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Police brutality

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Police brutality

New York City Police Department officers violently attacking unemployed civilians in Tompkins Square Park, 1874.

Police brutality is the wanton use of excessive force, usually physical, but also common in forms of verbal attacks and psychological intimidation, by a police officer.

Widespread police brutality exists in many countries, even those that prosecute it.[1] It is one of several forms of police misconduct, which include: false arrest; intimidation; racial profiling; political repression; surveillance abuse; sexual abuse; and police corruption.[2] Although illegal, it can be done under the color of law.


  • History 1
  • Examples 2
    • People's Republic of China 2.1
    • Russia 2.2
    • Finland 2.3
    • Indonesia 2.4
    • Canada 2.5
    • Turkey 2.6
    • Middle East 2.7
    • United States 2.8
    • Hong Kong 2.9
  • Causes 3
  • Global prevalence 4
  • Investigation 5
  • How it is measured 6
  • Independent oversight 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • Further reading 10
  • External links 11


April 21, 2001: Police fire tear gas at protesters during the Quebec City Summit of the Americas. The Commission for Public Complaints against the RCMP later concluded this constituted "excessive and unjustified force."
Screenshots of Rodney King lying down and being beaten by LAPD officers

The word "brutality" has several meanings; the sense used here (savage cruelty) was first used in 1633.[3] The term "police brutality" was in use in the American press as early as 1872, when the Chicago Tribune[4] reported on the beating of a civilian under arrest at the Harrison Street Police Station.

The origin of 'modern' policing based on the authority of the nation state is commonly traced back to developments in seventeenth and eighteenth century France, with modern police departments being established in most nations by the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Cases of police brutality appear to have been frequent then, with "the routine bludgeoning of citizens by patrolmen armed with nightsticks or blackjacks."[5] Large-scale incidents of brutality were associated with labor strikes, such as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the Pullman Strike of 1894, the Lawrence textile strike of 1912, the Ludlow massacre of 1914, the Steel strike of 1919, and the Hanapepe massacre of 1924.

Portions of the population may perceive the police to be oppressors. In addition, there is a perception that victims of police brutality often belong to relatively powerless groups, such as minorities, the disabled, the young, and the poor.[6]

Hubert Locke writes,

When used in print or as the battle cry in a black power rally, police brutality can by implication cover a number of practices, from calling a citizen by his or her first name to a death by a policeman's bullet. What the average citizen thinks of when he hears the term, however, is something midway between these two occurrences, something more akin to what the police profession knows as "alley court"—the wanton vicious beating of a person in custody, usually while handcuffed, and usually taking place somewhere between the scene of the arrest and the station house.[7]

In March 1991, members of the Los Angeles Police Department harshly beat an African American suspect, Rodney King, while a white civilian videotaped the incident, leading to extensive media coverage and criminal charges against several of the officers involved. In April 1992, hours after the four police officers involved were acquitted at trial, the Los Angeles riots of 1992 commenced, causing 53 deaths, 2,383 injuries, more than 7,000 fires, damage to 3,100 businesses, and nearly $1 billion in financial losses. After facing federal trial, two of the four officers were convicted and received 32 months prison sentence. The case was widely seen as a key factor in the reform of the Los Angeles police department.

According to data released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (2011), between 2003 and 2009 at least 4,813 people died in the process of being arrested by local police. Of the deaths classified as law enforcement “homicides,” 2,876 deaths occurred of which 1,643 or 57.1% of the people who died were "people of color".[8]


People's Republic of China

Politically motivated riots and protests have occurred historically in China, notably with the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Within the past decade, groups such as Falun Gong have protested party measures and been broken up by riot police. Chinese dissidents have been able to arrange effective mobilization through use of social media and informal communication like Twitter and its Chinese counterparts Weibo or microblogs.[9]

Foreign journalists from Switzerland have reported cases of police harassment. Media suppression has increased in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia. Plainclothes policemen are often deployed during demonstrations to suppress violence. Censorship is often maintained as a measure to maintain political stability in China. Web activists can be charged by the police for using false identities to surf the Internet. After arrests, homes of the arrested individual are often searched for incriminating evidence such as computers, hard drives, and flash drives.[10]


Russian protests have gained media attention with the reelection of Vladimir Putin in 2012. Attention has been given to incidence of violence via posting videos online. President Dmitry Medvedev has initiated reforms of the police force, in an attempt to minimize the violence by firing the Moscow police chief and centralizing police powers. Police divisions in Russia are often based on loyalty systems that favor bureaucratic power among political elites. Phone tapping and business raids are common practice in the country, and often fail to give due process to citizens. Proper investigations of police officials still remains lacking by western standards.[11]

In 2012, Russia's top investigative agency investigated charges that four police officers had tortured detainees under custody. Human rights activists claim that Russian police use torture techniques to extract false confessions from detainees. Police regulations require quotas of officers for solved crimes, a practice that encourages false arrests to meet their numbers.[12]


Historically, anti-communist police brutality was commonplace during the 1920s and 1930s - in the wake of the Finnish Civil War. Some local sections of the secret police (Etsivä Keskuspoliisi) routinely beat up arrested communists.

As of 2006, there were 7700 police officers in Finland.[13] That police force was shown to be more law-abiding than firemen.[13] However, it was revealed there are a few dozen cases each year in which police officers are convicted of crimes committed while on duty, 5 to 10 per cent of the hundreds of such crimes prosecuted annually - the number of such crimes being shown to increase yearly.[13] These cases concerned most frequently vehicular collisions while in pursuit and the excessive use of force.[13]

In 2006, a 51-year-old police constable attracted a 16-year-old girl to his house by showing her his badge, where he got her drunk and raped her twice. The constable was fired and sentenced to a two-year suspended sentence.[14] In 2007, an Iranian-born immigrant, Rasoul Pourak, was beaten in a cell at Pasila Police Station, Helsinki. The ill-treatment caused Pourak bruises all over the body, an open wound over his eyebrow, and a fractured skull. In addition, facial bones were broken and the victim was left permanently damaged. One guard participating in the assault was sentenced to an 80-day suspended prison sentence.[15][16] In 2010, two police officers assaulted a man in a wheelchair in connection with an arrest. The police twisted the man's hands and pushed him backward causing him to break a femur.[17] In 2013, two policemen were sentenced to 35 day fines for assault and breach of duty in connection with stamping on a man’s head onto the asphalt thrice. According to the police, the man of Romani descent resisted, yet according to eyewitnesses, the man did not resist. The event was captured in surveillance video, which was stored but accidentally destroyed according to a third officer present.[18][19]


Islamic extremists in Indonesia have been targeted by police as terrorists in the country. Police may either capture or kill dissidents. Cases of police corruption with hidden bank accounts and retaliation against journalists who attempt to uncover these cases have occurred such as in June 2012, when Indonesian magazine Tempo had journalist activists beaten by police. Separately, on August 31, 2013 police officers in Central Sulawesi province fired into a crowd of people protesting the death of a local man in police custody. Five people were killed and 34 injured. History of violence goes back to the military-backed Suharto regime (1967–1998), from which Suharto seized power during an anti-Communist purge.[20]

Criminal investigations into human rights violations by the police are rare, punishments light and Indonesia has no independent national body to deal effectively with public complaints. Amnesty International has called on Indonesia to review police tactics during arrests and public order policing, to ensure that they meet international standards.[21]


There have been a number of high-profile cases of alleged police brutality, including 2010 G-20 Toronto summit protests,[22] the 2012 Quebec student protests,[23] the Robert Dziekański Taser incident, and the shooting of Sammy Yatim. The recent public incidents in which police judgments or actions have been called into question have raised fundamental concerns about police accountability and governance.[24]

On March 16, 2014, 300 people were arrested in Montreal during a protest against police brutality.[25]


A protester shows his wounded eye. Police brutality was one of the main issues arising from the 2013 protests in Turkey.

Turkey has a history of police brutality, including (particularly between 1977 and 2002) the use of torture. Police brutality featuring excessive use of tear gas (including targeting protestors with tear gas canisters),[26] pepper spray and water cannon as well as physical violence against protestors has been seen, for example, in the suppression of Kurdish protests and May Day demonstrations. The 2013 protests in Turkey were in response to the brutal police suppression of an environmentalist sit-in protesting the removal of Taksim Gezi Park.

In 2012 a number of officials received prison sentences for their role in the death in custody of political activist Engin Çeber.

The European Court of Human Rights has noted the failure of the Turkish investigating authorities to carry out effective investigations into allegations of ill-treatment by law enforcement personnel during demonstrations.[27]

Middle East

Police brutality was a major drive behind 2011 Egyptian revolution;[28] the incident of Khaled Said's death and other stories, yet very little has changed since. One of the "demands" around which people decided to take it to the streets in Egypt is "purging the Ministry of Interior" for its brutality and torture practices. Things are said to have gone wrong following the ouster of Egypt's first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi. Police are said to have used brutal force again while dispersing a pro-Morsi sit-in near the Rabaa al-Adawiya square, with the official death toll at over 800,[29] in what is said to be one of the most brutal uses of force against civilians in Egypt's modern history.[30]

Police arrest a man during the Watts Riots, August 1965

The GCC states have seen many cases of brutality, some even involving senior figures. For example, Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al Nahyan a UAE sheikh, was involved in the torture of many business associates and he often recorded some of the abuse. Sheikh Issa was eventually arrested but a court found him not guilty and released him.[31] Amnesty International has also reported that a UAE worker was subjected to a wide array of torture methods during his time in jail, including beatings and sleep deprivation.[32] Authorities in Saudi Arabia have also been filmed lashing civilians for different reasons.[33]

United States

In the United States, major political and social movements have involved excessive force by police, including the civil rights movement of the 1960s, anti-war demonstrations, the War on Drugs, and the Global War on Terrorism. In 2014, the UN Committee against Torture condemned police brutality and excessive use of force by law enforcement in the US, and highlighted the "frequent and recurrent police shootings or fatal pursuits of unarmed black individuals."[34]

Few members of the United States military police were responsible for the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse incidents in Iraq and were sentenced to varying prison terms back in the US.

Hong Kong

During the 2014 Hong Kong protests, there have been numerous instances of police brutality. Seven police officers have been caught on video kicking and beating a prominent political activist who was already handcuffed.[35] There have also been more than hundreds of incidents of police beating passers-by with batons. Pictures on local TV and social media show demonstrators being dragged behind police lines, circled by police officers so that onlookers' views are blocked, and in some cases re-emerging with visible injuries.[36]


Ian Tomlinson after being pushed to the ground by police in London (2009). He collapsed and died soon after.
Protest against police brutality after the eviction of unemployed demonstrators occupying the Post Office in Vancouver, Canada, 1938

Police officers are legally permitted to use force, and their superiors — and the public — expect them to do so. According to Jerome Herbert Skolnick, in dealing largely with disorderly elements of the society, some people working in law enforcement may gradually develop an attitude or sense of authority over society, particularly under traditional reaction-based policing models; in some cases the police believe that they are above the law.[37]

There are many reasons as to why police officers can sometimes be excessively aggressive. It is thought that some personality traits make some officers more susceptible to the use of excessive force than others. In one study, police psychologists were surveyed on officers who had used excessive force. The information obtained allowed the researchers to develop five unique types of officers, only one of which was similar to the bad apple stereotype. These include personality disorders, previous traumatic job-related experience, young inexperienced or macho officers; officers who learn inappropriate patrol styles, and officers with personal problems. Schrivers categories group officer that most likely use excessive force.[38] However, this "bad apple paradigm" is considered by some to be an "easy way out". A broad report commissioned by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on the causes of misconduct in policing calls it "a simplistic explanation that permits the organization and senior management to blame corruption on individuals and individual faults – behavioural, psychological, background factors, and so on, rather than addressing systemic factors."[39] The report goes on to discuss the systemic factors, which include:

  • Pressures to conform to certain aspects of "police culture", such as the Blue Code of Silence, which can "sustain an oppositional criminal subculture protecting the interests of police who violate the law"[40] and a "'we-they' perspective in which outsiders are viewed with suspicion or distrust"[39]
  • Command and control structures with a rigid hierarchical foundation ("results indicate that the more rigid the hierarchy, the lower the scores on a measure of ethical decision-making" concludes one study reviewed in the report);[41] and
  • Deficiencies in internal accountability mechanisms (including internal investigation processes).[39]

Police use of force is kept in check in many jurisdictions by the issuance of a use of force continuum.[42] A use of force continuum sets levels of force considered appropriate in direct response to a subject's behavior. This power is granted by the civil government, with limits set out in statutory law as well as common law.

Violence used by police can be excessive despite being lawful, especially in the context of political repression. Indeed, "police brutality" is often used to refer to violence used by the police to achieve politically desirable ends and, therefore, when none should be used at all according to widely held values and cultural norms in the society (rather than to refer to excessive violence used where at least some may be considered justifiable).

Studies show that there are officers who believe the legal system they serve is failing and that it is their duty to pick up the slack. This is known as "vigilantism", where the officer involved may think the suspect deserves more punishment than what they may have to serve under the court system.[43]

Global prevalence

Australian police use illegal pain hold on activist at University of Sydney.
  • The Amnesty International 2007 report on human rights also documents widespread police misconduct in many other countries, especially countries with authoritarian regimes.[1]
  • In the UK, the reports into the death of New Zealand teacher and anti-racism campaigner Blair Peach in 1979 was published on the Metropolitan Police website on 27 April 2010. The conclusion was that Blair Peach was killed by a police officer, but that the other police officers in the same unit had refused to cooperate with the inquiry by lying to investigators, making it impossible to identify the actual killer.
  • In the UK, Ian Tomlinson was filmed by an American tourist apparently being hit with a baton and then pushed to the floor, as he walked home from work during the 2009 G-20 London summit protests. Tomlinson then collapsed and died. Although he was arrested on suspicion of manslaughter, the officer who allegedly assaulted Tomlinson was released without charge. He was later dismissed for gross misconduct.[44]
  • In Serbia, police brutality occurred in numerous cases during protests against Slobodan Milošević, and has also been recorded during protests against governments since Milošević lost power. The most recent case was recorded in July 2010, when five people, including two girls, were arrested, handcuffed and then beaten with clubs and otherwise mistreated for one hour. Security camera recordings of the beating were obtained by the media, causing public outrage.[45][46] The police officials, including Ivica Dačić, the Serbian minister of internal affairs, denied this sequence of events and accused the victims "to have attacked the police officers first". He also publicly stated that "police isn't here to beat up citizens", but that it is known "what one is going to get when attacking the police".[47]
  • Some recent episodes of police brutality in India include the Rajan case, the death of Udayakumar,[48] and of Sampath.[49]
  • Police violence episodes against peaceful demonstrators appeared during the 2011 Spanish protests.[50][51][52] Furthermore, in August 4, 2011, Gorka Ramos, a journalist of Lainformacion was beaten by police and arrested while covering 15-M protests near the Interior Ministry in Madrid.[53][54][55][56][57] A freelance photographer, Daniel Nuevo, was beaten by police while covering demonstrations against Pope's visit in August 2011.[58][59]


In Independent Police Complaints Commission investigates reports of police misconduct. They automatically investigate any deaths caused by, or thought to be caused by, police action.

A similar body operates in Scotland, known as the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner. In Northern Ireland the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland has a similar role to that of the IPCC and PIRC.

In Africa, there exists two such bodies, one in South Africa and another one in Kenya known as the Independent Policing Oversight Authority.

How it is measured

Police brutality is measured based off the account of people who have experienced or seen it, as well as the juries who are present for trials involving police brutality cases. This is because there is no way to quantify the use of excessive force for any particular situation. Because police brutality is relative to a situation, it depends on if the suspected person(s) is(are) resisting. Out of the people who were surveyed about their account with the police brutality in 2008, only about 12% felt as if they had been resisting.[60] Although police force itself cannot be quantified, the opinion of brutality among various races, genders, and ages can. African Americans, females, and younger people are more likely to have negative opinions about police than Caucasians, males, and middle-aged to elderly individuals.[61]

Independent oversight

Various community groups have criticized police brutality. These groups often stress the need for oversight by independent civilian review boards and other methods of ensuring accountability for police action.

Umbrella organizations and justice committees (often named after a deceased individual or those victimized by police violence) usually engage in a solidarity of those affected.

Tools used by these groups include video recordings, which are sometimes broadcast using websites such as YouTube.[62]

Civilians have begun independent projects to monitor police activity in an effort to reduce violence and misconduct. These are often called "Cop Watch" programs.[63]

Proper supervision by competent police supervisors and administration can reduce police misconduct.

See also


US specific:


  1. ^ a b
  2. ^ Martinelli TJ. (2007). Minimizing Risk by Defining off-Duty Police Misconduct
  3. ^ Oxford English Dictionary
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^ a b c d
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^ Iltasanomat 5.6.2010 Poliisi pahoinpiteli vammaisen
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^
  28. ^
  29. ^
  30. ^ [1]
  31. ^
  32. ^
  33. ^
  34. ^ Stephanie Nebehay (November 28, 2014). U.N. torture watchdog urges U.S. crackdown on police brutality. Reuters. Retrieved March 19, 2015.
  35. ^
  36. ^
  37. ^
  38. ^ Scrivner, 1994: 3–6
  39. ^ a b c
  40. ^
  41. ^
  42. ^
  43. ^ Chevigny, P. (2008). "Police Brutality", In Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace and Conflict. oxford: Elsevier Science and Technology, 2008.
  44. ^
  45. ^
  46. ^
  47. ^
  48. ^
  49. ^
  50. ^ Spanish police clash with protesters over clean-up - The Guardian
  51. ^ Los Mossos d'Esquadra desalojan a palos la Plaza de Catalunya - Público (Spanish)
  52. ^ Indignats - Desallotjament de la Plaça Catalunya on YouTube
  53. ^ Spanish riot police clash in Madrid with anti-austerity protesters - The Guardian
  54. ^ Los periodistas, detenidos y golpeados al cubrir las manifestaciones del 15-M - El Mundo (Spanish)
  55. ^ Doce policías para detener a un periodista - Público (Spanish)
  56. ^ Gorka Ramos: "Me tiraron al suelo, me patearon y luego me detuvieron" - Lainformación (Spanish)
  57. ^ La policía detiene al periodista Gorka Ramos - El País (Spanish)
  58. ^ Spanish police officer slaps girl during Pope protests - The Telegraph
  59. ^ La policía golpea a un fotógrafo y a una joven - Público (Spanish)
  60. ^
  61. ^
  62. ^
  63. ^

Further reading

  • della Porta, D., A. Peterson and H. Reiter, eds. (2006). The Policing of Transnational Protest. Aldershot, Ashgate.
  • della Porta, D. and H. Reiter (1998). Policing Protest: The Control of Mass Demonstrations in Western Democracies. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.
  • Donner, F. J. 1990. Protectors of Privilege: Red Squads and Police Repression in Urban America. Berkeley, University of California Press.
  • Earl, Jennifer S. and Sarah A. Soule. 2006. "Seeing Blue: A Police-Centered Explanation of Protest Policing." Mobilization 11(2): 145–164.
  • McPhail, Clark, David Schweingruber, and John D. McCarthy (1998). "Protest Policing in the United States, 1960–1995." pp. 49–69 in Policing Protest: The Control of Mass Demonstrations in Western Democracies, edited by D. della Porta and H. Reiter. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Oliver, P. (2008). "Repression and Crime Control: Why Social Movements Scholars Should Pay Attention to Mass Incarceration Rates as a Form of Repression" Mobilization 13(1): 1–24.
  • Ross, J.I. (2000). Making News of Police Violence: A Comparative Study of Toronto and New York City, Westport, CT: Praeger.
  • Zwerman G, Steinhoff P. (2005). "When activists ask for trouble: state-dissident interactions and the new left cycle of resistance in the United States and Japan." In Repression and Mobilization, ed. C. Davenport, H. Johnston, C. Mueller, pp. 85–107. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

External links

  • Police Brutality Statistics
  • World wide Police Brutalities archive
  • Names of Victims of Police Brutality In Canada
  • Copwatch Project – includes the Copwatch Database: a permanent, searchable repository of complaints filed against police officers.
  • [2] – information, statistics, and readings about state repression
  • Cop Spotting – First-hand encounters with police abuse recorded on video.
  • Policing the Police: Civilian Video Monitoring of Police Activity
  • UK Police Brutality
  • Police Brutality
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