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.