Police Brutality & Excessive Force

Written by david carnes
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Police Brutality & Excessive Force
Some police officers use excessive force in their work. (Police image by Zeno from Fotolia.com)

Police brutality is defined as the intentional use of excessive or inappropriate force by a law enforcement officer. Excessive force can be physical, oral or psychological. Federal laws have been enacted that allow victims of police brutality to sue the individual police officer and in some cases the government employer, such as the local police department. Criminal liability and injunctive relief is possible in some cases.


The use of a gun is considered "deadly force" under modern tort law and is considered excessive, even by a police officer, except as a last resort. Extremely complex rules, known as the "rules of engagement", govern how and when a police officer is allowed to fire his gun. A victim of a police shooting can prevail in court if he can show that the police officer violated these rules of engagement.

False Arrests

A police officer is entitled to briefly detain and search a suspect on the basis of "reasonable suspicion," and can detain a person for longer periods or place him under formal arrest on the basis of "probable cause," which requires a higher standard of evidence than reasonable suspicion. The police officer does not have to be right in order to justify an arrest, only reasonable. If the foregoing standards are not met, any force used is considered excessive, the police officer has made a false arrest or detention, and is subject to civil liability.


When a police officer commits an assault in the line of duty that is unjustified by the circumstances, he is considered at least as culpable as a private citizen would be under the same circumstances. Because police officers are expected to maintain public confidence in law enforcement and because they have been trained to deal with dangerous situations, police officers can be held more accountable than private citizens in assault cases. Criminal liability is also possible.

Taser/Stun Gun Injuries

Police departments began using Tasers and stun guns in order to reduce injuries and fatalities caused by the use of live ammunition. Nevertheless, these weapons cause serious pain and in some cases cause injury. Tasers in particular have been marketed as non-lethal weapons, causing some ill-trained police officers to treat them as non-deadly force. The Arizona Republic, however, reported 44 deaths as a result of the use of Tasers between 1999 and 2004 (not necessarily by police officers). The use of a Taser or a stun gun is treated as the use of deadly force, and an officer will be liable for using one in circumstances that do not justify the use of deadly force under the rules of engagement.


Police misconduct includes sexual abuse, harsh interrogation techniques, fabrication of evidence and other unconstitutional behaviour. It also includes unlawful discrimination, such as racial discrimination. Although the type of "force" used in these cases is often verbal or psychological rather than physical, it can still give rise to civil or even criminal liability. If a pattern of police misconduct is uncovered, a court might issue an injunction restraining the police from further misconduct, violation of which will result in contempt of court charges.

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