Police Brutality is this a major concern

Table of Content


Crime is a problem that preoccupies the news and the public. As the nation has engaged in “wars” on crime and drugs over the past several decades, crime has become an ever-more prevalent staple of news reporting. A variety of studies of media content have estimated that as much as 25 percent of the daily news is devoted to crime (Surette 1992) and that crime is the largest major category of stories in the print and electronic media (Chermak 1994, 103). As with other kinds of news, the most privileged perspectives in most crime stories are those offered by officials, particularly the police (Chermak 1995; Ericson, Baranek, and Chan 1989). In fact, media interest in “crime waves” can be the product, at least in part, of official efforts to create, sustain, or exploit public concern about crime (Fishman 1980; Hall et al. 1978). Privileged access to the media offers police and other officials’ abundant opportunities to shape public images of themselves, their work, and the nature of the crime problem.

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            Police use of physical force is a particularly controversial issue in American crime fighting. Given the considerable ambiguity that surrounds the issue, whether police use of force is presented as police brutality1 and whether brutality is understood as a problem depend greatly upon which voices and views the media emphasize. Moreover, the kinds of problem definitions that arise in the news after a highly publicized incident of alleged brutality both draw upon and shape the various groups, demands, and social values engaged in the policy process.

On the Ambiguous Nature of Police Brutality’s Definition

Police use of force is often highly controversial because it raises questions about a government’s use of coercion against its citizens. In a democratic society that prides itself on ideals of civility and equality before the law, police use of force is often an inherently troubling phenomenon. As one scholar has observed, “Justifying police and what they do has always been problematic in democracies, and this has been particularly true in the United States, where ambivalence about government authority is a persistent force” (Mastrofski 1988, 61). Yet whether police brutality constitutes a public problem is a question whose answer depends largely upon who is asked.

Of course, the nature of policing requires police at times to use physical coercion against civilians; indeed, “police are sometimes morally obliged to employ force” to accomplish legitimate ends of controlling crime and maintaining order (Skolnick and Fyfe 1993, 238). Yet police use of force is often highly controversial precisely because it is nearly always ambiguous. As legal scholar Paul Chevigny (1995, 139) observes, while “the power to use force is a defining characteristic of the [police officer’s] job . . . the line between excessive and justifiable force is difficult to draw.” Indeed, he suggests, “Much of the problem in understanding the work of the police lies in the fact that what they do, and what they should do, when they are ‘doing their job,’ is always contested” (ibid., 9).

Police and criminologists draw conceptual distinctions among the terms “use of force,” “unnecessary force,” and “brutality.” The use of force, according to experts, is a necessary and legitimate tool of the police officer’s job. In contrast, “brutality” is “a conscious and venal act by officers who usually take great pains to conceal their misconduct,” while unnecessary use of force “is usually a training problem, the result of ineptitude or insensitivity, as, for instance, when well-meaning officers unwisely charge into situations from which they can then extricate themselves only by using force” (Skolnick and Fyfe 1993, 19–20). “Excessive force” can thus be brutal, involving malicious intent, or merely unnecessary, involving poor judgment.

While these lines may be relatively easy to draw in the pages of academic articles and police manuals, whether the behavior of individual police officers in any particular altercation constitutes excessive force or brutality is often a difficult question to settle definitively. In fact, “spokesmen for some police departments [are] not able to give a clear definition of what is considered ‘unnecessary force’ in their cities” (DeStefano 1991, 5). This is not because police have no clear policies on excessive force, but because defining excessive force is highly context-dependent. By the same token, allegations of brutality often involve the alleged victim and the officer(s) in a “swearing match,” especially since many use-of-force incidents have no outside witnesses.

Even the presence of witnesses often does not resolve the ambiguity of these events. Civilians who witness police using physical force to subdue a suspect are often surprised and discomfited at what they see. Police often must use serious coercion to subdue people who do not wish to be subdued, they experience physical sensations of fear and surging adrenaline, and they generally believe they are paid not to “coddle” but to capture criminals. For these reasons, even the appropriate use of force can seem to observers to be out of proportion to the danger presented by suspects.2 As criminologists and police often observe, police use of force “rarely, if ever, photographs well” (Skolnick and Fyfe 1993, 37). In cities across the country, use-of-force incidents have led to prolonged investigations and trials that never fully resolve questions in the public mind. Indeed, two different trials of the Los Angeles officers charged with beating black motorist Rodney King did not fully resolve the ambiguity of that event.

This is not to suggest that all use-of-force incidents are ambiguous. When police shoot a gunman holding hostages or a sniper terrorizing pedestrians, few observers are likely to call it a case of excessive force. But many use-of-force incidents are not quite so clear-cut. In fact, police often face situations in which they decide to apprehend or subdue people who appear to them to be dangerous, threatening, or “out of order” yet whom observers may not perceive as particularly threatening. Quite often, when police use force, as one police officer observed bluntly, “it looks terrible” (Bonner 1996). This is precisely what makes many police officers so ambivalent about the use of force: a crucial tool of their jobs and a sometimes necessary means of saving themselves, their fellow officers, or civilians from harm, it is also likely to be perceived differently and perhaps more critically by the public.

Mirroring the ambiguity of individual use-of-force incidents, the issue of police brutality is often the subject of sharply divergent perspectives. For police officers, especially the street cops who daily face the deterioration of urban life, the issue is met with strong feelings. Police generally believe that “right conduct in a policing situation requires an intuitive sense of the situation and that there is no way to do the job that cannot be criticized from a different point of view” (Chevigny 1995, 90). And they are generally aware that their own attitudes toward the use of force and the public’s can diverge fairly dramatically. For physical coercion “is part of the daily life of the police officer in a way that is very difficult for an outsider to grasp” (Scheingold 1984, 102). As one police officer put it, while police use of force may easily be criticized by the public, “police are not paid to fight fair” (Bonner 1996). Therefore, police officers tend to give each other the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the use of force,3 and they tend to believe that the public should do the same.4

Yet the subject of police brutality has been a steady source of public relations woes for many police departments and a serious source of friction between police and particular communities. And while it would be simplistic and misleading to attribute single perspectives to entire social groups, divisions between whites and minority groups, particularly African Americans, on the subject of brutality have often been sharp. Indeed, African American communities across the country have for decades voiced complaints about police brutality and have often perceived it as a tool of racial oppression. In 1935, a Harlem Riot Commission report stated that “The insecurity of the individual in Harlem against police aggression is one of the most potent causes for the existing hostility to authority” (quoted in Skolnick and Fyfe 1993, 78). The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders wrote in March 1968 that “Negroes firmly believe that police brutality and harassment occur repeatedly in Negro neighborhoods” (ibid., 19) and reported that “all the major outbursts [of civil unrest] of recent years were precipitated by arrests of Negroes by white police for minor offenses” (78). Scholarly studies by Scheingold (1991) and Lyons (1999) have confirmed the persistent tendency of minority communities to be more suspicious of police and more critical of how they use force.

This gulf in perceptions manifested itself in public reactions to the beating of Rodney King in March 1991. A U.S. Civil Rights Commission report undertaken after the King incident found that blacks experienced “a real or perceived pattern of widespread, endemic racism and physical and verbal abuse” by police in Washington, D.C. (Thomas 1995, 6), mirroring beliefs around the country. Indeed, a common response among blacks was that, contrary to LAPD chief Daryl Gates’ assertion that it was an “aberration,” the event was unique only in that it had been videotaped, televised, and responded to by the public and officials (NAACP 1995; Lawrence 1996b). A New York Times/CBS poll conducted after the King video had saturated the airwaves found considerable differences between white and black beliefs about police. For example, “while 28 percent of blacks said the police would give them a ‘harder time’ than they would give other people stopped for a minor traffic offense, that figure was nearly five times higher than the 6 percent of whites who held that view” (Holmes 1991, A16).5 More recently, a Gallup poll found 60 percent of blacks agreeing that they generally are “treated less fairly by police” (Gallup Organization 1997) than are whites; only 30 percent of whites agreed with that statement. Of six situations, including access to and treatment at jobs, while shopping, while taking public transportation, and while eating at restaurants, blacks rated encounters with the police as the worst for unfair treatment. In a 1998 poll, 62 percent of African Americans reported having only “some” or “very little” confidence in police, in contrast to 37 percent of whites (Public Agenda 1998).

 As the gap in perceptions between minorities and whites continues to loom deep and wide, incidents of alleged police brutality continue to spark conflict across the country. In New York City, for example, the deaths of Anthony Baez in 1995, Nathaniel Gaines in 1996, Kevin Cedeno in 1997, and Amadou Diallo in 1999, and the brutalization of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima in 1997, raised continued outcry from minority communities. In August 1996, a videotape that saturated television news showed Riverside, California, county sheriff’s deputies beating Mexican immigrants who had led them on a high-speed chase; in December 1998, another Riverside case angered the black community: the police shooting of Tyisha Miller, who had been sleeping in her car with a gun in her lap while she waited for help with a flat tire. In other cities around the country, police use of force continues to be the subject of intense controversy: in St. Petersburg, Florida, where a 1996 police shooting of a black motorist led to days of civil unrest; in Prince George’s County, Maryland, where an off-duty officer was accused in 1995 of beating a black man wrongly suspected of murdering a county officer; in Seattle, where the 1996 shooting of Edward Anderson was labeled an “execution-style killing” by local NAACP leaders; and in Pittsburgh, where in March 1997 two police officers were found not guilty in the 1995 death of African American businessman Johnny Gammage, who died from suffocation as one officer allegedly stood on his neck. In June 1996, the Pittsburgh chapter of the ACLU filed a class-action suit on behalf of 51 plaintiffs who alleged all manner of police misconduct, including harassment and brutality. By the late 1990s, the federal government was investigating at least ten police departments around the country, including New York and Los Angeles, for alleged patterns of brutality and other civil rights violations (Weiser 1999) and had filed lawsuits against departments in Pittsburgh, Columbus, and Steubenville, Ohio, alleging such patterns.

The gap in perceptions also continues to fuel larger political conflicts. In September 1995, for example, the Congressional Black Caucus asked Attorney General Janet Reno to investigate police abuse in a dozen communities, including New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Prince George’s County. This call was echoed by the National Urban League in November 1995, which urged President Clinton to create a federal commission to address police misconduct. Meanwhile, in October of that year, Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan told hundreds of thousands of participants in the Million Man March that racism was “pervasive in police departments around the country” (Thomas 1995, 6). As a regional director of the U.S. Commission on Human Rights recently commented, there is in many urban areas “a tremendous amount of mistrust between the police department and members of the black community. Any spark can lead to a major eruption” (Navarro 1996, B6).

Race does not neatly capture all the dividing lines in public perceptions of the issue of brutality, nor is brutality exclusively a white-on-black phenomenon. Other ethnic groups often complain of police misconduct, as do homosexuals and the poor, while minority officers are just as capable of brutal behavior and just as vulnerable to perceptions of brutality as white officers. Nor is the black community monolithic in its concerns about police misconduct. Yet minority communities, particularly African Americans, often have a particularly ambivalent relationship with police. Precisely because their communities are often more crime-ridden, minority and inner-city residents often desire a strong police presence. But many African Americans and other minority groups fear both the violent crime that threatens their communities and the police who are supposed to protect them (see Lyons 1999; Sadd and Grinc 1994). For these communities, life is sometimes lived between the lines: between violent drug- and gang-related crime and violent police forces deployed to fight crime; between the rightful and appropriate physical force officers guard the right to use and the oppressive, racially charged policing many citizens perceive. As Randall Kennedy has observed,

 The communities most in need of police protection are also those in which many residents view police with the most ambivalence, much of which stems from a recognition that color counts as a mark of suspicion relied upon as a predicate for action—stopping, questioning, patting down, arresting, beating and so forth. This causes people who might otherwise be of assistance to police to avoid them, to decline to cooperate with police investigations, to assume bad faith on the part of police officers, and to teach others that such reactions are prudent lessons of survival on the streets (1997, 153).

Constraints on Problematizing Police Use of Force

Despite the consistency of complaints about police brutality and the durability of the gap in perspectives on the issue, groups who believe that police brutality is a serious public problem find it difficult to win authority for their reality. This difficulty is due to rhetorical, informational, and political constraints that limit the construction of police brutality as a public problem.

The power to construct or to ward off public problems depends upon rhetorical struggles over images, claims, and symbols: what some scholars have labeled “the politics of problem definition.” Scholars have discovered a typical vocabulary that political contenders employ as they try to construct or ward off problems. This vocabulary includes claims about the causes of problems, how severe their effects are, how frequent or prevalent they are, the social groups they most affect, and the solutions that would best address them (Rochefort and Cobb 1994). Competing claims about causality, severity, incidence, affected populations, and solutions lie at the core of most struggles to define public problems. Those who wish to construct public problems out of troubling social conditions generally portray those conditions as widespread, as affecting large and diverse populations, or as harming groups that are positively stereotyped, such as children, or “hard-working Americans” (Schneider and Ingram 1993). They also seek to present troubling conditions as the product of identifiable causes that should be addressed through public policy.

These basic rhetorical components of problem construction present challenges for those who would designate police brutality as a serious public problem. While minority communities have continually asserted that they are subjected to police brutality on a regular basis, the bulk of the white, middle-class population does not usually feel threatened by police brutality. In fact, the white middle class is often geographically and culturally isolated from those populations who typically experience more aggressive police tactics and police misconduct. At the same time, those groups most likely to perceive brutality as a serious problem, such as ethnic minorities and the urban poor, rarely benefit from positive social stereotyping. In other words, it is difficult to make a problem out of brutality not only because much of the white middle class does not feel threatened by it but because it most affects the very groups the white middle class often does feel threatened by.

The Normative Perception on Police Brutality

The deep divides in public perceptions of police promise to fuel further mistrust, hostility, and violence, especially if the general public’s fear of crime continues to grow, economic and social conditions continue to deteriorate in urban centers, and police continue to search for effective ways to convince the public they can control crime. In this context, the media offer one of the few public arenas in which divergent perspectives

on policing can hope to confront and learn from one another. Yet the news about brutality hangs on a dilemma created by the ambiguity of police use of force: The media’s response to incidents of alleged brutality can look either too aggressive or too passive, depending upon one’s presuppositions about the police and the troubled communities that often criticize them.

Those who believe that police brutality is a pervasive and endemic problem feel persistently marginalized by the mainstream news, which in their view, rarely if ever grapples seriously with fundamental questions about excessive force. People whose lives have been scarred by violent encounters with the police often charge that the media help to shield police from public scrutiny. They often feel unable to effectively challenge the official claims that define use-of-force incidents for the general public. As the mother of Johnny Gammage, who died in police custody in Pittsburgh in 1995, lamented, “They are trying to make it sound like he caused his own death” (Meredith 1996, A10). Moreover, they believe that the news media simply help existing policing practices to remain unchallenged. Ronald Hampton, an anti-brutality activist and past president of the National Black Police Association, argues that the mainstream media play a greater role in the continuation of police brutality than in alerting the general public to the problem. Because of their tendency to ignore voices within the communities most subject to brutality, and their tendency to “side with the police” by relying almost exclusively on official sources, Hampton claims, the media actually contribute to an ongoing brutality problem (Hampton 1996).

In contrast, some people who see police as the vulnerable thin blue line between order and chaos resent what they see as the media’s willingness to make an issue out of police brutality on the basis of isolated incidents and possibly fraudulent claims of excessive force. Police, who are paid to put their lives on the line in frightening and sometimes life-threatening situations, and whose split-second decisions can trigger ugly controversies that linger for years, often view the media with suspicion and even hostility. As the lawyer for a Miami policeman acquitted in the shooting death of a black motorcyclist—an acquittal that touched off days of rioting—indignantly told reporters, “If the headlines had read, ‘Twice-convicted drug dealer shot while trying to run over officer,’ there wouldn’t have been any riots” (Bearak and Harrison 1989, 1). As another critic put it, “Hundreds, thousands of arrests are done competently. When you have an incident like L.A., and it gets in the media, it’s like a magnet sucking up little filings. The incident becomes a lightning rod for other issues,” such as allegations of police racism (Charles Friel, quoted in Harrison 1991, A1). And in the aftermath of the highly publicized shooting of Amadou Diallo in New York in 1999, the city’s deputy police commissioner publicly blamed negative news coverage of police for a rise in the city’s homicide rate (Blair 1999). Critics on this side of the divide believe that, rather than unduly upholding police legitimacy, the media unduly erode it.

The findings of this study offer a response to both sides of the divide. As subsequent chapters will show, the news media help to create and sustain the legitimacy of the police, but they also sometimes subject police to critical scrutiny that erodes police legitimacy. At the same time, critical citizen voices are not completely absent from the news about policing, but they are generally not granted the same place in the news as those of police and other officials, and often are subtly undermined by the ways that reporters frame news stories. Thus, critical perspectives on policing rarely earn a lasting place in the news—except in the circumstances that surround extraordinarily high-profile use-of-force incidents such as the Rodney King beating.

These findings will not satisfy either camp of critics, no doubt. Nor will they resolve a deeper normative question about the news: whether news coverage that problematizes police behavior is “good” or “bad.” Whole segments of the American public believe—and have believed for decades—that police are racist, that they  systematically target, harass, frame, brutalize, and even kill certain classes of people, and that their behavior stems from deep roots in the criminal justice system and American culture. The key question considered in this study is not whether this perspective is right. Rather, the key question is: Who gets to participate in the mass-mediated conversation about public issues such as police brutality?

Neither can other daunting normative questions be settled here once and for all: Should the media be more responsive to police voices than to their critics? Could society function and order be maintained if police were not usually given the benefit of the doubt? On the other hand, can order be maintained, over the long run, if the news (and thus the general public) ignores the beliefs and perspectives of those most often on the receiving end of the night stick? Is any objective definition of “police accountability” possible, given that some societal groups will probably always view police with suspicion and that police will probably always believe that they should be given greater latitude and benefit of the doubt? Indeed, the ultimate question may be, What would constitute an open and fair public deliberation on the issue of police brutality?

Addressing the question of the quality of today’s mass-mediated public deliberation, Page (1996) writes that, for normative standards of public deliberation to be met, “it is probably not necessary . . . that the mass media meet hard-to-define, and difficult-or-impossible-to-enforce, standards of perfect balance or absence of bias” (123, emphasis in original). After all, Page asks, “From what ideal kind of representativeness should bias or deviation be measured?” This question is particularly pertinent—and particularly vexing—in regard to issues as highly charged and polarizing as police brutality. It is not clear that there is any standard for news coverage of policing upon which all societal groups could agree, nor does this study seek to impose such a standard.

But this study does contribute to that normative debate by performing a crucial empirical task: measuring the prevalence, prominence, and treatment of competing perspectives on policing in the news.

The Debate on the Mechanism of Coercion

In its July 1994 issue, New York magazine featured a piece by media critic Jon Katz entitled “Is Police Brutality a Myth?” The article examined what Katz called “an increasingly familiar urban ritual”:

A young black or Hispanic is killed by police or dies in police custody. People who say they are eyewitnesses appear live on local TV newscasts, giving accounts that diverge wildly from the police’s and one another.

Extra cops gather in riot gear. People identified—by themselves and the media—as community activists appear at the family’s side along with lawyers, calling for investigations, all too predictably claiming that the police committed brutal and unprovoked murder. They demand justice, lead marches, file lawsuits. The accusation hangs in the air: racist killer cop. (Katz 1994, 39)

The media, Katz claimed, are all too eager to publicize these activities and claims and to overreact to such events. Have the media, he asked, “become easy prey for lawyers and spokespeople now fully adept at the art of racial media manipulation?”

Katz’s questions are valid, and to residents of New York and similar urban centers his portrayal of the news about police brutality may seem accurate. Certainly, that portrayal is consistent with the perspective of police departments across the country. A recent survey of police officials found that most believe that news coverage of police brutality is sensationalized, unfair, and inaccurate and that the news media have “a habit of jumping on isolated instances of police misconduct and blowing them up into national stories” (Corrigan 1994, 19). Similarly, an internal survey of Los Angeles police officers conducted in the aftermath of the Rodney King incident found that 92 percent of officers identified “the media and outspoken community leaders” as causing “negative interaction between the police and the community” (Murphy 1991, B3).

Critical media scholars, however, would bring another set of questions to this “familiar urban ritual”: How does the news usually represent police use of force? How many instances of police use of force become major news stories of the sort Katz describes? And if the media are “becoming easy prey” for a new set of voices, then whose voices have more typically influenced the news about policing?

Several decades of scholarly research suggest that the news typically represents most faithfully the perspectives of officials and other elites. Institutionally positioned officials provide reporters with the bulk of the “routine” events that become news. Political and social elites are generally the most audible voices in the news and, therefore, heavily influence the public definitions of news events. Moreover, the news is generally episodic (Iyengar 1991) and fragmented (Bennett 1996), skipping from event to event, providing little thematic context. This episodic focus and heavy reliance on officials, scholars have argued, create news that is biased in favor of official control over the definitions of public problems.

This part of the paper demonstrates that the same is true of much news coverage of policing. The data presented here illustrate that the typical news story about use of force is brief, episodic, and structured around claims provided by police spokesmen and politicians. Crucially, these same sources usually “individualize” police use of force, focusing public attention on deviant, violent criminal suspects who threaten officers and the public and, occasionally, on “rogue cops” who lose control and cross the line between acceptable and unacceptable force. This kind of coverage normalizes what some might call brutality and marginalizes competing perspectives on the existence of brutality problems and the causal roots of police violence. Later chapters will explore how some use-of-force incidents become the kind of highly charged “rituals” Katz criticizes. This chapter demonstrates that the vast majorities of incidents that receive any coverage at all disappear quickly from the news pages and are successfully contained by official communication strategies.

Validation on the Prevalence of Such Coercion

The distinctive vocabulary of problem definition includes claims about what causes certain problems, how severe or widespread their effects are, the groups that are most affected by them, and the solutions that are needed to address them. In other words, groups seek to construct (or ward off) public problems by making claims about reality. When societal groups disagree about the nature of conditions and problems, whose renderings of reality “win” is a question that is largely decided in the media arena. What problems the news presents to the public, therefore, is largely a function of which voices and views journalists amplify and which they marginalize.

Much attention has been paid to the way the news “frames” issues and events in the news. In fact, the term “frame” has been used by so many scholars in so many contexts that its precise meaning has become unclear (see Entman 1993). Despite the many uses of the concept, the same fundamental elements that are central to the rhetoric of problem definition are also central to news frames. As Entman (1993, 52) writes, frames are communication devices that

define problems—determine what a causal agent is doing with what costs and benefits, usually measured in terms of common cultural values; diagnose causes—identify the forces creating the problem; make moral judgments—evaluate causal agents and their effects; and suggest remedies—offer and justify treatments for the problems and predict their likely effects.

The way the news frames events and problems, therefore, depends largely on the claims provided by the sources journalists rely most heavily upon.

A common way in which claims-makers advance their claims about public problems is in the form of causal stories (Stone 1989). A critical task of the claims-maker is to argue that certain events and issues are or are not within the realm of human causation and intention. Moreover, different claims-makers may assign different causes to a problem, since the nature of its causes can determine its status as a public problem. Therefore, “political actors use narrative story lines and symbolic devices to manipulate . . . issue characteristics, all the while making it seem as though they are simply describing facts.” Problem definition is thus “a process of image-making, where the images have to do fundamentally with attributing cause, blame, and responsibility” (ibid. 282).

Police use of force is typically framed in the news in terms of two distinct sets of causal claims. “Individualizing” claims are generally (though not always) made by police and political officials, while “systemic” claims are typically made by non-officials, particularly those I will call “critical non-officials”: activists, community leaders, residents of minority and urban communities, and many academic experts.

In brief, the essential difference between these claims lies in whether they frame police brutality as a public problem—an unacceptable social condition that needs to be addressed with new or invigorated public policies. Whether police use of force is seen as a problem depends on how its causes are understood: as a necessary police response to violent deviants and criminals or as police violence stemming from deep roots within the criminal justice system, the political system, or widespread societal attitudes. Problematizing police use of force also depends on whether police brutality is understood as a common and widespread phenomenon or as something that occurs only occasionally and randomly.6

If police use force to defend themselves and protect the public against violent criminals and other deviants, then the use of force cannot be labeled “brutality” or understood as a public problem. Even if people agree that particular use-of-force incidents appear to have involved excessive force, the status of police brutality as a public problem is still far from certain. For to be problematized, excessive force must be understood as something caused by systems, not merely by individuals. If excessive force is caused by individual renegade cops, it can be addressed adequately by existing legal and administrative remedies: bad cops can be tried in criminal court, sued in civil proceedings, or subjected to departmental discipline. As long as those remedies are thought to be operating reasonably well, the scope of any perceived brutality problem is confined, and individual officers’ wrongdoing can be addressed without resorting to fundamental reforms. In contrast, an excessive-force “problem” that is systemic in nature can be addressed only by moving beyond these typical remedies; indeed, the ineffectiveness of these remedies may be seen as part of the problem. Before providing data showing the comparative prominence of individualizing and systemic claims in the news, the following sections describe these claims in more detail.

The most common voice in the news about police use of force is an official voice. When talking to reporters, those officials—police officers, police brass, and local elected officials, along with attorneys who de fend officers against excessive-force suits—typically assert that the suspects apprehended or killed were uncooperative, combative, violent, and threatening. In other words, they place responsibility for the use of force with the suspect. Of course, individualizing claims are not exclusively official. Witnesses to a use-of-force incident may attest that a suspect threatened officers; members of the general public may believe that alleged victims of brutality deserved their treatment at the hands of police. But, most typically, it is officials who focus attention on the behavior of suspects rather than on that of officers, asserting that officers were obliged to use force to accomplish legitimate crime-control and order-maintenance goals. Officials also typically portray the use of force as consistent with departmental policies and with public expectations of how officers should behave in dangerous situations. By adopting these claims as the basic structure of news stories, the news commonly frames police use of force as necessary and defensive behavior, and certainly not a public problem.

Los Angeles County district attorney’s investigators concluded Wednesday that three sheriff’s deputies acted in self-defense when they shot and killed a 50-year-old woman armed with a knife in a Lancaster fast-food restaurant in April. . . . [The investigators concluded that] “The evidence indicates that the deputies showed considerable restraint” until [the woman], a robbery suspect cornered by six deputies, lunged at them with a butcher knife. (Rotella 1989, 8)7

When police tried to arrest him for public intoxication, [the suspect] began

kicking, biting, and punching the officers, [Inglewood Police Sgt. Harold]

Moret said. . . . Eventually, the officers tied his ankles with a nylon rope and handcuffed him. He was carried to a police car, where officers discovered he had stopped breathing. (Lacey and Maharaj 1989, B3)8

Given the circumstances, given the facts that we could have had an armed suspect and given the fact we had a violent crowd, I think the level of force we used was not only appropriate, but minimal. . . . I’ve been in lots of situations where officers have been hurt, including myself . . . and this situation was definitely progressing to where an officer was going to be hurt. (Serrano 1989, 7)9

When police and other officials offer individualizing claims to reporters, they manage the public image of the police by establishing simple news narratives that may reduce the ambiguity and complexity of real incidents. Many police-citizen encounters are straightforward incidents of police responding appropriately to suspicious or threatening behavior. Police are often obliged to use force to restrain violent people. Police must operate in situations that are often unpredictable and dangerous, and the nature of their work requires them to exercise considerable discretion in deciding what incidents and behaviors to respond to and how; moreover, the cues that alert police officers to potential trouble or to possible crimes in progress may not be immediately obvious to the untrained eye. Moreover, when cops do use force, they are sometimes responding to situations in which split-second decisions may mean the difference between life and death. The behaviors that indicate to an officer that it is time to pull the trigger, to take the most extreme example of use of force, may be difficult to reconstruct into a narrative that sounds well reasoned and convincing to people after the fact.

Indeed, use-of-force incidents may escalate to violence through a chain of events and perceptions. Scholarly research has shown that the reasons police might decide to approach or arrest someone, and the reasons people might choose to defy police, are more complex than is often assumed (Chevigny 1969; Muir 1977; Skolnick and Fyfe 1993). Perceived challenges to their authority often make cops bristle, and those challenges may not seem great, or even evident, to outside observers. At the same time, it is perceived abusiveness on the part of officers that can lead civilians to defy and resist police commands to comply and submit (Skolnick and Fyfe, 1993, 102–3). In the heat of the moment, both police and suspects can do things that seem irrational to outside observers, sometimes with tragic consequences. For example, inexperienced or inadequately trained officers may escalate the level of physical force they use beyond that which is strictly necessary to control the situation at hand.10

Regardless of what “really” happened between an officer and a suspect, in most cases police retain the power to define those events for the public. As one legal scholar has put it, “the police shape the facts [of use-of-force incidents] to justify what they have done” (Chevigny 1995, 74) in order to manage public perceptions. It can be difficult to know if the individualizing narratives police tell are reasonable accounts of what occurred or if they are the public-relations equivalent of the “cover charge,” in which those the police have roughed up are subsequently charged with disturbing the peace or resisting arrest (Chevigny 1969; Mollen 1994; Worsnop 1991).11

Officials tend to frame the use of force in individualizing terms even when evidence arises that police have indeed used excessive force. Officials then tend to blame the individual officers for inadequate attention to proper procedure or for losing control of themselves. According to this type of individualizing claim, excessive force happens randomly and is not a problem that warrants departmental reforms or structural changes in policing or the criminal justice system. Rather, they suggest, these “rogue cops” need to be dealt with through regular departmental or legal proceedings. And while police spokespersons sometimes acknowledge that officers are to blame for incidents of excessive force, they also often emphasize that police are human and make mistakes. As one lobbyist for police organizations told a Los Angeles Times reporter, the public “has the right to expect a high standard from police, but they don’t have the right to expect [police] to be gods all the time” (Al Cooper, quoted in Rainey 1989b, 4).

Finally, officials ward off the construction of brutality problems by denying that brutality is either common or patterned. For example, when Kerman Maddox, a prominent African American and former aide to Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, complained of racially motivated police harassment by the LAPD in 1989, a department spokesman replied, “We are looking into it. But if Mr. Maddox is alleging that there is some institutional bias in this department or that any community is being treated differently by the Police Department, then it’s absolutely wrong” (Garcia 1989, 3).12 This type of strategy was repeated in LAPD Chief Daryl Gates’s assertion that the beating of Rodney King was “an aberration.”

Individualizing claims, therefore, are preemptive damage control strategies. Portraying the use of force as a necessary response to violent criminals and deviants, or as a result of bad officers who lose control, can ward off the construction of policing problems in the news. Ultimately, what is at stake for police and politicians in defining use-of force incidents is the ability to legitimate themselves and government policies in public discourse. Indeed, political legitimacy “depends on the ability of authorities to make convincing claims, arguments that they are acting in accordance with social norms” (Ericson, Baranek, and Chan 1991, 7). For police, whose job allows and sometimes requires the use of violence, this is a crucial task indeed.


1. Differentiating the fundaments of police force and police brutality is essential but in doing so must one understand the difficult consequence of such differentiation.

2. One indication of this ambiguity is that police generally fear the “second guessing” that almost inevitably accompanies any use of significant or deadly force that is made public. One San Antonio police officer who shot a man in 1982, for example, said that his first reaction after firing the fatal shot was fear of how his superiors would interpret his use of force, especially as his assailant was found to have been carrying only a can of spray paint and a sharpened stick. He also recalled with some bitterness the local newspapers headline the following day: “Officer Slays Man Holding Stick” (Mangum 1995).

3. Former LAPD Chief Daryl Gates expressed this view perhaps more openly than most when he defended giving his officers latitude in the use of force: “If I think they were doing their very best to deal with a tough situation, and they used some force, and perhaps they got the last whack in . . . , [it can be] tough to distinguish whether the last whack was necessary. I give them the benefit of the doubt. I think they deserve it” (quoted in Shah 1991, 60).

4. In general, the public often does not give police the benefit of the doubt. Survey data indicate that the public is highly supportive, at least in the abstract, of officers’ discretion concerning the use of for. The General Social Survey has asked people since the 1970s whether “there are any situations in which you would approve of a policeman striking an adult male citizen.” On average, 72 percent of respondents have answered “yes,” with very little fluctuation across time (General Social Survey Cumulative Codebook [National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago, 1994]). The single significant fluctuation appears to have been a temporary decline after the Rodney King incident in 1991. The percentage agreeing that there are situations in which they would approve of police striking an adult declined from 77 percent to 67 percent of white respondents, and from 48 percent to 36 percent of black respondents (Sigelman et al. 1997). The percentages have since returned to roughly their pre-1991 level.

5. Of course, these attitudes may have been based as much on personal experiences or experiences of friends, family, and associates as on the King video. While irrefutable statistical evidence about the frequency of brutality in minority communities is not often available (as discussed below), evidence does indicate that minorities are more likely to be subjected to police use of force, particularly deadly force. Indeed, “virtually all of the studies that have examined the race of civilian victims of shootings by the police have shown that blacks are shot in numbers significantly disproportionate to their proportion of the local population” (Geller and Scott 1992, 147).

6. Readers familiar with the work of Deborah Stone (1989) will recognize similarities between her theory of “causal stories” and the system I construct here for categorizing discourse about police use of force. While I owe a clear intellectual debt to Stone’s thinking, her typology of causal stories does not work particularly well for analyzing discourse about police use of force because the primary rhetorical struggle over use-of-force incidents fundamentally involves questions of whether police have acted appropriately. Thus, the main axes of debate are not whether the cause of an incident was “accidental” or “inadvertent,” for example, but rather if an intentional incident was precipitated by a suspect or by police. In those few cases where police are defined as the precipitators of violence (rather than as merely reacting to the violence or defiance of a suspect), the debate then focuses on what causes police to use excessive force.

7. The woman, a black transient, was shot 18 times.

8. The death of the 19-year-old college student, by compression of the neck during restraint, was ruled a homicide by the Los Angeles County coroner.

9. The officer quoted here was discharged after he allegedly kicked a drunken man in the groin, struck him in the ribs with his baton, and sprayed mace in his face. The officers on the scene asserted that the man’s wife was inciting others present to shoot them.

10. Washington, D.C., police Sgt. Chris Archer (1996) has argued that officers are undertrained in many U.S. police departments. Therefore, although they are taught to escalate their level of coercion only as far along the “continuum of force” as necessary to control a suspect’s resistance, they lack adequate training in how to do so. Consequently, according to Archer, many police-citizen encounters escalate needlessly into violence.

11. The phenomenon of the cover charge has been noted by a variety of observers. The Mollen Commission, which investigated the New York City Police Department in 1994, reported that “When cops come to the stationhouse with a visibly beaten suspect, supervisors, we were repeatedly told, often do not question the story they hear [from the arresting officers]. And the story, or ‘cover’ as some put it, is fairly standard: resisting arrest” (Mollen 1994, 49).

12. Similarly, a commission charged with investigating police use of force in New York in the mid-1980s found “much evidence of low-level abuse,” including the use of racial epithets. But the commission maintained that the use of deadly force was not a systemic problem, reporting that New York state law enforcement officers generally showed restraint in their use of deadly force and that race was not a significant factor in police shootings (Barron 1987).


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