An Overview of Police Brutality Cases in the United States

Learn about the history of police brutality cases, excessive force statistics, and what you can do to seek compensation for injuries caused by police.

The early 21st century has been a difficult time of social transition for the United States. While there are many social issues in flux, the issue of police brutality is particularly charged.

In 2020, tensions surrounding policing broke out into widespread civil unrest. The problems causing the protest were not new. Educating ourselves about the history and nature of the problem is an important step in addressing it.

We will cover some facts and statistics about police brutality in the United States and inform you about your rights regarding excessive use of force by law enforcement.

What is Police Brutality?

Lady Justice figurine

We need steady, principled law enforcement to maintain an ordered society. But many citizens are voicing growing concern about police brutality in the United States.

Increased media attention to police brutality cases began in 1991 with Rodney King and the Los Angeles riots.

Rodney King was in a high-speed chase with the police. He was then arrested and beaten by four LAPD police officers.

A federal grand jury indicted the officers on criminal charges for using excessive force in connection with the beating. Two of them, Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell, served prison time. The sentences of Koon and Powell were then shortened by their trial judge — a decision that ultimately went before the Supreme Court.

In 2014 there were two high-profile incidents of lethal force used by the police. The first was the fatal shooting of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy shot by a police officer in Cleveland, Ohio. Police were dispatched to investigate a male with a gun in a public park.

A 911 call had indicated that “a guy in here with a pistol” was “pulling it out of his pants and pointing it at people.” The caller said the gun was “probably fake” but he didn’t know “if it was real or not”. The caller said the guy was “probably a juvenile” and estimated the guy’s age as “around 20.”

Rice did in fact have a toy gun – a replica Colt 1911 handgun, an airsoft pistol indistinguishable from the real thing. According to surveillance video taken at the scene, he was shot by the police as soon as they got out of the car. When they asked him to put his hands in the air, Rice appeared to reach for his gun. He was then shot, and died the following day.

Timothy Loehmann, the officer who shot Rice, was later fired from his job for failing to disclose prior employment information on his job application. He was not criminally charged in connection with the shooting, after the Grand Jury determined the officers used reasonable force under the circumstances.

Two years later, the City of Cleveland settled a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the Rice family for $6 million.

In New York City, a Black man named Eric Garner was killed when police responded to a call that he was illegally selling cigarettes. The situation escalated and Garner was suffocated when a law enforcement officer named Daniel Pantaleo put him in a chokehold and pinned him to the sidewalk.

Pantaleo did not face criminal charges after a grand jury found “no reasonable cause” to indict. However, Pantaleo was subsequently fired from his job and stripped of his pension for repeated disciplinary problems.

More recently, on May 25, 2020, George Floyd died in Minneapolis after a police officer, Derek Chauvin, pinned Floyd to the ground by kneeling on his neck. Floyd’s death, captured in photographs and video, caused strife not only in Minnesota but throughout the country.

Chauvin was promptly fired by the Minneapolis Police, and has been charged with second degree murder in connection with Floyd’s death. The case is pending in Hennepin District Court.

How the Law Defines Excessive Force

Police shootings are always subject to investigation by local authorities.

In addition, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) is authorized to investigate – and prosecute as warranted – allegations of misconduct by law enforcement officers. DOJ investigations most often arise from allegations of police brutality.

Why do some officers land and jail, while others aren’t even charged after a fatal encounter?

The use of force, even deadly force, by law enforcement officers does not automatically qualify as excessive or unwarranted. Accusations of police brutality are generally evaluated according to standards established by case law, most notably by the Supreme Court of the United States in the landmark case of Graham vs. Conner.

Case Summary: Graham vs. Connor 

Dethorne Graham, a diabetic, asked his friend Barry to drive him to a convenience store so he could get some juice to counteract an insulin reaction. At the store, Graham hurried in, but hurried right back out when he saw a long line. He asked Barry to take him to another friend’s house instead.

Officer Conner became suspicious when he saw Graham hurry in and out of the store into a waiting car. He stopped the car to investigate, ordering the men to wait until he found out what happened in the store.

Graham resisted arrest. Additional officers arrived on the scene, and Graham was injured during the encounter. He was released when Officer Conner found that nothing had happened at the convenience store.

Graham filed a lawsuit in District Court, alleging the police used excessive force in violation of his civil rights. The District Court found in favor of Officer Connor, ruling that the officers did not use excessive force “maliciously and sadistically to cause harm.”

The Appeals Court agreed with the District Court ruling. Graham’s case then went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled, in part, that:

“All claims that law enforcement officials have used excessive force — deadly or not — in the course of an arrest, investigatory stop, or other “seizure” of a free citizen are properly analyzed under the Fourth Amendment’s “objective reasonableness” standard, rather than under a substantive due process standard.”

The Court clarified “reasonableness” standards, stating, in part:

” …The “reasonableness” of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, and [must allow] for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second decisions about the amount of force necessary in a particular situation.”

Trends in Police Brutality Cases

Data from the National Violent Death reporting system was used to look at the use of force by police between 2009 and 2012.

The study revealed that the majority of persons killed by police were white (52%) but disproportionately black (32%) with a fatality rate 2.8 times higher among blacks than whites.

Most victims were reported to be armed (83%); however, black victims were more likely to be unarmed (14.8%) than white (9.4%) or Hispanic (5.8%) victims.

Fatality rates among military veterans/active duty service members were 1.4 times greater than among their civilian counterparts.

There was no clear data to explain more than half of the reported lethal-force encounters. However, the study determined that about 22% of cases were mental health related; 18% were suspected “suicide by cop” incidents (more often involving whites); while 14% involved intimate partner violence; and about 6% were unintentional deaths due to police action.

Heightened awareness of police brutality issues and potential race disparities in law enforcement encounters have compelled a deeper, more detailed look into law enforcement encounters with the public, especially encounters that result in the use of force.

In 2018, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in collaboration with major law enforcement groups, launched the National Use-of-Force Data Collection.

The Data Collection began gathering data in 2017, requiring detailed information about the incident, the person involved, and the police officer.

Data gathering is triggered by specific events: 

  • When someone dies as the result of an encounter with police
  • When a person is seriously injured as the result of an encounter with police
  • When a police officer fires at a person, whether or not the person is harmed

The data will be reported to the public on a regular basis. The goal is to provide reliable and accurate information for analysis and informed conversations about police brutality.

What To Do If You Are a Victim

Police officer points gun

American citizens enjoy basic rights and freedoms, including the right to pursue fair compensation for injuries caused by someone else’s negligence.

If you or a family member are a victim of police brutality, you may have recourse through the protections of your state’s laws or through federal civil rights laws.

Criminal and Civil Cases

An officer accused of police brutality may be arrested and face criminal charges of assault and battery, murder, and similar charges. If the officer is found guilty, the victim is usually not directly compensated financially.

However, if an officer is convicted of some form of police brutality, the victim or their family may benefit indirectly.

The victim or their family can use a conviction to: 

Whether or not a police officer is criminally charged or convicted of wrongdoing, you still have the right to pursue a civil lawsuit, as you would against any other person who caused you harm.

The fact that an injury came from a police officer rather than a private individual does not mean that you cannot sue to recover for that injury. Whether it was a gunshot, an injury from a chokehold, or the wrongful death of a loved one, a lawsuit is possible.

Claims Against Government Employees

Suing a police department (or a city from the actions of a police offer) is not easy. First, you have to decide between taking your case through state court or using the protections of federal laws.

Injury claims against a government entity are complicated. There will be extra legal and evidentiary hurdles you will have to pass to proceed and win your case.

Like prison or jail guards, police officers are often shielded by “qualified immunity.” If the law is unclear or the police officer could not have reasonably known their conduct was illegal, you can lose.

Consider whether to bring a civil rights claim under federal law (like 42 U.S.C. § 1983) or state law. Though state law is often more favorable for personal injury plaintiffs, you should think twice. State laws regarding assault, false imprisonment, and similar claims are broadly applicable to many kinds of situations.

State personal injury law does not usually take into account specific power dynamics at play in law enforcement cases. Depending on the specific claim and offense, there is also a good chance that the government entity you are trying to sue may be immune from these claims.

Federal civil rights laws, on the other hand, were specifically designed to protect constitutional rights from abuses by law enforcement officials, and are generally the preferred route for a civil suit. In order to determine the right law to use (and the best court in which to file), you will need to speak with an attorney experienced in civil rights claims.

If you or a loved one have been injured due to an incident of police brutality, contact a qualified civil rights attorney in your state for a free case evaluation and consultation. It costs nothing to find out what a good attorney can do for you and your family.

Matthew Carter, Esq. has been a licensed attorney since 2004. He’s admitted to practice law in California and Nevada, where he was awarded the Martindale.com rating of AV – Preeminent. Matthew has successfully handled a variety of personal injury and wrongful death cases, as well as trials, appeals, and evidentiary hearings throughout state and federal... Read More >>

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