Police Brutality

October 30, 2009

By: David Jaffe

As my extensive involvement in police misconduct cases, on behalf of individuals over the years has demonstrated, police brutality comes in many forms.

While it is true that most police officers, who often have a difficult and dangerous job, do their jobs well and in conformity with the law and police practices, there are many reported instances where the police exceed the bounds of their duties and engage in the use of unreasonable force, sometimes in conjunction with false arrests, as well.

The use of excessive or unreasonable force by police officers manifests itself in many ways. Police manuals describe a "continuum of force" which starts from the most mild uses of force and progresses all the way up the ladder to the most severe. Generally speaking, a police officer is permitted to use an amount of force which is "objectively reasonable" under the totality of the circumstances. ( See, for example, Graham vs. O'Connor and Tennessee vs. Garner, the latter of which applies to the amount of force which is generally allowed in pursuit of a fleeing felon.)

Thus, the amount of permissible use of force by a police officer is commensurate with the severity of the threat which he or she faces at the time the force is used. Additionally, as soon as the immediate threat of harm ceases, the officer is no longer justified in using force to resist such threatened harm.

Connecticut General Statutes, Section 53a-21, sets forth the statutorily permitted force which a police officer is permitted based on the particular factual circumstances. For example, use of a police canine, which is trained to follow precise commands of the handling officer, is considered to be less severe than deadly force (a gun for example) along the continuum of force scale, but more severe than hand to hand combat or pepper spray or a baton to the limbs. Accordingly, if an officer is facing a threat of serious physical harm, short of death, he or she may justifiably command a police dog to apprehend a victim to protect himself or herself from such threat of harm.

A taser, on the other hand, is considered to be commensurate with pepper spray or perhaps slightly above pepper spray in the continuum of force scale, but a notch below a baton or a police dog, according to recognized police standards. Therefore, a taser may be used initially to respond to a perceived immediate threat which is somewhat greater than that necessary to justify the use of pepper spray but less than the amount of force necessary to justify the use of a police canine or baton, for example.

A baton to the heart or "red zone" area surrounding the heart and including the head, is equivalent to the use of a gun or other lethal methods of use of force. Therefore, striking someone in this manner with a baton is only justified when the officer fears imminent serious physical harm or death, the same standard which justifies shooting an individual, center mass, which is how police officers are trained to shoot, when confronted with a lethal situation.

Other means of force available to a police officer include a flat sap or black jack, which is a small, flexible offensive weapon used to the head and which is presently banned or optional in police departments throughout the country. Again, this type of force is only appropriately used to respond to an imminent lethal or deadly threat, as referenced above.

The "Lamb Method" is still generally accepted as the standard of use for apprehending a suspect who is not armed but represents an imminent danger to the police officer. This method includes utilizing a baton, generally below the knees, in an effort to take down the suspect without seriously injuring him or her.

In conclusion, a police officer needs detailed and continuing updated training as to the amount of force and the type of weapon which he or she is justified in using based upon the threat presented at the time of the use of force, especially since both the type of weapon with which they are equipped, as well as those possessed by potential criminals, changes periodically as technology is updated. A well trained police officer, rather than escalating the particular situation, will do all that he or she can to defuse it, with the intended result being that no force or the most moderate means of force available be used to apprehend a suspect or protect the officer or bystanders.

There are recognized experts in accepted police practices and policies who train police officers as to proper updated techniques when force is considered or needs to be applied. Additionally, they provide curricula and manuals to municipalities on this subject area and they are also often available to audit, and consult with municipalities, as well as to provide expert opinions for plaintiffs and defendants and cases brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, et seq., and related actions.

With adequate training and supervision, police officers are thereby freed up to continue to serve and protect their fellow citizens in the proper manner.