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Across America, law enforcement agents are expected to uphold the sanctity of the law's while serving the community. However, a report by the Cato Institute's National Police Misconduct Reporting Project indicates that smaller agencies are not immune to instances of police harassment, with misconduct rates comparable to larger departments. These officers are mandated to enforce the law, yet they must do so within the bounds of legality and respect for civil liberties.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, when law enforcement officials step beyond their authority and engage in police harassment, they not only violate individual rights but also undermine public trust in the justice system. It is crucial for small-town police harassment to be addressed with the same rigor as in larger cities, ensuring accountability and the protection of citizens' rights.
There are numerous actions that can qualify as police harassment. Police have the authority and the duty to question people suspected of committing crimes. They also have the authority and duty to lawfully look for evidence regarding crimes and to arrest those they believe have committed crimes. There are some types of questioning, searches, and arrests, however, which may be considered harassment.
Questioning may qualify as harassment when it is arbitrary. Sometimes police officers will make a habit of stopping a certain person and demanding answers to random events, even when they do not suspect his involvement. This is often an abuse of power. The same type of situation can arise with search and seizure. An officer may act unlawfully by conducting an unwarranted search and confiscating items not used as part of an investigation.
An officer may have several reasons for harassing a person. For example, he may be trying to coerce the person to admit to his role in a crime or the officer be trying to get information regarding an event that he believed a person witnessed. In any event, it does not make police harassment acceptable.
Many people do not exercise their rights for justice in these situations because they believe the incidents are too minor. Harassment is not always harmless. Unjust police tactics can cause a person mental or physical harm. It can cause a person to lose his job, to be evicted from his place of residence, or to sustain unfair losses of property. When a person is harassed and does nothing about it, he may be acting against the best interests of society because a law officer who uses unjust tactics once is likely to use them again.
Police harassment is a situation that tends to be best handled by the judicial system. In many instances, police harassment may be found to be a violation of a person’s civil rights. It is not wise for a person who is being harassed to try to seek justice on the spot from the officer who is harassing him.
This means that person should not resist or become violent in such situations. If he does, he risks giving his harasser cause to continue to mistreat him or harm him. Instead, such misconduct should be handled in a calm and cooperative manner and the law should be used to reprimand the guilty parties.
How to Report Police Harassment
What happens if you experience some form of harassment from a cop? You may or may not understand what the motivations of an officer may be. There are proper ways to report police harassment. There are federal laws for protection from the misconduct of law officers, even federal agents. There are criminal and civil statutes that protect the rights of all people in the United States, whether they are citizens or not. These laws have jurisdiction over state, county, and local offices. How to report police misconduct depends on the nature of the incident and the law that was broken by the officer.
Federal Enforcement of Police Misconduct
What happens if an officer violates a criminal versus a civil law? They are investigated as separate cases, even if part of the same incident. The Department of Justice ultimately has jurisdiction over criminal and civil cases, but there are a few differences between the two.
For criminal enforcement of police harassment, you first contact your local Federal Bureau of Investigation or United States Attorney's Office. The FBI or USAO starts the investigation, then involves the Department of Justice to try any legitimate cases.
- The DOJ charges the accused individual.
- The evidence must "prove beyond a reasonable doubt."
- The DOJ seeks prison and sanctions against the officer as punishment as an outcome.
Civil enforcement of police harassment begins when you contact the Justice Department. They are the ones that investigate violations of the civil liberties protected by laws like the Police Misconduct Provision, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, or the Office of Justice Programs statutes.
- The DOJ charges the presiding enforcement agency.
- The proof has to meet a "preponderance of the evidence."
- The DOJ wants to correct uncivil policies and provide restitution for victims as the outcome.
How to Protect Yourself from Police Harassment
There are a few best practices to protect yourself if an officer of the law acts in a way that violates your rights.
Know Your Rights
Knowing your rights concerning the police will allow you to deal with law enforcement with more confidence. Civil liberty resources, including the American Civil Liberties Union, offer instruction on exercising your rights. There are some basics to remember.
- You can choose not to consent to a search of you or your belongings. Law enforcement is allowed to do a pat-down if they suspect a weapon.
- You do not have to answer questions about citizenship or immigration.
- You can choose to state out loud that you wish to exercise your right to remain silent. You do not have to answer questions about your destination, intent, or residence.
- If arrested, you have the right to a lawyer and a local phone call. The police cannot listen to these conversations.
Document the Incident
Keeping a record of all you can remember about your encounter with police harassment is vital. The pertinent details include:
- Witness contact info
- Officer names
- Badge numbers
- Patrol car numbers
- Photographs of injuries
- Medical records
- Cellphone images or video
- Note any use of weapons
What is the Most Common Complaint Against Police?
The Bureau of Justice Statistics is a comprehensive resource for criminal justice statistics on crime, the justice system, offenders, and victims. They collect data on complaints received about the unnecessary use of force by police and law enforcement.
Types of Police Complaints
Aside from federal agencies, you should also file a report with the internal affairs department of the local office responsible for the harassing officer. There are several main types of police complaints that you may file depending on the infraction, including First Information Reports, Private Complaint Issued to Magistrate, and official Department Complaint filings. The complaint process can vary by state, as there are currently 44 state oversight agencies.
Number of Police Complaints
In the last decade, people have made more than 200,000 police complaints in the United States. Approximately 110,000 of those led to an official internal affairs investigation. Most misconduct is only routine infractions. The largest category (roughly 15%) of officers that lose their certification do so from reported issues with drugs and alcohol. Some of the more serious charges include the following numbers in the U.S. over the last ten years.
- Excessive force - 22,000+ reports
- Rape, molestation or sexual misconduct - 3,000+ cases
- Domestic violence - 2,300+ cases
- Perjury, tampering with evidence, witnesses, or falsifying reports - 2,200+ cases
- Obstruction of justice - 400+ cases
How to Report Police Harassment
One of the difficulties of reporting police harassment is that you may have been arrested during the altercation. If this is the case, your priority should be to get legally released on bail. This will allow you to get legal assistance, which will be invaluable to building your case. Make sure that you are following all of the rules associated with your release, such as being present and on time for all your court dates.
At the soonest possible time following the encounter, take notes on everything you remember. The more details you can record, the better. Make sure to take note of the date and time of the incident. If possible, save your notes in a digital format that includes a timestamp.
Information to Record
If you received any injuries as a result of the encounter, take pictures and consider seeing a doctor. If you get medical help, save all of the associated documentation. If taking pictures or getting medical help isn't possible, write down the details instead.
Take note of any witnesses who saw the incident occur. If there were any people in the area that may have seen or heard anything, they could be a valuable asset to your case.
If you have any physical evidence, such as damaged property, that occurred as a result of the police misconduct, you should keep it safe. If the damages were made to an item that absolutely has to be washed, altered, or replaced, make sure that you take plenty of photos before doing so.
Reporting the Incident
Once you have gathered all the information you can, your next move should be to contact a civil rights attorney. They can help you pursue legal compensation through a court case. Make sure to find an attorney that is a good fit for your case, and discuss details such as the costs of hiring them upfront so that you know what to expect. Having an attorney is key to winning a complex case such as a police harassment lawsuit.
How to Prove Police Harassment
The main goal of proving police harassment is often to win a lawsuit and receive financial compensation for the crimes against you. Since police officers are given a lot of discretion in how they operate, proving that you have been the victim of police harassment can be a difficult task.
You should not expect to get support from other members of the police force, as historically if one officer is accused of harassment, the others will support them in almost any circumstance. You will need strong proof that the officer in question has done something that specifically goes against the civil rights afforded to you as a US citizen.
While the difficulty of pursuing compensation can be intimidating, if you truly have been a victim of police harassment, it is worth trying to bring the guilty officer to justice. Police accountability is something that is becoming increasingly important in recent years, and you may be helping to improve law enforcement for everyone.
Use your notes and any evidence you have to strengthen your accusation. Your civil rights attorney will be able to help you use this information to build a case and increase your chances of succeeding in court.
What Are Examples of Police Harassment?
Before you can consider creating a case against a police officer, you need to be certain that what they did actually constitutes harassment. There are many different behaviors to watch for that can indicate harassment.
There are many things that police offers are not legally allowed to do. If you know that an officer has done something illegal, you should contact an attorney. This includes illegal searching of you or your belongings, illegally detaining you, or illegally stopping you on the street without reasonable suspicion or a warrant.
Police being overly violent or using excessive force is another action that citizens should be legally protected against. If a police officer is not currently on duty and they take any action against you, this may also be illegal.
Unfortunately, many cases of police harassment involve discrimination against a person for belonging to a minority group. If your case falls into this category, you may have the foundation for a successful lawsuit. One example of discrimination is racial profiling. A police officer can not stop, search, or detain anyone without reasonable suspicion, no matter what race or ethnicity they are. Sexual harassment of any kind is also completely unacceptable, as is the use of slurs regarding a person's race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or other personal traits.
FAQ on Police Harassment
What constitutes police harassment?
Police harassment involves unwarranted or illegal actions by police officers that can include intimidation, discrimination, physical assault, or the use of excessive force without just cause. It can also encompass repeated stops, searches, and questioning that go beyond the reasonable scope of law enforcement. The key factor is that the behavior must be persistent and not justified by any legitimate law enforcement activity.
How can I tell if I'm being harassed by the police?
You might be experiencing police harassment if you encounter repeated and unnecessary stops, searches, or questioning without probable cause. If you notice a pattern of targeted behavior towards you that feels excessive or abusive, especially if it's based on your race, ethnicity, gender, or another protected characteristic, this could be a sign of harassment. Documentation of these encounters can help determine if there's a pattern of harassment.
What should I do if I believe I'm a victim of police harassment?
If you believe you're a victim of police harassment, it's important to remain calm and avoid confrontation. Collect evidence by documenting each incident with as much detail as possible, including dates, times, locations, and officer badge numbers. Seek legal advice from an attorney who specializes in civil rights or police misconduct. You can also file a complaint with the police department's internal affairs division or a civilian complaint board, if available.
Are there any legal protections against police harassment?
Yes, there are legal protections against police harassment. The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures, while the Fourteenth Amendment ensures equal protection under the law. Federal laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also provide protections against discrimination. Victims of police harassment can file a lawsuit under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act, which allows individuals to sue state government officials for civil rights violations.
Can I record my interactions with the police to protect myself from harassment?
Yes, in most jurisdictions, you have the right to record public interactions with the police as long as you do not interfere with their duties. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), openly recording officers performing their duties in public is typically protected by the First Amendment. However, it's important to know the specific laws in your state, as there may be varying regulations regarding recording audio and video.