Life in the USA
Government and Law
Police and Criminal Law
The Police and Violence
Nearly all the police in America carry handguns and clubs. Many carry sophisticated weapons such as stun guns and the electroshock weapon called the Taser. When police actually have to use these weapons, or any weapon, the situation is almost always one of great stress, during which the police may perceive they are themselves endangered. Two related issues arise: the use of excessive force, and the use of unnecessary force.
In any neighborhood, but especially in “ghettos” and minority areas where questions of “racial profiling” come into play, police brutality becomes an issue. The brutality may or may not involve weapons. It may often involve the beating of a helpless person in custody, often in a police stationhouse or other secluded area. It sometimes involves verbal and psychological intimidation. Police departments do their best to deal with these issues, by educating their own personnel and by engaging in community outreach activities. In large cities, “civilian review boards” exist to monitor complaints of police excesses. These incidents nevertheless do occur despite the best of efforts. A prime example is the 1991 case of Rodney King, who was shown on videotape being brutalized by a group of Los Angeles police officers. The case caused national outrage, and extensive riots (leading to 53 deaths) when some of the officers involved were acquitted of wrongdoing.
When police officers kill an alleged criminal, an investigation normally occurs, during which time the officers involved may be taken off the force. Community protests against police shootings are a common occurrence, especially when racial or ethnic issues come into play. In some notable cases, such as the fatal shooting of unarmed Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo in New York in 1999, police officers have been prosecuted for their actions. In the Diallo case, although the officers involved were absolved of any criminal responsibility, the city paid the Diallo family $3 million to settle a wrongful death civil claim, and the affair took on national prominence.
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