PPSC Staff View
"Brutal v. Brutality - Sometimes the Job is
By, Dale Beasey II
The footage on the local "all news, all the time" television station starts as a
blurry and indistinct montage. As the hand-held camera zooms out, the scene
bounces to the left, then the right, until the camera operator finally gets
their footing. What follows is a scene in which a man is struck repeatedly with
batons by two uniformed Police Officers. Power strikes to the arm - high arching
strikes that land on his legs. That little, uncomfortable feeling starts to
build in the stomachs of the viewers. You know the feeling - It's the same one
you get when passing by a particularly destructive traffic accident. The feeling
worsens as the dull "thud" of metal striking flesh, faintly reaches the video
camera microphone. The footage lasts all of 10 or 15 seconds. Next the screen is
filled with commentators to explain to the viewers what they just watched. Words
like "brutality" and "excessive force" are tossed around without hesitation.
Judgments are made in the "Court of Public Opinion" before the investigation
into the incident is completed, before the ink is dry on the arrest report. And
it doesn't end there. These incidents become "water cooler" conversation pieces.
Cops debate them with other Cops - questioning the actions of the "television
cops". Little old ladies argue their point with others at the local coffee
house. People from every background, every experience have an opinion and will
share it if asked.
This is a fictional example, but you have seen it before and will see it again.
These moments are edited, packaged, slapped with a fancy "catch phrase" and
broadcast to our homes, over - and over - and over again.
Some may say that all of this is harmless in general - maybe even healthy for
the nation to debate - but I would not want to be one of those Officers - whose
entire career is being questioned based on 15 seconds of videotape. This isn't
just uncomfortable from the Officers standpoint, but begins to be dangerous and
damaging when decisions are made, based on videotape, media hype and public
outcry alone. Remember that in July of 2002, the Mayor of a city of 115,000
publicly called for the termination and criminal charges against one of his
city's Officers based solely on those factors. Cries of "Termination" "Criminal
charges" "Civil rights violations", all based on the viewing of one videotape.
But Videotape Doesn't Lie
No, videotape doesn't "lie", but it can be deceptive. Video shows only a limited
portion of an incident from only one angle, one viewpoint. The determining
factors of a force incident may be obscured - missed - or intangible altogether.
Videotape is generally helpful to prove actions or inaction by Officers and
suspects - terrific in a robbery - great to show the stumbling, bumbling D.U.I.
offender performing field sobriety tests - sometimes helpful in defining a
complaint made against an Officer, but videotape cannot be relied upon to tell
the whole story.
To begin with, much of the widely broadcast videotape lacks context. What is the
reason for the initial contact? What did the suspect do prior to the use of
force? Is the suspect under the influence of alcohol? Drugs? Are they
emotionally disturbed? How did the Officer come to a force decision? What did
the suspect say? Was he threatening? Violent? Make furtive movements? Produce a
weapon? What did the suspect or Officer do prior to the beginning of the
videotape… This list can go on for pages. And each one of these questions can
have a direct bearing on whether a use of force by an Officer is reasonable or
What is Reasonableness?
As you know, use of force by Police Officers is judged based upon well
established caselaw. The seminal case in use of force is Graham v. Connor .
In Graham, the Supreme Court Justices stated that claims of excessive force
against a free citizen, must be judged by reference to the Fourth Amendment's
"The Fourth Amendment 'reasonableness' inquiry is whether the officer's actions
are 'objectively reasonable' in light of the facts and circumstances confronting
them, without regard to their underlying intent or motivation. The
'reasonableness' of a particular use of force must be judged from the
perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, and its calculus must embody
an allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make
split-second decisions about the amount of force necessary in a particular
They said "must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the
scene"… - Reasonable Officer - not reasonable person. Meaning that factors such
as an Officer's training and experience carry weight in a use of force inquiry.
As does the entirety of the facts and circumstances known to the Officer at the
time of the incident. And the Court allowed for the fact that Officers are
forced to make split second, sometimes life or death, decisions - in situations
that are fluid and rapidly unfolding. THESE are some of the intangible things
that cannot be captured on videotape.
But I Saw the Videotape and It Looked Brutal
Yes, many of these incidents appear brutal, but do not confuse brutal appearance
Police work is, at times, bone breaking, bloody, flesh-tearing, bruising,
sweaty, life or death, ugly. I have never seen a baton used against someone
where I was even momentarily fooled into thinking I was watching a ballet. There
is no beautiful, graceful way to shoot someone - or strike them with a baton.
Yet, there are times when shooting someone or striking them with a baton is
absolutely necessary and absolutely reasonable.
Police Officers are paid to deal with all the people that normal citizens do not
want to deal with. The killers, rapists, burglars, terrorists, drug dealers,
etc… They are not paid to box - where it's an evenly matched fight that anyone
can win and the outcome depends on the decision of the judges. No! Police
Officers must win every fight and go home every day in the same or better
condition in which they started. And sometimes, in order to go home safe - in
order to survive, or protect themselves - or the community they serve, Officers
may have to resort to force, beyond that of defensive tactics, beyond compliance
techniques that are more visually appealing. There are times they have to use
their O.C. spray, or deploy their baton or resort to their firearm. And that can
appear brutal. It is sometimes ugly. It is not, however, brutality when an
Officer uses the equipment that they carry, in a reasonable manner.
In this post-Columbine, post-9/11, post-D.C. Sniper world, where the lines of
"who's a threat and who's not" are becoming blurred - it should not surprise
anyone when a nine year old sitting on a public street bench waving around a
realistic looking toy gun, is taken down at gunpoint by responding Police
Officers. But, it does. And the brutality argument continues.
It's Institutionalized Brutality - It Happens All of the Time
The fact is police use measurable force (force above mere presence) very little
of the time and excessive force occurs at an even more minuscule rate.
In 2001 the International Association of Chief's of Police conducted a study
where data was collected from police agencies that voluntarily participated.
They analyzed data from the year 1991 to 2000 and categorized "measurable force"
as starting from just "grabbing" someone, up to deadly force. They studied
45,913,161 calls for service and found that measurable force was used by police
3.61 times for every 10,000 calls for service.
This translates into police using measurable force only .0361% of the time - OR
- police Officers DID NOT use any measurable force 99.963% of the time.
They also found that out of those nearly 46,000,000 calls for service that the
participating agencies received merely 7495 excessive force complaints. Of those
complaints only 750 were sustained at the local level.
These are the results of a 10 year study. The results are not "nationwide and
complete" because not every police department from every city in every state
participated in the study, but they can be reasonably believed to be
representative of the actual statistics.
The fact is that the percentages of sustained excessive force complaints are
very, very small.
There is no place in modern police work for excessive force. It is a blight on a
very honorable profession. Those who are involved in excessive force should be
removed from the profession and punished, if necessary.
However, there are factors that must be considered every time an accusation of
excessive force is made against an Officer. These factors can sometimes be lost
in the melee that follows a high-profile use of force event.
It is important for those involved in the supervision and management of the
police function to remember the investigative process. You may have an idea
where an investigation is going before it even starts, but we don't put the "bad
guy' away until we have enough evidence. I don't think there is anything wrong
with saying the same thing to the media or the public following a high profile
Isn't it better for the public to hear the Chief or the department's P.I.O. on
the all news channel saying something like;
"Yes, that videotape you keep showing on T.V. sure does look bad - but there is
a difference between "brutal looking" and brutality. The investigation continues
and we will make decisions based on the facts of the case as we find them. We
have a responsibility to the public to follow the law and the legal process and
not get caught up in the hype"
Not tactfully acknowledging the "ugly" side of our jobs just perpetuates the
"brutality argument". If we continuing to "sterilize" the job for public
consumption, or fail to acknowledge that things at times appear brutal - when
something "high profile" and public does come to light - such as a videotape -
it may appear to be starkly contrary to the "kinder, gentler" persona that some
departments may be trying to present to the community.
Tactful honesty is the key. Education of the public is the benefit. Furthering a
relationship of trust with the public is the potential end result.
©2004 The Police Policy Studies Council. All rights reserved.