Police Misconduct

Officers who misuse their power to fabricate evidence may be prosecuted, and the evidence kept out of court. Deliberately harming suspects is also an abuse of power.

Abner Louima, Rodney King, and Amadou Diallo all suffered brutality (and, in Daillo’s case, death) at the hands of police officers. The notorious “Ramparts” division of the LAPD engaged in beatings, extortion, and even bank robbery; the “Riders” of the Oakland Police Department routinely beat up suspects and robbed them. These are just a few of the most infamous examples of police misconduct, a problem in jurisdictions throughout the U.S. But, a lot of resources have been invested in addressing the problem, too.

This article discusses police misconduct generally. For information about racial profiling, see Racial Profiling and the Police.

What is Police Misconduct?

Police officers engage in misconduct when they violate the law while on the job. But, not every violation of law constitutes police misconduct; a cop who speeds even though he is not in pursuit of a suspect may have broken the law, but that infraction is not police misconduct. Police misconduct involves abuse of the power that officers hold.

Planting drugs or weapons to justify improper actions; misappropriating seized money, drugs, or goods; physically assaulting detainees, and conducting searches without proper cause all constitute police misconduct.

Police Conspired to Plant Drugs, File False Report To Mask Unjustified Killing

In 2006, Atlanta police officers burst into the home of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston under the department’s “no-knock” policy and after obtaining a search warrant based on fabricated information about drug dealing at the residence. Ms. Johnston fired a shot at the surprise entry but did not hit anyone. Officers returned fire and shot Ms. Johnston several times. She died of her wounds. The officers searched her home but found no drugs, so they planted a bag of marijuana they had earlier seized in an unrelated drug bust. The officers also filed false reports that a drug sale had occurred at Ms. Johnston’s home a day earlier to justify killing Ms. Johnston. Officers involved plead guilty to state and federal charges, but the District Attorney involved in investigating the matter said that the misconduct engaged in by the officers was common in the department.

Although the officers who killed Kathryn Johnston were punished and the case received national attention, police corruption and misconduct did not cease. Police misconduct is a perennial problem and has several aspects that make it very difficult to address. Among these distinctive aspects are the quasi-military structure of departments (which can lead to unquestioning obedience to corrupt authority), the “code of silence” that exists within departments, the history of racial tensions that exist between certain departments and communities, and internal investigation units that protect their own instead of fairly investigating misconduct.

Methods to Deter Police Misconduct

Individuals who have been the victims of police misconduct may take legal action against the offending officer or department. However, such actions are limited to providing a remedy to just the individual harmed in a particular case. In certain cities, larger-scale community efforts have been undertaken to address police misconduct. In other cities, courts have stepped in to order departments to address patterns of misconduct.

Exclusionary rule to deter misconduct

A criminal defendant who believes she has been the victim of police misconduct, such as an illegal search, may ask the court to bar evidence seized by the errant officer(s) from being introduced at her trial. This “exclusionary rule” is the basis for such a motion and gives courts the power to block introduction of evidence uncovered via unconstitutional police activity, such as an illegal search. When police officers understand that evidence they seize through unlawful means will not be used to prosecute the targeted individual, the thinking goes, those who might have been motivated to engage in the unlawful conduct will see that it is pointless to do so. And, they will therefore be deterred from the misconduct.

Lawsuits by targets of police misconduct

Under state and federal law, victims of police misconduct may sue the officers involved and/or the department that employed them for violation of federal civil rights law, federal and state constitutional law, and for damages for their injuries.

Among the claims that victims of misconduct may allege is the claim that the officers who engaged in the misconduct targeted the victims based on race or another protected category, or to deprive the victims of their civil rights. (42 U.S.C. § 1981.)

Such litigation may have a deterrent effect on future misconduct because of public outrage after the allegations are aired, and because an award of damages may spur governmental officials to take steps to prevent misconduct.

Judicial intervention

In some municipalities, civil rights lawsuits have resulted in findings of patterns of misconduct by officers. Where a department exhibits a pattern of violating the civil rights of citizens through the misconduct of its officers, state and/or federal courts may issue “consent decrees.” These decrees give the issuing court or an assigned judicial officer oversight of the department and power to inquire into its officers’ conduct, its policies, and to direct actions to be taken to address the misconduct.

Community reforms

City officials, community group leaders, and police departments may also enter into Memoranda of Understanding (“MOUs”), in which they agree on steps to prevent and address police misconduct. Often these MOUs are reached with the assistance of a mediator or other third party who facilitates the discussions. A common feature of an MOU is a mechanism to increase officers’ public accountability by creating a body to which aggrieved citizens can bring complaints about possible misconduct.

Citizen Review Boards

The public is often concerned that a police department cannot fairly and objectively investigate alleged misconduct by its own officers. One response to this concern is for citizen groups to take on the role of investigating and monitoring a police department whose officers have exhibited a pattern of misconduct. Among the goals of such citizen review boards are to strengthen department and officer public accountability, enhance transparency in operations, and ease tensions between the officers and the communities they serve.

Prosecuting offending officers

Federal and state prosecutors are empowered to prosecute officers who break the law. Officers involved in misconduct may have committed crimes, such as murder, assault, or extortion; or they may have committed civil rights violations, such as targeting particular minority group members. These prosecutions can lead to removal of convicted officers from the force, imprisonment of the officers, and fines.

See a Lawyer; Get Involved

If you feel you or someone you know may have been the victim of police misconduct, talk to a lawyer in your area with experience in police misconduct or civil rights cases. If you would like to become involved in improving your community’s relations with police, you may find information to get you started on the Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services site.

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