How Do We Determine When Excessive Police Force Has Taken Place?

Going back to the Rodney King incident over 20 years ago and with increasing frequency over last several months one of the biggest topics in the media is use of excessive force by police officers. From Ferguson to New York City, South Carolina and Baltimore, not a day goes by we don’t hear a news story about the use of force by police officers while carrying out their duties.

Police work is a difficult and dangerous job and often lost in the debate about whether the force used was “excessive” is an actual discussion about what are the standards that a police officer must follow. How does one prove that an officer has gone outside the bounds of what is appropriate under the particular circumstances?

In Illinois, when a lawsuit is brought against a police officer and his department alleging the use of excessive force the plaintiff has to prove more than simply mere negligence, but rather that the officer acted recklessly. Recklessness is often described by courts as acting with a “conscious disregard for the safety of others”. Another theory often utilized by victims of excessive force is to show that the officer violated the Federal Civil Rights Act by denying the victim “due process under the law”.

A police officer in Fredericksburg, Virginia was forced to resign after his use of both a taser and pepper spray on a man still behind the wheel of his car was indeed excessive force. Fredericksburg police use-of-force policy prohibits the use of Tasers or pepper spray on someone behind the wheel of a car. It also prohibits the use of a Taser on suspects who are “passively resisting.”  In this case it also turned out the suspect was having a stroke, which was the cause of his erratic driving.

Most departments have internal guidelines, but often these cases hang on decisions made in the spur of the moment and are not clearly governed by the Departments protocols. Without a clear line drawn, it can be difficult for officers, courts and juries to identify what is reasonable, versus when an officer acted with a conscious disregard for the safety of the public.

In the case of the shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina, most of us would agree that shooting an unarmed individual in the back, is improper and outside the scope of what we are willing to accept as a society. However in most cases there is not cellphone video depicting the events. Hopefully the increased use of body cameras by police officers will assist courts in making informed judgements.

Since 1998 the lawyers of Mitchell, Hoffman and Wolf, have successfully handled cases involving police brutality, wrongful arrest, excessive force, improper search and reckless use of automobiles during high speed pursuit.  If you feel you have an issue involving police misconduct or excessive force that you wish to discuss, please do not hesitate to contact our office