected criminal (Geller, 1996:3). In this case Rodney King was a black male who was brutalized by members of the LAPD. King later issued a statement that he knew it would be the officers word against his own and he wondered who would believe him (Berger, 1991:8).
The final aspect that relates professional criminals to the officers in the Rodney King case is that they both try to fix cases. Both rationalize their actions and know that they were wrong and that their actions may result in punishment. The criminal tries to buy off those who would prosecute him (Sutherland, 1949:238-239). The police officers in this case know that they did wrong. Sergeant Koon referred to the arrest of King as "a big time use of force." But in the officer and supervisor reports to the LAPD they claimed that King had suffered only "minor injuries" in the arrest. They also lied about the level of violence used to arrest King. Koon wrote that he suspected King was on PCP and that he was oblivious to pain. He wrote this to justify the numerous baton strikes King suffered, but it was discovered that King was screaming in agony due to the pain of the beating. To justify the continued attack officers said that King attacked them and continued his resistance throughout the arrest. In reality King was lying on the ground for most of the attack (Berger, 1991:1-8). Sutherland writes that white collar criminals attempt to prevent the implementation of the law and to create general goodwill (Sutherland 1949:238-239). The officers usurped the law by creating fictitious official reports.
One question that needs to be addressed is what type of person commits police brutality and why does it happen. One theory on police brutality is that it is done by a few rogue cops or bad apples. Friedrichs agrees that some abuse of power by police is done by a few bad cops on the force. "Police work is likely to attract at least some individuals who enjoy bullying others or join the force with the intention of exploiting special opportunities to enrich themselves (Friedrichs, 1996:142). This may have been at one time the dominant theory for explaining police brutality, but recently more explanations have been offered through the study of police brutality.
Profiles were examined by psychologists of certain officers that were at risk for abuse of police force. There was such a wide range of profiles discovered that it did not support the bad apple stereotype (Scrivner, 1994:1). It is thought that some personality traits make some officers more susceptible to the use of excessive force than others. In one study police psychologists were surveyed on officers who had used excessive force. The information obtained allowed the researchers to develop five unique types of officers, only one of which was similar to the bad apple stereotype. These include personality disorders, previous traumatic job-related experience, young inexperienced or macho officers, officers who learn inappropriate patrol styles, and officers with personal problems (Scrivner, 1994:3-6). These individual behavioral and personality differences are only one part of the explanation of excessive force. The other part deals with the structural organizational practices of the police departments in which officers work.
The organizational practices of the LAPD were partly to blame in the assault of Rodney King. At an organizational level, police brutality can be attributed to learned behavior by the officers due to the departments policies. The peer group of an officer has a direct affect on what the officer learns and how they will act. Young officers enter the force and experience a re-socialization process. Through this process some feel that their police academy experiences were only rights of passage and that the training learned there is irrelevant, they think that they will learn what they need on the street. According to evidence, young officers learn the police craft from senior officers and from their field training officers (Geller, 1996:29). With this in mind, it is theorized that the abuse of power by some police officers is taught by the more experienced officers to younger ones.
The policy for LAPD officers was that they were encouraged to hit suspects with their batons if that suspect was resisting arrest. This leaves it up to the judgment of the officer to decide what level of force is needed to arrest a suspect. In fact, most of the tactics used by the officers beating King were deemed to be of the proper use of force techniques (Meyer, 1994:1). Civilian overseers of the LAPD changed a policy to make the baton a tactic of first resort instead of the choke holds. The way in which this new policy was implemented made the baton a tool of aggression instead of self-defense. Chief Gates tried to modify this policy, but was ignored leaving a wide gap in police use of force concerning the baton (Meyer, 1994:2). The entire LAPD has an assertive style of law enforcement which is the reason why the police have numerous aggressive confrontations with their public. Officers are even rewarded for their "hard-nosed enforcement" that brings them into conflict with the public (Geller, 1996:30).
These organizational influences play a large role in the effective implementation of administrative policies and human resource components. According to Scrivners five profiles, the organization of the police department will play a key role in turning at risk officers around or allowing them to become more deeply rooted in their bad habits (Scrivner, 1994:1-6). Another element that should be considered to find the causes of wide range police brutality is the social disorganization theory.
This theory pertains to the police culture as a whole and its inability to properly address the excessive use of force is a crime. Prosecution of abuse officers is uncommon because officers will not testify against other officers who they know abused a person by exerting excessive force. Officers are also very likely to internalize powerful sub cultural norms, a main one being loyalty to other officers. This practice tends to discourage officers from cooperating with investigations of fellow officers (Friedrichs, 1996:142-143). This practice is known by police as the code of silence which has impeded proper prosecution of offenders. By not holding a fellow officer accountable for their crimes police organizations condone inadequate discipline (AIUSA USA section 5 1999:1-2). There is also a lack of procedure for handling excessive force complaints against officers. The LAPDs lack of procedure includes 1) citizens are discouraged from filing complaints, 2) complaints filed are not substantiated due to a lack of inadequate resource investigative procedures, and finally 3) sanctions that are actually imposed on the offending officer(s) are inadequate as a deterrent and as a message that their behavior was improper (Geller, 1996:30). In short, there is no fear of punishment because there is not an adequate system of procedure in place. If officers are punished they have a multi-layered appeal process from which punishment can be lessened (AIUSA USA section 5 1999:2).
Before I began my research I had a crude understanding that the use of excessive force on a civilian by the police is a criminal offense. I never thought of it as a form of white collar crime. It is an occupational crime because it is committed while the police officer operates in their legitimate occupation. Abusing a citizen violates the trust implied to the position of an officer and the power that the officer wields. Excessive abuse of force violates state laws, federal laws, constitution rights, and the police laws as well. With all these possible violations in mind it would be assumed that the conviction of a violent police officer would be revered with much fervor. Looking at my research I conclude that the general public feels this way, but the police do not. Offenders have learned brutality through the organizations failure to properly train officers on the importance of controlling situations by using minimal force. With few exceptions excessive force users are not punished. The manner in which police departments are organized encourages some police use of force through its lackadaisical inquiries of offenders.
The actions of the officers in the Rodney King case and other brutality cases are blatant criminal offenses. Police have a right to use force to protect themselves, but the beating of a suspect who is restrained or lying on the ground is not self defense. I do not presume that any action taken will diminish the crime of police brutality. However, through the utilization of an interdisciplinary study, the justice system, police officers and psychologists can work together to do more to deter police brutality. Psychologists can help by identifying causes of or likely perpetrators of police brutality. The justice system should also actively pursue and punish offenders within the police system. Police must do more on their part to change the police structure in order to sanction officers who abuse their power and to prevent new officers from learning bad behaviors. If the sanctions are more severe in the organizational structure then, I think, officers will see it more as a crime than as part of the job. "If we can put a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth, why cant we put a man on the ground and take him safely to jail? The Rodney King jury heard these things. Is anyone else listening?" (Meyer, 1994:4).