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Widespread police brutality exists in many countries, even those that prosecute it. It is one of several forms of police misconduct, which include: false arrest; intimidation; racial profiling; political repression; surveillance abuse; sexual abuse; and police corruption. However, as aformentioned, it may involve physical force but never reaching death under police custody.
The word "brutality" has several meanings; the sense used here (savage cruelty) was first used in 1633. The first known use of the term "police brutality" was in the New York Times in 1893, describing a police officer's beating of a civilian.
The origin of modern policing based on the authority of the nation state is commonly traced back to developments in seventeenth and eighteenth century France, with modern police departments being established in most nations by the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Cases of police brutality appear to have been frequent then, with "the routine bludgeoning of citizens by patrolmen armed with nightsticks or blackjacks." Large-scale incidents of brutality were associated with labor strikes, such as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the Pullman Strike of 1894, the Lawrence textile strike of 1912, the Ludlow massacre of 1914, the Steel strike of 1919, and the Hanapepe massacre of 1924.
Portions of the population may perceive the police to be oppressors. In addition, there is a perception that victims of police brutality often belong to relatively powerless groups, such as minorities, the disabled, the young, and the poor.
Hubert Locke writes,
"When used in print or as the battle cry in a black power rally, police brutality can by implication cover a number of practices, from calling a citizen by his or her first name to a death by a policeman's bullet. What the average citizen thinks of when he hears the term, however, is something midway between these two occurrences, something more akin to what the police profession knows as 'alley court' — the wanton vicious beating of a person in custody, usually while handcuffed, and usually taking place somewhere between the scene of the arrest and the station house."
In 1992, Los Angeles police harshly beat African American Rodney King. The police officers involved were acquitted and is widely believed to have lead up to the Los Angeles riots of 1992, causing 53 deaths, 2,383 injuries, more than 7,000 fires, damage to 3,100 businesses, and nearly $1 billion in financial losses. After facing federal trial, the officers received 32 months prison sentence. The case was widely seen as a key factor in the reform of the Los Angeles police department.
Politically motivated riots and protest have occurred historically in China, notably with the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Within the past decade, groups such as Falun Gong have protested party measures and been broken up by riot police. Chinese dissidents have been able to arrange effective mobilization through use of social media and informal communication like Twitter and its Chinese counterparts Weibo or microblogs.
Foreign journalists from Switzerland have reported cases of police harassment. Media suppression has increased in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia. Plainclothes policemen are often deployed during demonstrations to suppress violence. Censorship is often maintained as a measure to maintain political stability in China. Web activists can be charged by the police for using false identities to surf the Internet. After arrests, homes of the arrested individual are often searched for incriminating evidence such as computers, hard drives, and flash drives.
Russian protests have gained media attention with the reelection of Vladimir Putin in 2012. Attention has been given to incidence of violence via posting videos online. President Dmitry Medvedev has initiated reforms of the police force, in an attempt to minimize the violence by firing Moscow police chief and centralizing police powers. Police divisions in Russia are often based on loyalty systems that favor bureaucratic power amongst political elites. Phone tapping and business raids are common practice in the country, and often fail to give due process to citizens. Proper investigations of police officials still remains lacking by western standards.
In 2012, Russia's top investigative agency investigated charges that four police officers had tortured detainees under custody. Human rights activists claim that Russian police use torture techniques to extract false confessions from detainees. Police regulations require quotas of officers for solved crimes, a practice that encourages false arrests to meet their numbers.
Islamic extremists in Indonesia have been targeted by police as terrorists in the country. Police may either capture or kill dissidents. Cases of police corruption with hidden bank accounts and retaliation against journalists who attempt to uncover these cases have occurred such as in June 2012, when Indonesian magazine Tempo had journalist activists beaten by police. Separately, on August 31st, 2010 police officers in Central Sulawesi province fired into a crowd of people protesting the death of a local man in police custody. Five people were killed and 34 injured. History of violence goes back to the military-backed Suharto regime (1967-1998), from which Suharto seized power during an anti-Communist purge.
Criminal investigations into human rights violations by the police are rare, punishments light and Indonesia has no independent national body to deal effectively with public complaints. Amnesty International has called on Indonesia to review police tactics during arrests and public order policing, to ensure that they meet international standards.
Police officers are legally permitted to use force, and their superiors — and the public — expect them to do so. According to Jerome Herbert Skolnick, in dealing largely with disorderly elements of the society, some people working in law enforcement may gradually develop an attitude or sense of authority over society, particularly under traditional reaction-based policing models; in some cases the police believe that they are above the law.
However, this "bad apple paradigm" is considered by some to be an "easy way out". A broad report commissioned by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on the causes of misconduct in policing calls it "a simplistic explanation that permits the organization and senior management to blame corruption on individuals and individual faults – behavioural, psychological, background factors, and so on, rather than addressing systemic factors." The report goes on to discuss the systemic factors, which include:
Police use of force is kept in check in many jurisdictions by the issuance of a use of force continuum. A use of force continuum sets levels of force considered appropriate in direct response to a subject's behavior. This power is granted by the civil government, with limits set out in statutory law as well as common law.
Violence used by police can be excessive despite being lawful, especially in the context of political repression. Indeed "police brutality" is often used to refer to violence used by the police to achieve politically desirable ends and, therefore, when none should be used at all according to widely held values and cultural norms in the society (rather than to refer to excessive violence used where at least some may be considered justifiable).
In England and Wales, an independent organization known as the Independent Police Complaints Commission investigates reports of police misconduct. They automatically investigate any deaths caused by, or thought to be caused by, police action.
A similar body operates in Scotland, known as the Police Complaints Commissioner for Scotland. In Northern Ireland the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland has a similar role to that of the IPCC and PCCS.
Various community groups have criticized police brutality. These groups often stress the need for oversight by independent citizen review boards and other methods of ensuring accountability for police action.
Umbrella organizations and justice committees (often named after a deceased individual or those victimized by police violence) usually engage in a solidarity of those affected. Amnesty International is another organization active in the issue of police brutality.
Citizens and communities have begun independent projects to monitor police activity in an effort to reduce violence and misconduct. These are often called "Cop Watch" programs.