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 (). Yet police use of force is often highly controversial precisely because it is nearly always ambiguous. As legal scholar Paul Chevigny 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.” (DeStefano 1991, 5) 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” (DeStefano 1991, 5).
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.