What is Police Brutality? - Definition, Statistics & History

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  • 0:00 Police Brutality
  • 0:30 Excessive Force
  • 1:25 Force Continuum
  • 6:50 History
  • 9:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

When people talk about police brutality, what do they mean? In this lesson, we'll explore the idea of excessive force in police work, including the use-of-force continuum and the history of police brutality.

Police Brutality

Sammy is frustrated. Lately, it seems like the police have been using too much force on people from Sammy's neighborhood almost every day. Over and over, he hears about people being beaten or shot by the police, even when they don't have weapons and aren't armed.

Sammy thinks that what his neighborhood is dealing with is called police brutality. But what, exactly, is police brutality? And how can Sammy figure out if that's what's going on?

Excessive Force

There are several ways to define police brutality. One way is by seeing in terms of excessive force, or displays of power that are stronger than is necessary to keep a situation safe and in control. If a man from Sammy's neighborhood is not armed and calmly talking to police, then use of physical force is probably excessive. However, if that same man is waving a knife, screaming, and advancing on officers or civilians, then using physical force to disarm and restrain him is probably not excessive.

So, how can Sammy tell the difference, and how does he know if what his neighborhood is experiencing is unique or just part of keeping the city safe? To try to answer those questions, let's look at the use-of-force continuum and the history of police brutality.

Force Continuum

Sammy is worried that his neighborhood is dealing with police brutality. It sure feels to Sammy like the force being used is excessive, but he's not sure. How can he know?

Police are charged with keeping the country safe, and sometimes they have to use force to do that. While most police officers do not use excessive force, sometimes officers use more force than is necessary. To help officers (and civilians) know how police should respond to situations, law enforcement uses something called the use-of-force continuum, which is a scale of varying levels of force that law enforcement officers use. The goal is to always use the lowest level of force possible to keep a situation safe and in control.

The levels of the use-of-force continuum are:

1. Police presence. Sometimes, just having a police officer present can diffuse a situation. For example, last week a few teenagers were loitering outside Sammy's house and playing loud music. When a police officer showed up, they immediately dispersed, even before the officer said or did anything.

Police presence is always the preferred method of controlling a situation. However, sometimes officers have to do more than simply be present. When that's the case, they move up the continuum.

2. Verbalization. If the mere presence of an officer does not help to control a situation, the officer's next step is to use non-physical force. The first step of verbalization is to issue commands in a calm, non-threatening tone, like asking in a normal voice to see the identification of someone. If the situation is escalated, then an officer can raise his or her voice in order to gain compliance. For example, if an officer notices that someone is loitering suspiciously outside of a jewelry store where there have been robberies in the past, the officer may casually approach the person and ask what they are doing. But if the person shoves the officer and tries to run away, the officer may shout, 'Stop!'

3. Empty-hand control. Sometimes, even verbalization doesn't work, and police need to use physical force. The first level of physical force is empty-hand control, which involves bodily force without any weapon to gain control of a situation. For example, Sammy's neighbors got into an argument last month, and one of them hit the other. When an officer showed up, the fight did not stop, and when the officer issued the verbal command to stop, the neighbor still kept hitting. The officer grabbed the person hitting and held their arms by their side so that they could not hit anyone.

There are two types of empty-hand control: the soft technique involves grabbing and holding in order to control the situation, whereas the hard technique may involve hitting, punching, or kicking to control the situation. As we've seen, the lowest level of force is preferable, so it is better to use the soft technique than the hard technique, though sometimes the hard technique is necessary.

4. Less-lethal methods. Sadly, sometimes even empty-hand control can't help officers gain control of a situation. In that case, they may need to use a weapon. A non-lethal weapon, such as a police baton or chemicals (like pepper spray), might be used to gain control of a situation. For example, Sammy heard about riots in another city, where the crowd got out of control and began attacking each other and the police. To control the crowd, the police used batons and tear gas.

Again, the aim is to use the least force necessary. If a police officer has a choice between using pepper spray or a baton on a person who can be restrained using non-weapon force, then they should use the non-weapon force. Otherwise, it becomes excessive force.

5. Lethal force. The highest level of force, and one that many officers never use in the course of their entire career, involves using lethal weapons to control a situation. Often, guns are the weapon of choice for lethal force. If a person pulls a gun and shoots at an officer or civilian, the police officer may decide that using his own firearm is the only way to control the situation, in which case he or she might use lethal force.

So, is Sammy's neighborhood seeing police brutality, or excessive force, being used? It's hard to tell. Probably some of the cases are not excessive. In other words, in many cases, Sammy's neighborhood police may be using the appropriate level of force. But there might be some cases in which civilians have experienced police brutality.

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