Excessive force cases against the police

Personal Injury

Every few years, there is a sensational case involving alleged police misconduct or brutality. From Rodney King in the 1990’s to Abner Louima in the 2000’s to Eric Garner & Michael Brown in 2014, ordinary citizens have strong feelings regarding these incidents. But what is the law regarding police brutality? What needs to be proved in order for a police officer to be held legally accountable for an act of alleged misconduct? Although the facts of these cases may be sensational, you need to understand the law which applies under these circumstances.

Police play a vital role in our community and face life or death decisions on a daily basis. Police officers attempt to enforce the law while respecting the constitutional and civil rights of the population. This includes the right to be free from excessive force. The relevant question in police brutality cases is how much force was reasonable and was the use of force necessary?

If you are a long time reader of my Third Thursday columns, you know I rarely cite court cases and try to make my articles interesting, engaging and informative. Talking about court cases does not accomplish these goals, so I generally shy away from mentioning court cases. But in the area of excessive force, it is unavoidable.

Our attorneys at McCready Law are dedicated to helping individuals in Illinois and Indiana seek justice in cases involving police brutality.

Graham v. Connor

The US Supreme Court, in the case of Graham v. Connor (1989), set the standard for police excessive force claims.

The Graham case recognizes the reality of police work and attempts to strike a balance. An officer may use that amount of force which is reasonable and necessary. The Court did not want court cases second-guessing police decisions which were made in an instant. It is not fair to look back with hindsight and judge an officer’s actions. So, the Supreme Court invokes a balancing test examining whether the officer’s actions were “objectively reasonable” given the “totality of the circumstances.” In judging whether an officer used excessive force, one must consider, “the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.” These factors are commonly referred to as the “Graham Factors.” These are the exact words juries hear when they are deciding these cases.

Let’s review these factors. First, by considering whether the actions were “objectively reasonable,” what were the facts when the officer made his decision? Many cases involve learning information after the fact. For example, Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri, had previously stolen something from a store. However, the officer did not know that at the time he used deadly force. Second, the subjective motivations of the officer are irrelevant. Whether the officer meant well or whether the officer sadistically intended to injure someone is irrelevant. The inquiry is whether the force was “objectively reasonable.”

So we know the officer’s subjective motivations are irrelevant and we judge the decision to use force on the known facts at the time. But, how do you apply the other factors to determine whether the force was reasonable and necessary? The “Graham factors” provide that guidance.

First, what is the severity of the crime at issue? Is it fleeing and eluding and resisting arrest like Rodney King? Is it selling cigarettes like Eric Brown? Second, does the suspect pose an immediate threat to the safety of the officer or the public? According to the police officer, Michael Brown attempted to grab his weapon. An unarmed man poses a lesser threat than a man with a knife and a man with a gun poses an even greater threat. Finally, an officer can use reasonable and necessary force if a suspect is resisting arrest or attempting to flee. Put another way, an officer can use force when a suspect is not following verbal commands.

The Prevalence of Video

police brutalityThe fact that some instances of police use of force is caught on video has been a blessing and a curse. If you paid attention to the discussion above, you will understand that even what appears to be excessive force may not be, if it is “objectively reasonable” and given the “totality of the circumstance.” The Rodney King video is a perfect example. You can watch the video by clicking here. For those who are not old enough or may not recall, Rodney King was severely beaten by four Los Angeles police officers while numerous other officers watched. The officers were criminally charged and acquitted and riots broke out in LA. This was one of the first instances of police use of force caught on video. Remember, this was 1991, over 20 years ago, and video was not as common as it is today. Let’s review the Rodney King case in light of the Graham factors.

First, Rodney King engaged the police on a high speed pursuit, only exiting his car when he crashed. Second, it is clear Rodney King was under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Next, he failed to comply with the officers’ orders and resisted arrest. What most people failed to understand is that most of the force used against Rodney King was allowable under the Graham factors. What was impermissible were the officers who continued to beat and kick Rodney King after he had complied and was subdued. Those actions were not reasonable nor necessary and amounted to excessive force. Remember, the subjective motivations of the officers are irrelevant.

Next, let’s examine the Eric Garner case. You can watch the video by clicking here. Eric Garner was stopped by New York police for illegally selling cigarettes. A minor offense under the Graham factors. He did not appear to be a threat to the safety of the officers or the public, other than his large size. But he did refuse to comply with the officers’ requests and was subdued. The police officer applied a choke hold to Eric Garner and the suspect eventually suffocated as a result of the choke hold. Another factor in determining whether the officer’s actions were objectively reasonable is the fact that the police department had banned the use of such chokeholds in their procedure manual. The fact that Eric Garner had a long criminal history is irrelevant because the officers did not know that at the time. Remember, you cannot use hindsight in police brutality cases.

Apply The Law, Not Your Emotions

Any time alleged police brutality makes the news, it is virtually impossible to judge the incident under the proper legal framework. That’s what the legal system and lawyers are for. What you hear on the news, and even see on video, may not be considered evidence in a court of law. As you’ve seen, an individual’s prior police record is rarely relevant (unless the officer knows before the encounter). Likewise, even if the police officer wants to inflict pain, his subjective motivations are irrelevant. Were the actions objectively reasonable given the totality of the circumstances?

What this article has attempted to do is provide the legal framework which you can use to judge cases of alleged police brutality. To be fair to all, only certain facts are to be considered in determining police legal responsibility for excessive force. Our office has handled cases in Illinois and Indiana involving the use of excessive force by police. To discuss a possible case, please contact us.