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Understanding Police Brutality: Knowing Your Rights and Beyond

Flashing lights on top of a police car

Incidences of police misconduct in the United States are unfortunately common. Legal claims of police brutality can have a significant impact on the outcomes of court cases and public opinions toward law enforcement and the justice system, so it’s important to understand the full scope of the problem and how your rights may be affected. Here’s what police brutality entails and what you should do if you have been the victim of police misconduct.

What Is Police Brutality?

In order to be able to enforce laws and protect the public, police officers are given wide-reaching authority and power, including the ability to use deadly force under specific circumstances. However, they are still bound by limitations to their power that prevent them from violating department regulations, state and federal laws, and the constitutional rights of citizens. Legal claims of police brutality arise when officers take inappropriate or illegal actions in their interactions with the public, especially when they result in personal injuries and rights violations.

History of Police Brutality

Trends in American police brutality have often been directly linked to specific historical eras and events. As cities rapidly expanded in the late 19th century and early 20th century, poor, working-class, and immigrant communities frequently experienced discriminatory policing. As the 20th century progressed, anti-war and civil rights efforts were often met with police harassment toward marginalized groups, including African Americans and the LGBT community. In the 21st century, Muslim Americans have experienced profiling following the September 11th attacks, and several high-profile police shootings in the last decade have furthered the national conversation around police misconduct and gun violence.

Types of Police Brutality

No two situations involving law enforcement are exactly alike, so instances of police brutality vary widely by type and degree. Furthermore, not every unpleasant interaction with a police officer will necessarily warrant an allegation of misconduct, so it’s important to have a police brutality attorney gather and assess the facts in every case. Here’s a look at what defines some of the most common types of police brutality and misconduct.

Excessive force

Police officers can only use a “reasonable” amount of physical force when it’s needed to fulfill their legal duties. If a suspect is behaving violently or brandishing a deadly weapon, for example, officers may be perfectly within their rights to restrain, strike, disarm, or even kill the suspect to restore order and safety. The police are not allowed, however, to strike suspects who are cooperating, and any application of physical force must stop once a suspect is detained.

Racial discrimination

Law enforcement must respect every citizen’s constitutional rights regardless of their race or ethnicity. Racial profiling can nevertheless influence a variety of law enforcement decisions, including the unwarranted suspicion, questioning, detainment, and even arrest of an individual.

False imprisonment

False imprisonment occurs when a police officer takes an individual into custody without an arrest warrant or legitimate probable cause. An officer only has probable cause if he witnesses a crime being committed or if he has a reasonable belief that a crime was committed or about to be committed. This “reasonableness” depends on what information is available to the officer at the time and may be challenged later as part of a false imprisonment claim.

Denial of medical care

All detained individuals are entitled to receive medical and psychological care while in custody. Law enforcement officials must also see that every detained individual’s food and shelter needs are met and that they are protected from other inmates. Injuries, illnesses, and wrongful deaths resulting from inadequate care may warrant legal action against the responsible officers and staff.

Sexual assault

Sexual assault is one of the most egregious forms of police misconduct, and it can be perpetrated by law enforcement officers or detention facility staff. Regrettably, the government does not have an official system for documenting these cases, which makes it difficult to take effective legal action. The law, however, is clear: While someone is in custody, they are unable to give sexual consent, which means that all types of sexual contact with a detained individual are legally sexual assault.

Understanding Police Misconduct and Your Rights

The Constitution provides several protections to citizens against police brutality and misconduct:

  • The Fourth Amendment protects you against unlawful searches and seizures, which means that a police officer must obtain a warrant to search your person or property if there is no immediate probable cause.
  • The Fifth Amendment grants you the right to remain silent during interactions with police, which is your first defense against self-incrimination.
  • The Eighth Amendment protects you from “cruel and unusual punishment” should you find yourself in custody.
  • The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees your right to “due process,” which encompasses all of the rights listed above.

Police Brutality FAQs

Has the rate of police brutality decreased?

Police departments across the country are technically required to self-report police brutality cases to the federal government. Many cases go unreported, however, as there are no official standards for what gets reported, and many departments disregard incidents they believe were justified. The Washington Post and numbers from independent research groups have indicated that rates of police violence and brutality have remained steady each year of the last decade, with just over 1,000 people being killed by police annually.

How common is police brutality in the U.S.?

American police brutality remains a hotly debated political topic. The prevalence of social media has only furthered the conversation, as everyday people can now share evidence of police misconduct to a global audience in minutes. According to our research, more than 75% of people who have had verbal or physical interactions with police have described the experience as “excessive,” and more than 85% have said that the police did not behave appropriately given the situation.

Police Brutality Attorney in New York — Leav & Steinberg LLP

Police encounters vary from situation to situation, but if you feel that you have been the victim of misconduct, assessing your legal options may feel intimidating. The Leav & Steinberg LLP team has decades of experience pursuing police brutality claims and helping victims assert their rights and receive just compensation. To request a free consultation with a police brutality attorney in New York, NY, simply fill out our online contact form today.