There’s no real definition of excessive force for police officers, but it basically means a law enforcement official uses more force than needed – or prudent - when arresting or subduing a suspect.
Police officers should use the minimum amount of force necessary to obtain a safe outcome. Of course, the sad truth is that many police officers regularly engage in excessive force, which goes by another name – police brutality.
Fortunately, with the advent of police body and dashboard cams and the ubiquity of smartphone videotaping, it is now easier to determine whether or not excessive force was used, as it is no longer just the police officer’s word against the suspect’s.
Excessive force is not limited to physical contact. It can also apply to verbal and other forms of abuse.
What is Reasonable Force?
As with excessive force, there’s no cut-and-dried definition of reasonable force. Much depends on the specific circumstances. In general, courts take into account:
- Crime severity
- The suspect posing a threat
- The suspect’s attempt to flee and/or resist arrest.
There is also the use of force continuum. The levels of force police officers may use range from verbal warning to physical restraint to less-than-lethal force – including pepper and other chemical sprays, as well as the use of a baton - to lethal force, or killing a suspect. In some situations, the latter is warranted, if the suspect poses a direct threat to the officer or another person.
In many cases, there is no justification for the use of lethal force, but it is too late for the suspect.
Police officers can get loud and angry when arresting a suspect. They cannot, however, verbally abuse suspects by using racial, ethnic or religious epithets, or those referring to a person’s sexual orientation. While the suspect is not physically harmed, such words can and do inflict mental and emotional trauma.
If a suspect offers no resistance to a police officer, but that officer or others physically abuses them, law enforcement is engaging in excessive force. This is the type of incident that videotapes most often reveal. The infamous Rodney King beating in Los Angeles occurred after King complied with the officers’ commands.
No Lawful Objective
A police officer must have a valid reason to make an arrest. Lawful objectives vary widely, but police cannot simply attempt to arrest someone on the flimsiest of pretexts.
Unfortunately, in the aftermath of an excessive force complaint, police officers usually come up with some reason for the arrest, and are given great latitude.
Not Receiving Medical Attention
A suspect injured by a police officer should receive medical attention. If a suspect receives obvious injuries at the hands of a police officer and no medical attention is forthcoming, it is indicative that excessive force was involved.
Not Notifying Family Members
Much like the lack of medical attention, the failure of police officers to notify a suspect’s family – if such notification is possible – indicates the individual may have been the victim of police brutality.
Any type of sexual assault of the suspect by police respondents constitutes police misconduct or brutality, and is itself a crime. Police officers are permitted to pat down a suspect – they are not allowed to grope a person.
Use of Deadly Force Against an Unarmed, Non-Dangerous Person
In Tennessee v. Garner, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a state statute allowing an officer to “use all means necessary to effect an arrest” if a suspect flees after given notice of intent to arrest was unconstitutional.
The case involved the fatal shooting of a teenager suspected of burglarizing a neighbor’s home. The boy fled after being told to halt by the officer, who then shot him. The officer was “reasonably sure” the teen was unarmed.
The Supreme Court ruled that, “The Tennessee statute is unconstitutional insofar as it authorizes the use of deadly force against, as in this case, an apparently unarmed, non-dangerous fleeing suspect; such force may not be used unless necessary to prevent the escape and the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.”
Contact Us if You Are a Victim of Excessive Force
Call our legal team at 866.836.4684 or Connect Online today for a confidential no-cost evaluation of your case and your options. There are strict time limits for filing a civil rights or other lawsuits related to police brutality, in custody injury, or wrongful death.