What is Police Brutality?

Richard Meadow

Richard Meadow

Richard "Rick" Meadow is an esteemed attorney and legal expert with over 30 years of experience.

Content Last Updated: February 12, 2024

When police officers verbally or physically assault their victims while on duty, these acts are considered police brutality. Unfortunately, there have been numerous instances of police brutality both in the United States and elsewhere, leading victims to serious injury and even death. When police officers unlawfully use excessive force, often fueled by factors such as racial discrimination or outbursts of anger, they need to be brought to justice for their actions.

Police are often far too quick to exercise physical force when responding to demonstrations or protests.

As a citizen, it’s important to understand your rights and those of police officers. We’re going to examine the question “What is police brutality?” in great detail by walking through its history, recent examples of police brutality, investigations into brutality by police officers and potential solutions to the problem.

History of Police Brutality

The United States has a long and sordid history of police brutality spanning many decades, and there have been several noteworthy cases throughout the years. 

The amount of media attention that police brutality cases have received is critical to informing communities and the public about the problem. The media has been particularly focused on cases where police officers mistreated their suspects based on race, bringing to light the issue of inequality and discrimination.

Looking at the data, black Americans have accounted for more than 26 percent of police shooting victims, despite only representing 13 percent of the U.S. population. The fact that black people are disproportionately victims of police brutality emphasizes that inequality is a major problem in certain police communities.

Examples of Police Brutality

One of the most prominent examples of police brutality covered by the media was the 1991 Rodney King attack in Los Angeles. The video footage showed police officers beating King and was a topic of conversation in the media for many years following the incident.

Other incidents in recent history included the George Floyd, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor and Eric Gardner cases, all of whom were victims of police brutality.

Some police officers believe that certain minorities are most likely to commit crimes and justify their brutality through racial stereotypes and discrimination. Many of the police brutality cases we’ll examine here involve law enforcement officers exhibiting excessive force against black individuals in particular, which is a serious problem and has prompted calls for reform within police departments.

Police brutality dates back to the late 1800s when police used force to bring workers in line and prevent insubordination and was a common occurrence during the Industrial Revolution and the Civil Rights Era.
The lack of real consequences for police officers’ actions perpetrated the problem even further. If an officer was found to be abusive towards an individual, he often faced merely a negative review or other minor job consequence. Even in many fatal police brutality cases, the officer was often ruled in favor of and in some cases allowed to keep his or her job.
This is the historical context of police brutality, and it is a problem that continues to this day.

How many victims have perished at the hands of police?

Due to the sparse published data available on fatal police brutality cases, it is necessary to compile various data sources to get a bigger picture of the prevalence of police brutality around the world.

According to the Small Arms Survey, it is estimated that 19,000 people were killed during encounters with police or “legal interventions” every year between 2007 and 2012. Furthermore, data from Mapping Police Violence indicated that 1,144 individuals were killed by police officers in the United States in 2021 alone.

This data shows that black people were 2.9 times more likely to be killed by police officers than white people in the United States, and that police killed 12 more people in 2021 compared to the previous year. Out of all 50 states, New Mexico had the greatest number of police killings, with 12.75 per million residents.

Police Brutality is a Human Rights Violation

Every person has the right to liberty, security and freedom from discrimination, something that police brutality directly infringes upon. There are strict laws that govern the circumstances under which police officers are allowed to exhibit excessive force, for both civilians and prisoners. When a police officer, prison guard, or other law enforcement officer uses force outside of these laws and standards, he or she is directly infringing upon the civil rights of others.

Police officers have an obligation to protect the right to life and to keep their communities safe. International law relating to police use of force states that lethal force should only be used as an absolute last resort, such as when the officer is threatened by serious injury or death.

Police Brutality Investigations

Several prominent cases of police brutality have prompted investigations and a call for reform within police departments nationwide. We’re going to examine each of these cases and show how racial discrimination and the lack of restraint by police officers resulted in wrongful death. In many of these cases, the victims were unarmed and not a direct threat to police officers.

George Floyd

The George Floyd case received widespread media attention in the United States and sparked protests across the country beginning in May 2020. Floyd was a 46-year-old black man who was murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin after being arrested for using a suspected counterfeit bill. Chauvin knelt on the neck of George Floyd for more than nine minutes while he was lying face-down on the street, handcuffed.

While on the ground, Floyd was complaining about being claustrophobic and unable to breathe, and exhibiting signs of anxiety. After several minutes, he stopped speaking and eventually lay motionless on the ground. Videos were published online by the public, and all four police officers who were at the scene, including Chauvin, were fired after the security footage became public. Floyd’s death was ruled a homicide by the autopsy investigations, and Chauvin was sentenced to 22.5 years in prison.

As a result of Floyd’s death, reforms for law enforcement accountability were passed, and policies were implemented.

Michael Brown

Michael Brown was an 18-year-old black man who was fatally shot by Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson in August 2014. The scene involved Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson, and Wilson stated that an altercation ensued when Brown attacked him while he was inside his police vehicle. According to Wilson, Brown was trying to get control of his gun when it fired.

Shortly afterward, Brown and Johnson fled and Wilson continued to pursue them. Brown stopped after a short pursuit and was then shot by Wilson. According to Wilson, Brown charged him and he was forced to shoot as a result. His friend Johnson, however, recounted a different story in which Brown turned around with his hands raised and was then shot by Wilson. The killing of Michael Brown sparked social unrest in Ferguson after witnesses claimed Brown had his hands up and even said “don’t shoot” to Wilson.

Breonna Taylor

Breonna Taylor was a 26-year-old black woman who was fatally shot in her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky, in March 2020. Seven police officers forced entry into her apartment while they were investigating a drug-dealing operation.

The discrepancy in stories comes when the officers said that they officially announced they were police officers before entering, while Kenneth Walker, Breonna Taylor’s boyfriend, stated he heard no such announcement. Walker thought they were intruders and fired a warning shot that hit one of the officers in the leg. In return, the officers fired 32 shots and ended up killing Breonna Taylor. Numerous protests against racism and police brutality were sparked around the United States as a result.

Eric Garner

Eric Garner’s death in Staten Island, New York, gained widespread media attention and raised various questions about the use of excessive force by law enforcement. In July 2014, New York Police Department officers approached Garner when they suspected him of selling cigarettes from packs that didn’t have any tax stamps. Garner stated that he was not selling cigarettes and expressed disdain for being harassed, and the officers then attempted to arrest him.

During their attempt to arrest Garner, he pulled his arms away and was then pinned down on the ground by officers. One of the officers put his arm around Garner’s neck, and Garner repeatedly stated that he couldn’t breathe while lying face down on the sidewalk. After a short time, he lost consciousness and was pronounced dead one hour later at a local area hospital.

What leads to police brutality?

There are several factors that contribute to police brutality around the world, including inadequate local laws, conflict, insecurity, discrimination or entrenched impunity. Countries such as Nicaragua, Iraq, Iran, Sudan and Hong Kong often authorize police force in response to demonstrations and protests, exacerbating the problem of police brutality.

All of these factors combined often lead to police brutality and police officers killing their victims without impunity. In certain countries such as Brazil, for example, police officers routinely kill individuals who pose absolutely no threat to them. These are mostly young black men, and the police officers often realize that they will not be prosecuted or investigated, and therefore these actions continue.

Racial Discrimination

Racial discrimination has been behind many cases of police brutality, even though international human rights laws prohibit discrimination of all forms. It is understood that no individual should be treated differently by law enforcement because of gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, social origin or ethnicity. Under the law, everyone has the right to be treated equally by law enforcement.

Unfortunately, racial discrimination is “built-in” to various justice systems and law enforcement departments around the world. During police checks, there are often cases of discriminatory action or racial profiling, such as when drug policies are selectively enforced based on someone’s race.

Within the United States specifically, many cases of police brutality directly result from racial discrimination by officers. Protesters took to the streets after high-profile killings with the intent of fundamentally reforming the U.S. justice system and putting an end to the police violence that was so rampant in various communities of color.

Solutions to Police Brutality

Most police killings in the United States were by officers who possessed a firearm. In multiple such cases, the police officers shot their victims multiple times, indicating force that was inappropriate and excessive.

Various civil society organizations have called for police reform in the United States for many years, proposing several options that could make every citizen safer. Their propositions include advocating for the publication of data on all of the people killed by police and ensuring that all cases of police lethal force see thorough and detailed investigations. Civil society organizations are of the belief that if the Department of Justice were to oversee law enforcement agencies and discipline them for human rights violations, individuals and citizens would ultimately be safer.

With every country and jurisdiction having its own laws and regulations, there will never be a “one-size-fits-all” approach to the problem of police brutality. It is up to each local jurisdiction to prioritize fairer and safer actions by law enforcement and to follow the guidelines created by Amnesty International that detail how police can improve their practices, policies and laws.

Amnesty International offers various guidelines, such as the need to resort to minimum force unless otherwise required and the prohibition of excessive harm. These guidelines illustrate the “protect-life” principle, firearms use thresholds and other forms of lethal force within police departments and security forces. There is a section dedicated to accountability, the criminal investigation process and independent and impartial external oversight that’s required to keep law enforcement departments in check.

Implementing guidelines such as these would be a step closer to eliminating excessive force by police officers and keeping citizens safe in their daily lives. When oversight is administered over police departments, their officers are much more likely to face disciplinary action when they wrongly use excessive force, and they will be less likely to do so as a result.

Handling the problem of police brutality once and for all is a difficult issue, but there are solutions that have been advocated and reviewed by numerous individuals. It is now a matter of implementing these solutions, thereby allowing citizens to once again put their trust in the police and stop fearing potential harm that may come to them, especially if they are a minority.

Putting It All Together

Police brutality is a significant problem within law enforcement around the world, often resulting from racial discrimination and stereotyping by police officers.

Data shows that black people are 2.9 times more likely to be killed by police officers than white people. Every individual has the right to freedom from discrimination, security and liberty throughout their daily life, making police brutality a human rights violation,

Several prominent cases, such as those of George Floyd, Micahel Brown, Breonna Taylor and Eric Garner, illustrate police brutality that resulted from racial discrimination, sparking extensive media coverage and protests around the United States. Protesters advocated against police brutality and racial injustice and aimed to push forward reform within police departments nationwide.

If certain solutions are implemented, such as those provided by organizations like Amnesty International, communities could become safer, and trust in police officers could once again be restored. It is up to individual governments and jurisdictions to police and implement these solutions, and if they are able to do so, life will be made better for every citizen. If you are a victim of police brutality, it is your right to pursue justice and get legal help.

Citation Links
MLA
Richard Meadow. "What is Police Brutality?." Police Brutality Center, Police Brutality Center, 1 July 2022, https://policebrutalitycenter.org/police-brutality/