Is Police Brutality Ever Justified?

Table of Content

The National Institute of Justice defines police force as the ‘amount of force required by police to compel compliance by an unwilling subject’. The organisation further noted that in order to maintain social order the police must utilise some sort of force whether it be verbal, physical or lethal. (Police Use of Force, 2012). Use of force and excessive use of force by officers (police brutality) differ in whether the amount of force used was excessive or whether or not the force used in the situation was necessary.

The issue of whether police brutality, in the case of this assignment, for arrests, questioning and to keep general law and order is one that may seem at first glance a simple no. However, there are strong proponents both for and against the use of excessive police force in some cases and that is what this paper would discuss in order to provide a balanced view on the different perspectives.

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Supporters of police brutality may perhaps take the same stance as the consequentialists. Consequentialism is the ethical view that ‘morality is all about producing the right kinds of overall consequences.’ (Haines, 2006) In other words, the ends justify the means resulting in the Dirty Harry dilemma where the objective is good but the actions may require dirty work. Ethical altruists will argue that an individual should take an action that would benefit everyone instead of themselves. How do these philosophies relate to police brutality? Consider for example interrogation. The primary goal of police interrogations is to obtain a confession about a crime. In areas where there may not be enough evidence to prosecute but there is certainty an individual committed a particular crime, a confession may be the last effort to sentence a suspect. This may occur in countries where there may be higher crime rates and lower conviction rates due to an incompetent judicial system. Should the police therefore be allowed to use brutality in order to obtain their confession? The altruists will argue yes. They can even argue that after all, members of a society under the philosophy of Hobbes and Locke’s social contract surrender some of their rights to the state and in such instances the safety of the general public ought to outweigh the happiness of the suspect.

Another point of argument is the fact that policemen place their lives on the line and they might not be able to judge within a split second the risks when confronted by an attacker. With their jobs being to ‘protect and to serve’ the use of weapons such as tasers and batons may be needed to reinforce society ideals that criminal behaviour will not be permitted (Pie, 2008). Not only do these actions reinforce societal ideals but it may also act as a deterrent to other criminals. If potential criminals know that the police will carry out their duties to uphold the law no matter what then they may be less inclined to commit a crime, thereby resulting in a reduced prison population and an ease on tax payers.

Others may also argue that the criminal is not thinking about the officer’s safety or the officer’s rights therefore why should the police worry about theirs? They may stress the point that the police are not dealing with general law-abiding members of the public but those who wilfully, according to Beccaria’s philosophy, broke the law.

As valid as these points may be, the counter-argument fraction is extremely vocal in their disapproval of these sorts of tactics used by officers. One point of their argument is that while it may be true that police should use force in carrying out their duties it is not in the police’s jurisdiction to execute punishment. They stress that officers should carry out their business at the highest standard possible since they are the ones capturing those who break the law.

And while it can be argued that members of a society surrender some of their rights to the state it also can be argued that that does not give the state, nor any of its workers, the right to violate the human rights of another person. Rights such as no unfair detainment, no torture and innocent until proven guilty (We are all born free and equal, 2012) are all human rights that are violated through the use of police brutality. And these violations have been captured through the various media causing further scrutiny from not only human rights groups but the general public as well.

An example of one of many reported cases was one that occurred on May 13 2009 where the suspect involved in the car chase, after finding there was nowhere left to run, surrendered by laying on the ground. The officers then proceeded to kick the suspect in the head and kidneys before detaining him. (30 cases of extreme police brutality and misconduct, 2010). Another case that garnered coverage was in 1991 with the FBI and Rodney King where King was brutally attacked by four FBI officers. (Taylor, 2012) According to Rev Al Sharpton ‘it was his beating that made America focus on the presence of profiling and police misconduct’.

The Rodney case also highlighted another reason persons object to police using excessive force. The use of police discretion about how much force to use, without consequences, may lead to cases where race, class and other prejudices may impact their decisions. Not only may it contribute to racial tensions but it can also create distrust in communities. Police are supposed to upkeep the law therefore citizens should be able to trust their officers. How can the public trust their officers if they, the officers, are willing to compromise the rights of the people in order to maintain order?

The question of whether or not police brutality should be used in areas such as arrest, questioning and maintenance of law and order is not necessarily easy to answer. This is so due to the subjectivity of what may constitute as brutality in one area of the world may not be seen as such in another part and vice versa and also the social climate in various areas may differ as well. While human rights ought to be maintained it is also true that society itself should be kept safe. Perhaps if the other branches of the judicial systems were to function well then the perceived need to use brutality by policemen would not be there.

In conclusion, only in a harmoniously functioning world, where everyone agrees as to what constitutes brutality and when the other arms of the system function well in a general climate of peace, then one can say definitely that there are no circumstances where police brutality should considered.


30 cases of extreme police brutality and misconduct. (2010). Retrieved October 2012, 2, from Brainz:

Police Use of Force. (2012, January 20). Retrieved September 26, 2012, from National Institute of Justice:

We are all born free and equal. (2012). Retrieved October 2, 2012, from Youth for Human Rights:

Haines, W. (2006, March). Consequentialism. Retrieved September Thursday, 2012, from Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Pie, J. (2008, January 22). Understanding opposing viewpoints on police brutality. Retrieved September 27, 2012, from Helium:

Taylor, M. (2012, June 17). Rodney King Case Changed Perceptions of Police Brutality. Retrieved October 2012, 2, from ABC News:

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Is Police Brutality Ever Justified?. (2017, Dec 24). Retrieved from

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