Let me start off by saying, as a former police officer, I know that not all police officers are the same. Most of them who I know take their obligation to protect society very seriously, and would never abuse their authority. It is sad that some members of society will always blame law enforcement and not look at situations objectively and demand that people take responsibility for their actions.
However, there are people in every profession, law enforcement included, who abuse their position of authority, and sometimes innocent people end up paying the price. When police use excessive force (commonly referred to as police brutality) they must also take responsibility for their actions. On any given day, a police officer might go from helping someone in a medical emergency to dealing with a violent criminal. Sometimes these situations can occur in a short time frame, or even as part of the same incident.
Because of this, police officers are given a great deal of latitude performing their duties. Law enforcement is authorized to use a wide range of physical force, and even deadly force under certain circumstances. However, an officer who uses force when it is not called for, or who uses more force than is necessary to perform his or her job, may cross the line into police brutality.
What is Police Brutality?
Unfortunately, Utah is no different than the rest of the country when it comes to incidents of police brutality. Some police officers who are responsible while enforcing the law, abuse their authority and position to bully and brutalize members of society. Most officers do their job responsibly and understand the balance between enforcement and protection of citizen’s rights and dignity. However, there are those who are addicted to power and control, and they find the smallest excuse to escalate the level of force and use pepper spray, a taser, or even their firearm on members of the public. Although there is not a specific definition, here are some examples of situations that may fall under the meaning of police brutality or use of excessive force:
- Physical force against an individual who is already in custody
- Physical force against an individual if they are not resisting
- Physical force used by law enforcement if the suspect is passive or non-violent
- Improper use of police dogs
- Use of a weapon against an unarmed, non-violent, or non-threatening person
- Threatening an individual to obtain a statement or confession
- Use of physical force to suppress a peaceful activist or protester
- Willfully or negligently causing death
Police Officers Are Governmental Agents
Law enforcement officials have unique and broad powers that are conferred by the state, and because of this are essentially acting on behalf of the government. Limitations on governmental powers are set by the United States Constitution, and these restraints also apply to law enforcement officers as agents of the government. While an individual who is the victim of police brutality may be able to sue individual officers, or even the police department, for personal injury damages under state law, many cases of police brutality also involve constitutional civil rights violations. Among the constitutional claims a victim of police brutality may raise are:
- Denial of due process guaranteed by the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution
- Unreasonable searches and/or seizure protected by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
- Violation of civil rights under the Civil Rights Act of 1871 (42 U.S.C. §1983)
Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 provides for a private civil action for damages by any person deprived of his or her civil rights by anyone acting under “color” of law (in other words, in an official, governmental capacity.)
What Can You Do?
Police brutality often results in the loss of trust by members of the community in which they serve. This trust is needed by officers if they are to be effective in their jobs. Victims and witnesses of crimes are much less likely to report a crime or cooperate in investigations if they or their families or friends have been the victim of police brutality. It also leads to an increasingly hostile and dangerous environment for law enforcement. Unfortunately, many people are afraid to enforce their rights. It is important for individuals to disclose when they have been a victim of police brutality or excessive force and hold the police officer, and possibly the department and city, accountable. Anyone who is a victim of police brutality may have both a personal injury claim and a civil rights claim. Some claims have a short deadline to pursue action, so any delay can prevent you from recovery. If you believe that you or someone you know has been the victim of police brutality in Utah, contact the experienced attorneys at Hepworth & Associates for a consultation today.