Criminal Law

What to Do If Police Use Excessive Force

Policing's goal is to protect public safety by enforcing laws, and in doing so, they are subject to procedural rules and policies. Most police officers fulfill their duties responsibly.

However, as in any profession, there are some officers who fail to meet these standards and instead abuse their authority. And in some of those cases, police officers use excessive force in situations that do not warrant it.

When Is Police Force 'Excessive'?

Officers are, of course, permitted to use some physical force when detaining a suspect, if a situation warrants it. However, police officers are expected to use a "continuum of force," meaning that they should only use the minimum amount of force justified in the situation to prevent a suspect from fleeing or to prevent people from being injured or killed.

If an officer uses force in excess of the force that is necessary to get custody of a suspect or to prevent public harm, the officer may be liable for using excessive force. Some common examples of excessive force include:

  • Applying physical force against a person who is already in police custody and is not resisting being in custody
  • Using a weapon against a person who does not have a weapon or a person whom a police officer should reasonably assume does not have a weapon
  • Using force to intimidate a suspect or a witness into giving a statement

While anyone can be the victim of excessive police force, Department of Justice statistics indicate that excessive police force occurs far more regularly against minority populations and people of color, and that police officers need more training in this area.

A Victim's Right to Sue

If you have been the victim of excessive force or police brutality, you have the right to seek damages for your injuries. You may be able to bring a lawsuit in federal court alleging that the police officer violated your Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures and your 14th Amendment rights to due process and equal protection under the law.

Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 also allows you to sue for violations of constitutional or federal statutory rights. Enacted in response to widespread racial violence in the post-Civil War South, Section 1983 applies to deprivations of rights that occur "under color of any statute," meaning it applies to actions taken by state and municipal authorities and allows victims of police brutality to sue both law enforcement officers and city and county governments.

Additionally, state statutes may also give you a viable cause of action in state court. For example, state constitutions often have civil rights protections similar to those in the federal constitution. Also, if police have injured you or killed a loved one, you may be able to bring a negligence or wrongful death claim.

Finally, you have the right to file a complaint and request an investigation into the police officer's activities either with your local police department, civilian review board, or another entity in your state that is responsible for law enforcement oversight and investigations.

Understand Your Rights, Take Action to Protect Them

Excessive police force can have a profound effect on your life and could have caused you injuries that you should not have had to sustain. Therefore, it is important to understand your rights and to seek compensation if you believe that you are a victim of police brutality or excessive force.