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What is Police Brutality?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Police brutality is a form of police misconduct in which officers engage in an excessive use of force. The definition of “excessive use of force” is a bit fluid, but it is generally taken to mean force well beyond what would be necessary to cope with a situation. For example, a police officer who beat a nonviolent protester with a baton would probably be accused of excessive use of force, under the argument that the officer probably could have dealt with the situation much less violently.

Several nations around the world have laws which specifically address police brutality. Under these laws, complaints about the excessive use of force must be taken seriously, and investigated by a commission or district attorney. In fact, as human rights organizations have discovered, many complaints about excessive use of force by police officers are not investigated, and if they are, the finding is usually that the police officer acted appropriately. Only rarely are police subjected to disciplinary action as a result.

Researchers have suggested that the failure to prevent and act upon reports of brutality is probably related to the insular culture of police forces. Because the police are authorized and expected to use force when necessary, some investigators find it difficult to fault an officer for acting aggressively in a policing situation. Situations on the street can change rapidly and they are difficult to control, making it easy to justify a use of force that might seem excessive. Some police forces now routinely record all interactions with civilians so that these records can be reviewed in the event of an investigation.

This form of police misconduct can present in a number of ways. The most obvious form of brutality is physical. Pain holds, nerve gas, batons, pepper spray, and guns, for example, can all be be used for the purpose of physical intimidation or to actually hurt people. Police brutality can also take the form of verbal abuse or psychological intimidation.

In many societies, police brutality and the profiling of minorities are closely intertwined. Members of the dominant race, religion, class, or ethnic group are, for the most part, treated with respect by the police, while minorities may find themselves targeted by officers. Many of the nations that attempt to legislate excessive force also have laws about minority profiling, but these laws are difficult to enforce, especially in societies where the bulk of the population holds negative views of minorities.

Police brutality has taken place for almost as long as humans have used police forces. Some periods have been more marred by violence than others. Nazi Germany, for example, was infamous for its brutal policing tactics, as was the United States during the Industrial Revolution, when violent police forces were used to intimidate labor activists and striking workers. The 1960s civil rights movement in the United States was also accompanied with brutality, especially in the case of mixed-race marches, and in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks in the United States, worldwide policing has become significantly more aggressive. Protests at international conferences and meetings held by organizations like NATO, the WTO, the World Bank/IMF, and the Group of Eight (G8) have been met with some very violent policing tactics. In nations where there are few to no laws about excessive force, reports of its use to quell minority groups, protesters, and strikers are widespread.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon993005 — On Oct 17, 2015

If people don't want police contact, just quit committing crimes and act human, not like an animal. If people have a problem with the police, they should look in the mirror. How they act and talk and conduct themselves is why they have problems. The should quit being jerks! Every single police contact I have ever had, I treat them with respect and I have never ever had a officer disrespect me. Michael Brown and Treyvon Martin are dead because it could not have turned out any other way. They were thugs and conducted themselves as such. These animals got what they deserved. People's problems with the police isn't them. It's the people!

By anon339406 — On Jun 23, 2013

There are sites where you can record anything that happens with your and a cop, on live streaming and it will save the recorded video even if the bad police make up their own laws and taken your phone away from you. Careful, though, because some police officers will harm you if they catch you filming them, and some will shoot you if you try to run away with your camera that they want so they can destroy the evidence.

We sit back and allow these types of trashy criminals with badges to earn a living via our tax dollars as they cruise the streets accosting and killing people. No one who supports their wrongdoing sees nothing wrong with a cop chasing someone down to get evidence off of their phone. Who wants to destroy video evidence?

People who rob businesses, kill, etc. want the video tapes to erase the evidence. Cops who beat people up, plant drugs, rape, kill, etc. want the video tapes to erase evidence.

The only difference is the person without the badge will usually be found guilty, but it's usually not the untrustworthy cops. You can't sit back comfortably and put your trust in someone who wants to erase evidence, beat people when they are angry, kill people instead of using a taser, etc. Complain on the the White House website to express your desire for a solution. Cops need to pay for breaking the law and making up rules so that they aren't abusing their power, knowing (like a spoiled brat) that they won't get in trouble when they do something wrong.

Africans in America have experienced abuse of the badge for a long time, and now it has spread even further, but regardless of race, it is a problem that affects everybody. It literally does, so join me in sharing your opinion. A cop is paid to do what they are supposed to do, not what they want to do.

By anon329876 — On Apr 12, 2013

Since they have little metal plate on their chest they think they can do anything they want. It's crap when you just walk around town and a cop stops you for no reason but only because you have your hand in your coat pocket and they tackle you to the ground, saying "I thought he had a gun" and they get away with it.

No matter how hard you fight them in court you won't win. Police have special rights that the judge can't deny, so if you do get them with guilty charges, they still get away.

By anon251070 — On Feb 28, 2012

I called the police for help to remove a white woman from my house and the police came and arrested me, the black man, and left the intruder in my house while taking me to jail.

Then the police filed a false report to the magistrate to have false criminal charges put on me and had me locked up.

Now I am going to sue fairfax county for violating my civil rights and trying to get away with drawing a blue line. The prosecution screwed up releasing the evidence that dropped charges on me. Now I will throw it right back at them.

By anon249911 — On Feb 23, 2012

I was wrongfully arrested and the police officer called me many obscene names, then I got arrested for saying "do you have to talk like that?" Note the whole time, I was respectful and did everything they asked.

She also told another guy to bleeping leave when the cop car was blocking the driveway. He was arrested for asking if he could give a statement.

By the way my brother was studded in the leg and the cop said good. They should have beat him worse. He was at his own house. They also stated that they wish they would have beaten us with a baseball bat.

By Gary Wilson — On Jan 16, 2011

Don't allow the Police to be bullies. Support us and every one else in making people aware of their rights.

By anon90181 — On Jun 14, 2010

You see and hear it every day: a police officer abusing their power and authority, causing great harm, with no recourse. nothing but a shameful display of leadership support.

Thugs get innocent people to do what they with through fear and intimidation. the police do exactly the same thing. When will we as a society open our eyes and see that fascist power is completely evil and put a stop to it?

I understand that police officers must control potentially explosive situations with an amount of necessary force, but when it has been proven that the force used was not needed and was just plain mean? we need to punish these officers like the criminals they are.

Assault is not OK just because you have a badge!

By anon89869 — On Jun 13, 2010

I believe this commentor's story. It is likely to happen to anyone no matter what age, race, or sex. Abuse does not discriminate.

By anon89633 — On Jun 11, 2010

Dear anon89413: what you said makes absolutely no sense. I believe that you are seriously downplaying your actions while interacting with the officers.

Police brutality is, of course, a serious issue though, and happens every day.

By anon89413 — On Jun 10, 2010

I am a victim of police brutality, false arrest, and psychological and verbal intimidation. I am a 26 year old, 100 lb female. I was home alone when three police officers knocked on my door saying, "where is he?"

I allowed them inside to look for the 'he', and they found no one. Then they verbally assaulted and intimidated me. They grabbed my heart medication, a beta blocker, and accused me of being on drugs, even though I gave them my id and the bottle matched. They even got into a discussion about religion with me and said I didn't respect them and that I was going to. They told me to stand up from my couch, which I did, and they slammed me into the ground with brute force. My head hit first, and I also sprained my thumb. My knees are badly bruised, along with my face and arms.

They sprayed me with mace three times in my house. The officer taking me to the police station (alone), got me out of the car on the way there in an alley at 1 a.m., opened my door and put the can of mace to my eyes and sprayed another time.

They charged me with resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer. The police report was completely fabricated. One of the three officers even told my husband, who arrived home as they were taking me downstairs that part of it was. I have to go to court in four hours and I am going to fight this.

I will never trust another police officer. After this, I am going to try to start a coalition in my town. I am also going to press charges against the officers.

By anon66143 — On Feb 17, 2010

well, stupid police these days think that they are all that. They're not. There was a New Year's Eve brawl, and i watched my family members get the crap bashed out of them, both men and women. they got smashed with sticks and bottles, no police officer did anything. They didn't take statements -- nothing. How are we new zealanders meant to feel walking around? What if we get bashed, us kids? Will the police act on it then? Do something about it, mareeba police!

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

Learn more
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