In recent years, headlines around the country have been filled with stories of police officers that are facing heat for possibly using excessive force against African-Americans – including some who have been killed despite being unarmed. While police departments are getting better at holding officers accountable for excessive force, we still have a long way to go before this conflict is over. Moreover, while some cases of excessive force and police brutality are pretty clear cut, others toe the line and leave room for heavy debate. If you take into account the past definition of excessive force that have been used throughout the NYPD, the debates can become even more complicated and answers are less clear.
“Necessary Force” and the NYPD
In the mid-1800s, crime was rampant in New York. As a response, the NYPD told officers that they should use any force necessary to apprehend and arrest criminals. Law and Disorder: The Chaotic Birth of the NYPD describes it this way:
“A common practice was to crack criminals over the head, or across the back of the neck, with their thick, fourteen-inch-long wooden nightsticks, or billy clubs, regardless of the consequence. Police pushed, shoved, and kicked men down a street. Ears were pulled hard, throats were put in a vise hold, knee pressure was applied to the lower back, ankles were kicked, feet were stomped on. Usually, the nightstick blow to the head knocked men down, or unconscious, and sometimes victims later suffered brain damage.”
Back then, police had little training across the entirety of the NYPD. Cops weren’t punished for the violence they committed against criminals. As a result, New Yorkers feared the violence they might suffer during an arrest, even more than time behind bars.
In a tactic that probably sounds shocking today, police also instructed citizens to use violence against citizens who were “bothering them”. Officers said they wouldn’t face any assault charges for doing so. These violent methods actually worked in reducing crime for a while. But, with advanced technology in violent weapons, citizens began to question whether the NYPD’s “necessary force” was actually necessary.
Fast forward to the early ‘70s and things had definitely changed. Take, for example, the death of Clifford Glover. In April 1973, an NYPD officer shot and killed Glover, an unarmed 10 year old child. The officer was acquitted from murder charges after she claimed she thought the child had a gun. However, she was fired from the NYPD in 1974. More of these stories can be found here.
Unfortunately, cases like that of Clifford Glover remained relatively common over the next several decades. This is partially due to the NYPD’s seeming inability to define what makes force “necessary” or “excessive.” This continued right up to 2014, when cameras caught NYPD officers putting Eric Garner in a choke-hold for allegedly illegally selling cigarettes. He was compliant with officers, but he was still choked. As a result, he suffered a heart attack and died on the way to the hospital.
Police Brutality Today
The story of Garner’s death is a turning point in the discussion of police brutality, race relations, and the criminal justice system as a whole in our country. Garner’s death, along with the death of black citizens like Michael Brown and Sandra Bland, have led to lengthy investigations of police departments.
A report filed in 2015 showed that the NYPD had never defined excessive force. Specifically, the NYPD’s rulebook warned officers against using excessive force. However, it failed to give examples or a clear idea of what excessive force was. Even worse, police officers accused of using excessive force were often not investigated. Never mind holding them accountable for unlawful arrests or encounters.
After the report and pressure from citizens, the NYPD announced reforms to the way they use and define force. Some of the reforms include:
- Requiring officers to take action against other officers who are acting violently or inappropriately
- Offering training on de-escalating encounters and avoiding force
- Documenting and releasing reports of all physical encounters police have with citizens
If You Have Been a Victim of Excessive Force
Police officers only have the right to use the force that is reasonably necessary to make a lawful arrest. In time, New York will have stronger definitions of what “necessary” force looks like. Hopefully, holding police accountable for excessive force will lead to less deaths, and better relationships between police and the communities they serve.
Progress is happening, but it will not happen overnight. There is still work to do, and there will be more violent incidents before the NYPD can show significant improvement. If you have been the victim of excessive force, talk to a New York personal injury lawyer. Holding police accountable for excessive force is crucial to improving the system as a whole.