What Is Excessive Force?

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Richard Meadow

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

Content Last Updated: March 25, 2024

Excessive force is a type of police brutality that refers to the use of force beyond what a reasonable police officer uses to question or apprehend a person. Officers should use the minimum amount of force necessary to safely contain a situation.

Police use of excessive force is a systemic problem that has only recently received the attention it deserves. As far back as the 1700s, a culture of segregation, voter suppression, and violence against Black Americans embedded racism into the system, first through slave patrols, then through enforcement of Black codes and Jim Crowe Laws.

This laid the foundation of what is known as law enforcement today.

The Facts About Excessive Force

Excessive force by police is a public crisis that has not improved despite media attention and growing public outrage.

United States police kill far more people than any other country:

Types of Excessive Force

The two basic types of force are lethal and nonlethal. Police have multiple weapons at their disposal, including their K-9 police dogs.

Nonlethal Force

Many of the tools used for “nonlethal force” can be deadly.

Handcuffs and Zip Ties

Many New York protestors experienced permanent hand injuries as a result of police applying these too tightly and refusing to remove them when requested. In one disturbing case involving standard handcuffs, an Alabama man required amputation as a result of tight handcuffs.

Tasers and Chemical Sprays

Tasers are conducted-electricity weapons that override the nervous system for five seconds, rendering the individual incapable of movement. Chemical sprays, such as pepper spray, are eye, skin, and respiratory system irritants.

Their intended purpose is to save lives by providing alternatives to lethal force while apprehending noncompliant suspects who pose a threat. However, they can be improperly used when:

  • Officers are not properly trained in their use.
  • Police overuse them.
  • Police use them as punishments and implements of torture, even after suspects are handcuffed and placed in police vehicles.
  • Police sometimes confuse a gun with a taser, as in the shooting of Daunte Wright by Kim Potter.

At least 500 people have died from police use of tasers since 2010, and 39 percent were Black.

Crowd Control

The right to peacefully protest is protected by the Constitution, but police routinely use dangerous weapons against protestors without warning. Black Lives Matter protestors have repeatedly been met with tear gas, rubber bullets, beanbag rounds, and disorientation devices.

Although the media has sensationalized these protests with images of burning buildings and violence, the majority of BLM protests have been peaceful and posed no danger to officers, civilians, or property.

The following uses of force have been employed:

  • Tear gas: In one analysis, 53 of 1,981 people exposed to tear gas died, 71 sustained serious injuries, and 300 became permanently disabled.
  • Rubber bullets and beanbag rounds: These are no longer considered nonlethal but less lethal. Despite manufacturer warnings, police often aim rounds at the head, face, and stomach.
  • Disorientation and acoustic devices such as flashbangs and sound cannons: These create painfully loud noises and blinding flashes of light. They cause long-term hearing damage, internal injuries, and blunt force trauma.


In 1990, Rodney King, a well-known victim of excessive force, was beaten with batons by four police officers at a traffic stop. He received 56 blows, resulting in a broken leg and multiple facial fractures.

According to Amnesty International, only large muscled areas of the body should be struck, and more than one strike may be excessive use of physical force and a human rights violation.

Neck Restraints

Restraints around the neck can lead to serious physical injury, arterial tears, strokes, internal organ damage, and death. There is no such thing as a safe chokehold or carotid hold. It should never be used unless deadly force is warranted. Neck restraints are responsible for the high-profile police killings of George Floyd and Eric Garner.

Lethal Force

Firearms are the lethal weapons of choice in the use of deadly force by police officers. Approximately 96 percent of killings by police are shootings. The high rate of police shootings in the United States in contrast to other developed nations raises questions about the legitimacy of these shootings.

The following high-profile excessive-force cases show instances of unjustified police shootings:

Walter Scott, an unarmed 50-year-old Black man was shot in the back as he fled following a traffic stop.

Philando Castille was shot in his car during a traffic stop while reaching for his wallet.

White Texas police officer Roy Oliver fired his gun at a car full of teenagers as it fled, killing 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, a passenger.

Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old, was shot 16 times as he walked away from a traffic stop.

Is excessive force legal?

Law enforcement is a weighty responsibility that demands the highest standards of conduct by those who deem themselves fit for the profession. Excessive force is not only improper but a grievous violation of the victim’s Constitutional rights.

State and federal laws provide civil and criminal remedies for police misconduct. However, police unions are overprotective, making enforcement difficult. A civil rights attorney can help identify the laws that apply to individual circumstances.

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution

The fourth amendment guarantees protection against unreasonable searches and seizures and requires probable cause. Excessive force by law enforcement is an unreasonable seizure.

The Supreme Court as well as lower courts have defined the standard of reasonableness as follows:

Federal Law

The department of justice enforces federal laws regarding police misconduct. These laws protect the civil rights of anyone who comes into contact with law enforcement.

Section 242

Under 18 U.S.C. § 242, it is a crime punishable by fines and imprisonment for law enforcement to willfully deprive persons of their constitutional rights based on color, race, or alien status.

Police Misconduct Provision

The Police Misconduct Provision, 34 U.S.C. § 12601 makes it illegal for police officers to engage in a pattern of conduct that deprives persons of rights protected by the Constitution, whether or not discrimination occurs.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964

The Civil Rights Act prohibits discriminatory treatment by state and local law enforcement agencies based on the following:

  • Race
  • Color
  • National origin
  • Sex
  • Religion

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990

Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination by law enforcement against those with disabilities.

Local and State Laws

State and local law enforcement agencies also pass laws governing police conduct and the use of force. These laws vary from state to state and even between municipalities.

Police Accountability

As long as police are not held accountable under both civil and criminal law, they will never stop using excessive force or discriminating against people of color.

What is qualified immunity?

The intention of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 was to give individuals the right to sue government officials, including law enforcement, when their Constitutional rights are violated.

However, this statute institutes qualified immunity, a doctrine that allows officers to escape civil liability unless the following can be established after the court considers the totality of the circumstances:

A series of court rulings have set the bar too high for victims of excessive force to sue by allowing the courts to define “clearly established” to mean that an identical case has been previously ruled upon. Since every case is unique, police are granted qualified immunity too often.

Reforms to End Excessive Use of Force

The ongoing racial bias and unbridled use of force by law enforcement throughout the United States will require the following changes in law enforcement:

Citation Links
Richard Meadow. "What Is Excessive Force?." Police Brutality Center, Police Brutality Center, 24 June 2022, https://policebrutalitycenter.org/police-brutality/excessive-force/