The prominence of smartphones with cameras and social media is allowing the public to see and hear police shootings and other confrontations that used to be reported only from the police’s perspective.
Now that people are seeing what the police are doing, many are starting to question the way officers utilize lethal force. Every shooting seems to bring concerns about police brutality into the spotlight.
We’re learning that while laws against police brutality exist, they don’t seem to be enforced.
The Laws on the Books
According to LipsigQueens.com, police brutality occurs when police and law enforcement officers use excessive force or violence, inflicting unwarranted harm on someone.
Federal law actually provides a much broader definition of police misconduct. Title 18 of the US Code makes it illegal for police officers to willfully “deprive or conspire to deprive” other people of any right protected by the Constitution or US law.
This statute can apply to many forms of police misconduct, including intimidation, unnecessary lethal force, sexual assault, physical force that is not lethal, and improper use of pepper spray. Only the federal government, however, can hold police accountable for their actions under this particular law. It does not create a private right of action. In short, victims of police brutality cannot file civil lawsuits against police officers under Title 18.
A different set of police brutality laws covers cases involving discrimination. Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act makes it illegal for state and local police officers to discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, and religion. The Americans with Disabilities Act establishes a similar protection against police discrimination for people with disabilities.
These laws generally cover instances of misconduct like the use of racial slurs, unjustified arrests, discriminatory traffic stops and the use of excessive force, but they also prohibit patterns of discriminatory conduct.
Both the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act create a private right of action. Victims of police brutality can file civil lawsuits under these laws. However, a controversial 1989 Supreme Court decision has influenced interpretations of the Civil Rights Act in a way that heavily favors the police.
From the Officer’s Point of View
In Graham v. Connor, the Court instructed judges to consider whether or not a police officer’s actions could be considered “objectively reasonable,” regardless of the officer’s “underlying intent or motivation.” Further, “the ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene,” Justice Rehnquist wrote for the majority, “rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”
In short, potential uses of excessive force, including lethal force, must be considered from a police officer’s point of view. Since events unfold very quickly in a violent situation, the reasoning is that officers must be allowed to act on instinct in order to protect themselves and the public.
Regulating Police Behavior: The Case of Chokeholds
The laws and regulations that set the limits of acceptable conduct are generally made by states, counties, and cities. To complicate matters, many of the rules established to regulate police behavior are written and instituted by police officers themselves, as guidelines within police manuals.
Chokeholds, for example, were prohibited by the New York Police Department in 2003, but are not yet considered illegal under New York State law. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the apparent use of chokeholds actually increased after the practice was ruled out-of-bounds by the NYPD. Between 2004 and 2009, complaints about chokeholds soared from around 155 to almost 250 per year, according to the Huffington Post.
While police are legally bound to follow the guidelines set forth in their manuals, chokehold convictions were almost non-existent — in large part because judges had redefined the meaning of “chokehold.” As currently interpreted, approaching someone from behind and choking them with your arm is considered a “headlock,” and completely acceptable, until you apply constant pressure to their neck, compressing the windpipe or restricting the flow of blood, to induce unconsciousness.
This example illustrates two significant facts about police brutality regulations. First, police departments and officers exert a major influence over the rules that govern their own use of force. Second, police officers often enjoy an all-too-close relationship with members of their local judicial agencies, both prosecutors and judges.
Convicting Officers of Violating Police Brutality Laws
Significant hurdles stand in the way of anyone harmed by police brutality, no matter how justified their case. In reality, few officers are ever held accountable for their actions.
In 2009, 33 percent of police officers charged with misconduct were convicted of a crime, according to the Cato Institute. Of those convicted, 64 percent served an average prison term of 14 months. While 33 percent may sound high, the reality is that most officers accused of misconduct are never even charged, let alone prosecuted.
Between 2005 and 2015, thousands of people died at the hands of the police. But only 54 of the officers responsible for these deaths were charged with a crime, according to an analysis from the Washington Post. Among those 54 police officers, most were acquitted.
This startling lack of accountability has only become worse. MappingPoliceViolence.org found that 1,152 people were killed by the police in 2015 alone. Yet no police officers were convicted of murder or manslaughter in 2015.
Hush Money: Hiding Police Misconduct Cases
There’s another reason the public doesn’t hear much about the resolution of police shooting cases that result in the death of a civilian. It turns out that the government pays out an enormous amount of money in settlements for police brutality cases. These settlements often require that the facts of an investigation are kept confidential, out of the public’s eye.
In 2014, the 10 cities with the most settlement payouts for police brutality cases paid a combined $248.7 million to victims or their families.
New York City recently agreed to a settlement of $5.9 million to the family of Eric Garner, who died in a highly publicized confrontation with police in 2015.
In April 2016, a police helicopter captured video of police officers in San Bernardino, CA, beating horse thief Francis Pusok. Two weeks after the video was shot, the police department settled with the family for $650,000. (The strange thing is that Pusok will still stand trial for stealing the horse he used to try and run from police.)
These settlements seem to happen very quickly in a society where getting a court date for a minor offense can sometimes take months. The outrage the public might feel from these cases is often diminished when victims and their families take large settlements from police departments and agree to remain silent about the case.
The Changing Face of Police Brutality
While there are many police brutality laws on the books throughout the country, activists indicate that more needs to happen to enhance and enforce these laws. Police officers often work closely on a daily basis with the prosecutors who would be assigned to their cases, and this tends to work in the officers’ favor. Laws requiring special prosecutors for brutality cases would be a step in the right direction.
The rise of readily available video will continue to change how police and the public look at these cases. In the wake of widespread unrest in 2014, President Obama committed $75 million to body camera purchases for local police departments, MSNBC reports. The country is waiting for police departments to start purchasing and wearing body cameras. In the meantime, Americans have taken things into their own hands to record police actions.
The massive exposure of police actions is continuing to force changes in the system — changes that could see more officers paying for their crimes in the same way that civilians do.
 Note: Since there are no official government numbers on incidents of police violence, we must lean on think tanks and public policy organizations for our information.