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.
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. 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” (Bonner 1996). 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” (Bonner 1996). 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, and they tend to believe that the public should do the same.
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” (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” 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” (Skolnick and Fyfe 1993, 78). Scholarly studies have confirmed the persistent tendency of minority communities to be more suspicious of police and more critical of how they use force.
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 (Schneider and Ingram 1993). 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.