Malice Green, Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, Erroll Shaw, and Nathaniel Jones are all names that for many citizens have come to represent what is wrong with policing, that is, when officers appear to cross the line between what is a reasonable response to a perceived threat and move into the realm of excessive force. When officers have to use force in the line of duty, particularly deadly force, citizens often wonder: Could anything else have been done? Were other options available? How widespread is this problem?

The use of excessive force by police is not a new phenomenon. Few policing historians would argue that early law enforcement agencies in the United States were free from the use of excessive force. As Mark Haller (1992) points out, historically police felt justified in their use of excessive force. Many officers believed they had a duty and responsibility to punish criminals. Rather than making an arrest of a petty criminal, an officer in the 1880s in urban America would simply give the suspect a good beating to deter future lawbreaking. In addition to deterring crime, excessive force and violence were used to gain confessions during interrogations. Finally—and perhaps most relevant for sociology and criminal justice research— there was a subculture that supported this behavior, encouraging officers to use violence to maintain dignity (Kappeler et al. 1998).

The concept of a police subculture was first proposed by William Westley (1970) who studied the Gary, Indiana, police department in 1950 and found, among many things, a high degree of solidarity, secrecy, and violence. More recently, the issue of a subculture of violence resurfaced after the Christopher Commission examined the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) after the beating of Rodney King in 1991. After investigating the facts of the beating and culture of the LAPD, the commission found that a significant number of LAPD officers repeatedly misused force and ignored written department policies and guidelines on the use of force (Christopher 1991, 3-4). Officer Laurence Powell testified that before going on patrol the evening of the King beating he was instructed to be more aggressive with baton blows in situations that called for the use of force (Alpert et al. 1992).

Law enforcement in the United States is decidedly different from nearly every other country in the world. Police in America work in a violent environment, and using force to end threats or to complete an arrest is a part of the job. Decisions about what amount of force should be applied are made by the individual officer even with restrictive guidelines given by the department; officers may find that they are in a unique situation that calls for drastic measures. Furthermore, because a disproportionate number of crimes and arrests occurs in minority neighborhoods, racial and ethnic relationships with the police may become further strained when officers must use force and there are allegations of excessive force.

Although considerable research and media attention is given to the police use of force, data from official police reports, citizen complaints, and victim surveys indicate that most police-citizen encounters rarely involve the use of force. A 1996 pretest of the Police Public Contact Survey estimated that nearly forty-five million people had contact with the police over a twelve-month period and that five hundred thousand people had force or the threat of force used against them (Green-feld et al. 1997). As Adams (2002, 132) points out, these results must be taken with caution. As the definition of police contact changes, that is, calls for service versus contacts that result in arrest, the rates of use of force will vary considerable, with calls for service resulting in fewer use-of-force actions and arrest leading to higher rates.

Defining Excessive Force

Given the history and concern over police abuse of force, it may be surprising to learn that there is no standard definition of what excessive force is. Although it may seem clear-cut to determine if the use of force was excessive, many complexities are involved when trying to define what a reasonable use of force may be. In some circumstances where police must use force, the line between what is justifiable and excessive is fuzzy. Whenever individual discretion must be applied, misjudgments will occur—force may be used where none was warranted, for example. Force has been defined as the exertion of power to compel or restrain the behavior of others (Kania and Mackey 1977, 29).

Furthermore, force can be classified by how appropriate its use may be, for example, justifiable or excessive. Police departments use these definitions to determine if an officer’s use of force was out of line and requires discipline or criminal prosecution. Legally, force becomes excessive when it is used for purposes that are unlawful or when it is out of proportion to what is needed to remove the threat or subdue the suspect (Cheh 1995). Kania and Mackey (1977) offer a more appropriate explanation for this discussion stating that excessive force is ”violence of a degree that is more than necessary to effect a legitimate police function” (p. 29).

A closely related term that is often used in connection with excessive force is brutality. Few citizens can forget the shocking images of the Rodney King beating that was captured on videotape by George Halliday, or the equally disturbing photos from the emergency room of the injuries King sustained from the beating. Most recently, the case of Abner Louima has stood as an example of the wanton violence that citizens may suffer at the hands of the police. Louima testified that after he was arrested for allegedly assaulting a police officer he was savagely beaten and sodomized with a toilet plunger by Officer Justin Volpe.

Although researchers, police administrators, and citizens have a stake in eliminating police brutality, a standard definition is difficult to find. Kenneth Peak (2000) states that citizens may use the term police brutality to capture a wide array of behaviors and practices ranging from verbal abuse to violence. Peak further notes that there is a literal definition of brutality, in which there is physical abuse, but there may also be verbal abuse such as racial slurs. Also, some citizens feel brutalized by the mere presence of the police because they have come to represent the establishment and symbolize violence used to oppress minority groups.

There may be considerable overlap to many citizens between excessive force and police brutality, particularly as police brutality involves physical force. Nonetheless, there is a distinction between the two terms. Kenneth Adams (2002, 134) offers a clear definition of police brutality, stating that it is instances of serious physical injury or psychological harm to civilians with an emphasis on cruelty or savageness. Adams admits that the term does not have a standard meaning, and that some authors would prefer a less emotionally charged definition. However, the emphasis on ”cruelty or savageness” is a clear delineation between force that is beyond what is necessary to effect a legitimate police function, which may be a judgment call, and actions such as the torture of Abner Louima.

The Research on Excessive Force

Determining the amount of force used and misused by police is difficult. Researchers have attempted to uncover these numbers through a variety of methodologies, from observational studies and official reports to officer surveys. Each method has its strength and is revealing; nonetheless, all have shortcomings. For example, observational studies try to place a trained observer with a police officer to document the officer’s behavior. Worden (1995) performed a secondary data analysis of a 1977 Police Services Study on 5,700 police-citizen encounters and found that police used force in just over 1% of all the encounters, and in one-third of these encounters, the observer judged the force to be unnecessary or excessive. Once the data set was revised and included only suspects, instead of all citizens involved in the contact, improper force was observed in only 1% of the encounters.

Although revealing, observational research has limitations in that it is time consuming and expensive. Furthermore, there are issues with reactivity, because the officers are aware that they are the subject of observation and may alter their behavior. Even though the observer is being passive and nonjudgmental, they may simply not be seeing the officers behave as they normally would. Limitations also exist with the other methodologies. As Fridell and Pate (1997) point out, community surveys on excessive force measure perceptions of excessive force not legally defined excessive force. Surveys of police officers may reflect that officers have a narrower definition of excessive force than citizens do. Furthermore, official records may be incomplete and not capture use of force that officers chose not to report.

Notwithstanding these research issues, there is a base of information and knowledge about the police use of force and excessive force. In general, police use of force tends not to be related to age, race, and gender. Researchers such as Garner et al. (1996) and Crawford and Burns (1998) have found that officer and suspect characteristics are generally not good predictors of police use of force. More detailed analysis has revealed that officer use of force appears to be based on situational factors and what the suspect does. Police tend to respond to circumstances. Officer use of force is likely when they respond to a violent crime, deal with suspects who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or deal with suspects who use force against them.

As discussed earlier, definitions can vary and perceptions of excessive force may further complicate the issue, so finding a measure of excessive force that is agreeable to all interested parties may be equally difficult. Not unlike measuring the use of force in general, the methodologies involved in measuring excessive force are not without limitations. The most widely available measure of excessive force is civilian complaints and lawsuits. Civilian complaints alleging excessive force are infrequent and substantiated complaints are rare. Several studies that have calculated the average number of complaints received per year per officer show between 0.3 and 1 complaint per officer per year (Fridell and Pate 1997, 226). Wagner’s (1980) findings support the claim that few complaints are substantiated by the police. In his study, only 2.1% of the excessive force complaints were substantiated.

Understanding how force in general is measured helps to understand the context of excessive force. Nonetheless, there is a major gap in knowledge about the extent of excessive force by police. There is simply a lack of precision in understanding whether the problem is systemic or merely tied to a handful of overzealous officers. Excessive force by officers is a critical problem facing many communities and law enforcement agencies across the country and there have been positive attempts across the nation to institute better controls and review systems.

Controlling Excessive Force

Internal policies and methods of controlling police deviance, whether manifested as corruption, brutality, or excessive force, must first be based on having qualified personnel. The 1991 Christopher Commission report on the LAPD after the Rodney King incident indicated that a relatively small number of officers were responsible for a large proportion of excessive force incidents. Researchers have attempted to draw correlations between officer personality and characteristics so that they might be able to predict misuse of force and develop better screening procedures. However, Grant and Grant (1995) state that there are no studies that effectively assess the link between screening and the use or misuse of force. Kappe-ler et al. (1998) offer that while there is no foolproof way to screen applicants for police work that will indicate how competent they will remain, officials should look beyond simple screening measures and at the larger issues of respect for human life and sensitivity to diversity. Background investigations may need to become especially demanding and check into violent histories and conflicts versus the typical concern about past drug use.

Selecting highly qualified candidates is important for having a professional police force and trying to reduce the likelihood of the misuse of force. Once these qualified people are in place, how they are trained is equally important. Proper training can have a tremendous impact on nearly all aspects of policing, most notably with the use of force. Police departments have recognized that if they wish to avoid or de-escalate violent encounters they must teach their officers proper skills in tactics and communication. For example, the Metro-Dade Violence Reduction Project used role-playing for police-citizen encounters to teach patrol officers how to enhance their skills in defusing potentially violent situations. Fyfe (1995) finds that this training has resulted in a 30% to 50% reduction in injuries to officers, complaints of abuse, and use of force by officers.

The emphasis in such training programs is to not view a potentially violent encounter with split-second syndrome, in which the officer suddenly has to make a choice to use force to respond to an attack, but rather to see the multiple steps involved in an escalating encounter and how they may be defused so force is avoided all together. As apart of this approach to training, it must be clear that excessive force will not be tolerated and that the department places a value on peaceful resolutions, not aggressive use of whatever force it takes to resolve a situation.

Having good people and training in place is essential, but clearly written policy is also important in controlling the use of force and curbing excessive force. One early study by Uelman (1973) that collected information from fifty police departments found that departments with the most restrictive use-of-force policies had half the shooting rates of departments with the least restrictive policies. Policy can shape how police operate in the field and it can be an effective tool of control. However, the best policy is useless if it is not enforced by the department. The content of policy must be clear, but the administrative commitment and posture must also be demanding and clear.

Undoubtedly most police departments would prefer to address excessive force through internal measures such as policy, recruit screening, and training. However, in some situations these remedies are too late or the actions of the officers are so egregious and the community reactions so strong that outside remedies become necessary to restrict the use of excessive force. Legal recourse is available to control excessive use of force by officers. The use of force by police departments falls under the Fourth Amendment, which governs the ability to search persons and places and to seize evidence and people. The seizure of people involves arrest and applies the standard of reasonableness to the use of force.

Therefore, any force that is excessive and by this definition unreasonable would violate the Fourth Amendment. Under federal law, Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 allows citizens to sue persons who, under color of state authority, deprive them of their constitutional rights. Most states also permit civil lawsuits against law enforcement agencies for the use of excessive or unreasonable force, and these state lawsuits are more common than federal suits. Lawsuits essentially put a high price on the improper actions of police officers and often gain national attention when the dollar amounts total into the millions. Depending on the officer’s agency, the law can vary as to whether the individual officer, entire department, or even the city/state is liable for the misconduct.

Data on the number of lawsuits filed and judgments awarded are difficult to find on the national level. City-level data do provide some detail on the types of actions that are contested and the dollar amounts awarded. The following examples are particularly noteworthy:

• According to reports prepared by City Councilman Mel Ravitz, the city of Detroit spent $72 million on all police lawsuits between 1987 and 1994. Focusing on excessive force, between July 1, 1995, and April 1997, the city paid nearly $20 million in cases involving excessive force, wrongful death, vehicle pursuits, and minor accidents (Chesley 1997).

• The city of Los Angeles paid $11 million and $13 million in 1990 and 1991, respectively, for damage awards involving police misconduct (del Carmen 1993).

• The New York City Law Department (1996) reported that excessive force, false arrest, and shootings by police cost city taxpayers more than $44 million for fiscal years 19941995, averaging almost $2 million a month for police misconduct lawsuits alone.

As a result, those filing lawsuits receive compensation from the city, but little may be done to correct problems identified in the suits. Lawsuits over alleged police abuse have their place in controlling excessive force. They can be financially devastating to a city’s budget; they are also more common than criminal prosecution of the officer. As the dollar amounts climb into the tens of millions of dollars, the price tag for the failure to restrict officer’s behavior also grows.

In addition to the use of the courts as an external control mechanism, civilian oversight committees have regained attention as a method of dealing with excessive force outside the department. Civilian oversight committees involve citizens receiving, reviewing, and analyzing complaints against the police. Many assumptions have been made about the nature and function of these committees, but very little research evaluation has been done to determine whether their goals are being accomplished. For example, it is assumed that civilian review is more effective than internal police investigations because they are more objective, they result in higher rates of sustained complaints, and there is greater deterrence and higher levels of satisfaction from the public (Walker and Kreisel 1997). As important as these assumed goals are, their effects have never been studied and no evaluations have been conducted concerning the best way to design a civilian review board.

Civilian oversight committees are typically set up as a cross section of the community, and their members are often appointed by political figures independent of the police department. This outsider position has been met with hostility in some departments. Officers may view committee members as being soft on crime, not understanding true police work, and out to ”get” officers. Although civilian review boards may have an impact on controlling police actions, they are surprisingly lacking in power since they serve in a primarily advisory role. They do not have the ability to subpoena, cannot decide on punishments, and do not have an investigative body.

Nonetheless, civilian review boards have had some success in changing police departments. Even with the limitations and criticism, civilian review boards can create a structure in which citizens and police officers work together to deal with serious issues of misconduct. In addition, the review boards may help to resolve the question ”Can the police police themselves?” For example, the Christopher Commission of the LADP (1991) found that investigations of complaints were severely lacking and there was no indication that the police investigators had made any attempt to locate witnesses or to seriously deal with the allegations.


The use of excessive force by police will continue to be a complex and troubling issue that faces many communities and police departments across the nation. Attempting to provide answers to questions of how to define excessive force, how widespread excessive force is, and how to control excessive force will remain difficult. The problem is costly as cities and departments face civil lawsuits that run into tens of millions of dollars and are forced to deal with solutions to the problem to satisfy both the courts and the public.

Research on police use of force and excessive force is important because it helps us to understand the nature of the encounters. For example, we have learned that very few police-citizen encounters involve the use of force and even fewer would be defined as involving excessive force. Furthermore, research has been able to provide answers to the questions of how and when police officers use force, which better enables us to define what is excessive and try to gain a working knowledge of the situations in which it is likely to occur. Research on this level can also guide the solutions to dealing with excessive force, illustrating whether it is a matter of training, selection policy, or even the culture of the department.

Although many questions remain to be answered about the police use of excessive force, there are promising signs across the nation of police departments willing to change and take allegations of misconduct seriously. The number of citizen watch groups and review boards that have been created to assist departments in dealing with this problem is increasing. As community policing continues to grow as a concept and goal of police departments, attempts have also been made to improve police-citizen relationships, particularly in minority communities, so the involvement of citizens in controlling the use of excessive force and attempting to curb police misconduct in essential.

There will always be questions when officers have to use force, mainly when citizens and even police officers perceive that the fuzzy line between reasonable and excessive force has been crossed. As the research on this topic becomes more sophisticated, and as citizens become more aware of the subtleties in definition and demand solutions, there is optimism for change as the seeds of reform take root across the country.

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