Recent publicity about the questionable deaths of multiple black Americans has brought focus on the problem of police brutality. The recent George Floyd verdict illustrates that police occasionally use excessive force during encounters with crime suspects that leads to unnecessary injury and death. Instances of excessive force have led to death by shooting, death by strangulation, traumatic brain injury and paralysis. What happens when police use excessive force and cause injury?
Not all force is excessive force in policing. Police are occasionally required to use significant force and even deadly force under certain circumstances. Excessive force is used to define those instances when a police officer or group of police officers use undue force for the situation. Images of a gang of Los Angeles police officers mercilessly beating Rodney King fall under the category of excessive force. Likewise, the police officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck after he had been subdued and restrained constitutes excessive force.
Definitions of excessive force are evolving. In the past, it was acceptable for police officers to beat suspects and non-suspects alike. Groups like Black Lives Matter are devoted to fighting these practices and their racially motivated application to black Americans. In the setting of police restraints, recent efforts have been made to guide police officers away from improper restraints that can lead to asphyxia and death. The use of stun guns has evolved as a way to subdue noncompliant and violent suspects. Again, standards for the use of a stun gun have evolved over time as some police officers misused stun guns for purposes of subduing nonviolent suspects. Use of a stun gun is not without risk. There are reports of suspects sustaining cardiac arrest (heart attack) and traumatic brain injury from falling when immobilized by a stun gun.
Standards regarding excessive force have also involved in the setting of protests and demonstrations. A number of lawsuits have been filed alleging that police officers engaged in unequal treatment of black protesters, anti-police protesters and, recently, Pride Day celebrants. The use of cell phones and surveillance devices to document police interactions with protesters and other citizens has revealed many instances of police officers using the setting of a protest or demonstration to abuse citizens through the undue use of mace or pepper spray, percussion devices and rubber bullets, resulting in severe burns, brain damage, loss of an eye, and fractures.
Federal law permits an individual injured by police officers’ use of excessive force to sue for money damages as a violation of their civil rights. Recent reports show that municipalities are willing to settle these cases for large sums of compensation in order to quell civil unrest over instances of police brutality.