Recent events in the news cause many to be increasingly concerned with police conduct by questioning whether police have acted appropriately. “To protect and serve” is being attacked as a fallacy. Many perceive police officers as bullies who instill fear into citizens causing more harm than the problems they are trying to deter. Most about police misconduct are made notable through the media, but police brutality has been going on since police were created.
A recent incident occurred in New York leaving Eric Garner, 43, dead after he was put in a chokehold by NYPD. Police were investigating the area where Garner had been due to recent complaints by vendors they were losing money because of illegal cigarette sales. Garner was suspected, and after being confronted by police, he appeared to be uncooperative. The police arrested by grabbing his wrists and putting them behind his back. When Garner resisted by moving his hands and insisted they do not touch him, he was put in a chokehold, brought to the ground and was surrounded by five police officers while the choke continued. Garner suffered from asthma and was not a healthy man. The illegal chokehold caused Garner to lose consciousness after being taken down with the choke. He died on the way to the hospital.
In St. Louis, Michael Brown, 18, lost his life when he was shot dead by a police officer. Eye witnesses reported he had his hands in the air when he was fatally shot by an officer. The official version at this point Brown, age 18 resisted arrest and was going for the police officer’s service revolver. This disparity in the accounts have torn Ferguson, Missouri apart and has caused President Obama to direct that the Department of Justice investigate potential civil rights violations.
In Salt Lake City, another unarmed young man Dillon Taylor, 20, was shot and killed by the police. The officers while investigating a complaint at a 7-11 confronted Dillon Taylor while he and two others were leaving the store. Taylor could not hear the police officer’s instructions because he was wearing headphones. The police surrounded him and his brother and cousin. Taylor made a move in compliance with police orders to get down to the ground, by first lifting his pants causing the police to fatally shoot him. After the fact, it became known to the police Taylor was wanted for a parole violation.
These deaths raise questions whether the police acted appropriately. Police have a job to do consisting of investing crimes and arresting criminals, but police officers still must obey laws protecting the civil rights of people being arrested. Use of excessive force violates civil rights, but the question of using justified deadly force is subjective in a police officer’s mind. Garner’s loitering outside a store in an area with recent complaints of illegal cigarette sales might be enough for police to establish reasonable suspicion to have approached him. However, to arrest Garner as they were attempting, they need probable cause to believe he committed a crime or was committing a crime. This is a higher standard than mere reasonable suspicion requiring far more evidence than loitering on the sidewalk within an area with high criminal activity. The police may not have had the right to arrest Garner. Without such, the arrest itself would have been illegal and using any force would have been unjustifiable.
What is Considered Reasonable Force and What is Excessive Force?
The police have the right to use reasonable force when a suspect is resisting arrest. In these cases, the police used unreasonable and excessive force. Use of chokeholds by police is prohibited by NYPD as being excessive force.
These recent tragic events cause many people to perceive police as a bad force. This should not be the case because police intend to protect the population and to rid neighborhoods of crime. Police, like the criminals and civilians they face, are prone to mistakes, especially when less qualified officers allowed to wear a badge and carry a gun. Situations like these and others demonstrate how difficult even a simple arrest can be to handle. Often, there is only a moment to react, and no matter how much training one receives, law enforcement may be forced to act on instinct. Police officers are trained to understand the animosity the average person on the street may have towards them, especially when criminal investigations increase the possibility of being attacked. But society should not forget the amounts of lives saved by thwarting criminals because of these investigations. These tragic cases should be a lesson to police around the world that law enforcement should handle non-violent people non-violently.
A Civil Suit Sure to Come
The lessons will be taught to the police and their municipalities not in the criminal courts but in the civil courts when the families sue the police for wrongful death money damages in violation of 42 USC Section 1983. A skilled civil rights or personal injury lawyer will prove that under the circumstances the police used an unreasonable amount of excessive force, that they were poorly trained, supervised, and that proper police practices were ignored or not followed. These cases are taken extremely seriously in the Federal Courts and if the families prevail, the federal statute requires that the municipality or responsible state pay the plaintiff’s attorneys fees as an additional punitive penalty. The result of the civil suit will be that justice will be given to the grieving families and law enforcement will be more aware of the constitutional rights of our citizens. This awareness resulting from a civil suit causes changes in the policies, procedures and training of our police so that they can better serve the public while obeying our constitution.
About the Author:
Jeffrey Salomon is a second year law student at Suffolk Law in Boston, Massachusetts and is employed as a law clerk at Davis, Saperstein & Salomon, P.C. Recently he studied Criminal Procedure at Lund University, Sweden as part of Suffolk University’s Summer Law Program under Judge Borenstein.