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.