Personal Injury -- Plaintiff Law

Police Misconduct

Although the Department of Justice acknowledges that the vast majority of police officers conduct themselves professionally, there are police officers who do not. It's important as an informed citizen to know your rights in interactions with law enforcement officers. This can mean the difference between being treated fairly and being mistreated, should a serious situation involving police arise, and determining if you have a police misconduct case.

What Is Police Misconduct?

Police misconduct typically involves an officer of the law exceeding the boundaries proscribed by their duties, or put simply - doing something they should not do. There are two different levels of police misconduct, according to the Department of Justice — criminal misconduct and civil misconduct.

A police officer could be charged with criminal misconduct, for example, if they participate in sexual assault, use excessive force, or knowingly conduct false arrests. Engaging in theft while acting under “color of law" (in an apparent official capacity), as well as fabrication of evidence, are also considered to be matters of criminal misconduct.

Civil Misconduct of Police Officers

On the other hand, officers who violate the Police Misconduct Provision, a federal law protecting citizens' constitutional rights against a pattern of problematic or unprofessional behavior, may face civil justice. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects the public from police misconduct related to racial discrimination as well as prejudice rooted in sex or religious belief, and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act is intended to protect disabled Americans from discrimination. Instances where officers commit offenses under this legislation are considered a civil matter.

Officers convicted of criminal offenses face fines and imprisonment, while policemen and policewomen found guilty of civil offenses generally face fines and professional reprimand. Qualified immunity — partial protection of government officials, including law enforcement officers, from being held personally responsible in muddy civil suits — has come under increased scrutiny over concerns that it promotes police misconduct and unconstitutional behavior.

What is the Difference Between Police Corruption and Police Misconduct?

While many people use the terms police misconduct and police corruption interchangeably, there are a few distinct differences between the two concepts.

Police misconduct is a general category that also includes corruption charges. Misconduct can refer to unprofessional behavior more broadly, violation of codes of conduct pertinent to law enforcement officers, or crimes involving legal and regulatory violations.

Police corruption refers to officers who misuse their authority and privilege for personal gain. Examples of this may include cases of bribery or extortion, as well as situations in which corrupt officers engage in the sale of confiscated goods such as illicit weaponry or drugs. Beyond the individual level, police corruption might also involve entire units or departments that engage in unwanted behavior, sometimes with superior officers in police departments or oversight bodies looking the other way.

Who Investigates Police Misconduct?

Typically, internal affairs departments investigate police misconduct claims. This scenario invites criticism from civil liberties watchdogs — allowing police departments to investigate themselves may not convince opponents that the proceedings are entirely unbiased.

Arguments both in favor and against the internal affairs investigative approach exist. Proponents believe that the high standard expected of internal affairs agents precludes widespread corruption or case mismanagement, while skeptics of internal investigations claim that another agency may be better suited to the task.

Legal Remedies If You Are a Victim of Police Misconduct

The Department of Justice recommends that all Americans facing instances of police misconduct file an official complaint, which can be done through government websites. To make a criminal enforcement complaint, you can reach out to the FBI. If you need to raise a civil enforcement infraction, you should report the information to the Justice Department.

However, many third-party experts recommend consulting an attorney before filing complaints. While the situation is still fresh in mind, be sure to write down all details such as the time and place of the alleged misconduct, the names of officers involved or present, and the identities of any eyewitnesses as soon as possible. If you are a victim of police misconduct, taking the time to speak to an attorney can help ensure that your case is as strong as possible before launching any formal complaint process.