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Excessive Force and Police Brutality

Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors.

Excessive force refers to situations where government officials legally entitled to use force exceed the minimum amount necessary to diffuse an incident or to protect themselves or others from harm. This can come up in different contexts, such as when handling prisoners or even during military operations. When it involves law enforcement, especially during an arrest, it's also referred to as police brutality.

The constitutional right to be free from excessive force is found in the reasonable search and seizure requirement of the Fourth Amendment and the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment in the Eighth Amendment.

Unreasonable Force

One example resulting in a Supreme Court finding of excessive force was a case in which an unarmed, non-threatening teenager was shot in the head by police while fleeing a house he had burglarized. At the time, a state law authorized the use of "all the necessary means to effect the arrest" of fleeing suspects, regardless of the situation. In finding excessive force in that case, the Court also overturned the state law because it allowed for unreasonable uses of force. With that case, the court reiterated that deadly force can only be used during an arrest if:

  1. Necessary to prevent the escape; and
  2. The officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.

Excessive force and police brutality don't just apply to cases of deadly force, but can also be found where injuries are relatively minor but resulted from an unreasonable use of force.

The Use of Force Spectrum

The Supreme Court has recognized that "the right to make an arrest or investigatory stop necessarily carries with it the right to use some degree of physical coercion or threat." However, the degree of coercion or force used must be proportional to the threat and escalate only in response to the threat. So, for example, in an ideal situation, an officer should use the following graduated methods to diffuse a situation:

  1. Physical presence: Using mere presence.
  2. Verbalization: Using verbal statements, from non-threatening requests to direct orders.
  3. Empty-Hand Control: Using physical bodily force through grabs, holds, punches or kicks.
  4. Less Lethal Methods: Using weapons such as a baton, chemical sprays, Tasers, or police dogs.
  5. Lethal Force: Using lethal weapons such as firearms.

In order to be considered reasonable and compliant with the U.S. Constitution, the use of physical force must stop when the need for the force ceases, such as when a suspect is successfully restrained or a situation has otherwise de-escalated. In other words, an officer isn't allowed to punish criminals who no longer pose a threat. That's for the courts to work out.

What Remedies Are Available?

Excessive force is a constitutional violation that can be remedied by filing a civil rights complaint for monetary or injunctive relief under Section 1983 of the United States Code. You can also file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice, which may decide to investigate your case.

When deciding whether a government official engaged in excessive force, courts look to the totality of the circumstances to determine whether the actions were "objectively reasonable." In making this determination, however, they use the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene lacking the benefit of hindsight. With this perspective, courts analyze factors such as:

  • The severity of the underlying crime or circumstances;
  • Whether an immediate threat to the safety of the officer or others existed;
  • Whether the individual was actively resisting arrest or attempting to flee;
  • Whether other alternatives were available; or
  • Whether warnings were provided or could have been provided.

Along with deferring to a law enforcement reasonableness standard, courts can also grant officers qualified immunity. This protects public officials from civil liability for violations of rights so long as they were reasonably performing their duties and the rights involved were not "clearly established." In excessive force cases, qualified immunity can protect police officers in more ambiguous situations where there's a "hazy border between excessive and acceptable force." However, to benefit from this immunity, officials would need to show that a reasonable person in their position wouldn't have known that their actions violated clearly established law.

Specific Questions About Excessive Force and Police Brutality? Ask an Attorney

Victims of excessive force and police brutality, and their families, are often left in shock after an incident, especially where there isn't a serious investigation into the incident. There are times where recourse through the courts is the only viable option, but with hurdles like qualified immunity, the court system is no guarantee of success. If you have questions about what to do in your case, there are experienced civil rights attorneys in your area who can provide you with the help you need to make your case.

Next Steps

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