Police brutality, an aspect of the policeman’s abuse of his authority as a law officer, has been met with criticism from human rights activists as well as an increase in racial tension especially in those racial groups involved in the said cases. An example of a high profile case such as the Rodney King case has shown what seemed to be an appalling display of police violence against suspects or innocent civilians, which has taken on a racial undertone and led to more outrage of the entire African American community at this affront to their color.
What makes it even more appalling is the fact that when the Rodney King case was first tried, the assaulting officers were acquitted, based on some controversial moves that were made in the hearing itself as well as the racial composition of the jury who tried the said officers (composed mostly of White members), despite the evidence. Of course, there are other incidents which speak of just as appalling incidents of police abusing their power. But of course, this is not just a simple case of outright police brutality.
Police brutality generally includes actions of a severe nature, such as emotional, mental and physical abuse more than what is prescribed in the general police rulebook. The abuse could range from inflicting physical injuries from minor to critical, emotional, mental and psychological battery through use of torture, and in worst case scenarios, even end up in the killing of the suspect. Police brutality has always been a case wherein sentiments of the police force, the victims of the police brutality incident and supporters on each side are always at odds.
The nature of an incident – whether to declare it a case of police brutality or just a simple case of “upholding the law” – take on entirely new meanings for people who were involved in it one way or another, directly or indirectly. In US law enforcement agencies today, the fine line between “doing enough” and “doing too much” in the apprehension of crime has been mostly blurred, especially in cases wherein police officers feel that their authority is undermined by the suspect, or feel that they have to “do their duties”. The idea that they are the “law” contributes to an excess of force more than what is necessary, which leads to said abuse.
But as Green (616 – 617) notes, one cannot actually always blame police officers in employing unnecessary force sometimes – given their lives are always fraught with danger, it is but natural that police officers tend to be wary of people who they think are possibly dangerous. Police also always feel that they have to fit in with the “working specifications” that come with their jobs – and what people expect of them. The need to take over in a tense situation, for example, could sometimes lead to the police officer using force as one of his precautionary measures in order to turn the situation around.
But the abuse of their powers as law enforcement officers could sometimes come from having to resort to the use of excessive force to bring the threat down – a case of the “ends justifying the means” – and this is where the lines between what is acceptable and what is not get blurred. Also, it also comes with their legacy. As Steverson (508 – 513) discussed, the history of US law enforcement has always been steeped in violence, especially more so during the days when America as a nation was still relatively young and immigrants have just started to pour in from every part of the world.
Maintaining peace and order before the US became the land of opportunity for all immigrants everywhere was always a matter of civil responsibility, where local people talk to local authorities regarding cases of misconduct that were occurring in their neighborhoods. It was in the years in which America was greeted with waves and waves of different immigrants from other parts of the world in which acts of needless violence escalated even more.
Not only were most of the people harassing African Americans because of what happened in the Civil War or because they were slaves and the Whites believe they have “every right” to “put them back in their rightful place” – ganging up on newly arrived immigrants was now also a usual occurrence, as in the case of the more urban cities. A new police force was established in order to keep up with the many radical changes to society. This is especially so given the new racial group mix, which adds to more societal pressure on attaining basic needs and freedoms – and lead to racial group conflicts of every imaginable size and severity.
However, even given what they were supposed to do and uphold, there have been incidents that in the run of such high racial tension police officers of the day also engaged in such activities, a case of joining a group in order to lash out at a group of people they greatly dislike. An example of this could be seen in the early police efforts in the South – given that this was an area where slavery used to be commonplace the police force was created in order to keep slaves in check. But then the worst “hate crimes” still continued to escalate, and some of them even have police officers joining in the fray.
And police brutality of any sort was also criticized for being “whitewashed”, even if they know how what happened was a basic affront to everything they were supposed to protect and uphold. It was a case of covering up for a fellow police officer – at all times the police department must stand firm in face of these police brutality allegations. The Christopher Commission, which was created in light of the Rodney King case, summed it up quite nicely – police officers are not supposed to “tell tales out of school” – what goes on inside must never be found out by other people outside the police department (Martin 46).
It is one of the reasons why some of the police brutality cases were not acted upon by police officers, or were not reported – there was to be a cover up by all means. Incidents of reported police brutality were only few, and investigations into these cases were even scarcer. This adds more fuel to fire so to speak, and given the Rodney King case, it led to the worst race riot ever.