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Police violence: addressing the issue.

A young man lies dead in the street. Kneeling next to him, a woman holds his head and screams "police brutality!" A crowd begins to gather as the woman continues her outcry. The subtle whispers of "brutality" overcome the onlookers, who believe the woman but have no idea what actually took place.

The police officer who shot the man stands alone, visibly shaken, as he awaits medical and supervisory assistance. No one notices that he, too, has been wounded--the cries of brutality overshadow his injuries. Coming upon this scene, an uninformed individual might perceive police brutality. However, in reality, the police officer interrupted the man committing an armed robbery. When the young man shot at the officer, the officer returned fire, killing him.

Oftentimes, citizens believe an incident constitutes police brutality even though they did not witness the incident or learn all the facts regarding the case. In addition, media reports, eyewitness accounts, and even film coverage may be biased in their depictions of the event. Indeed, they may tell just one side of a complicated story.

Recent events highlighting alleged excessive force by police have heightened public awareness of the police brutality issue. Consequently, many people believe that the police often use excessive force. In reality, police brutality occurs less often than the public perceives. The discrepancy arises, in part, because brutality means different things to different people. To some, it means the unjustified use of an officer's firearm, while to others, it means verbal harassment by an officer.

Indeed, no clear definition of brutality exists. One researcher who conducted a study on the use of force by police stated that the use of force is "...a product of interacting variables that can be traced to the individual, the situation, or the organization."(1) Consequently, since no two arrests are exactly alike, what may constitute excessive force in one situation might not in another.

The police stand as barriers between the good and the bad with no clear direction on how to combat the violent criminal. However, if police officers learn effective ways to handle specific situations, and they apply these methods consistently, cases alleging police brutality should decrease.

This article discusses several methods that police administrators can use to address police violence. These include the preselection and selection processes; police academy, field officer, and inservice training; evaluations; community relations; and discipline procedures.

Preselection and Selection Processes

An effective program to eliminate excessive use of force begins before a candidate is even selected. First, the department must provide the foundation for the program by establishing and enforcing clearly defined procedures, policies, and rules of conduct for all behavior, including the use of force. The top administrator must commit to the department's programs and instill the same attitude in all the department's officers, including the selection officer. In turn, the selection officer should attempt to recruit applicants who best exemplify the philosophy and goals of the department.

The selection process should involve several comprehensive stages, including a written examination; an interview; psychological, polygraph, and physical examinations; and an extensive background investigation. When reviewing an applicant's file, the selection officer should pay particular attention to any area that might indicate overly aggressive tendencies. For example, the background investigation might reveal that an applicant constantly instigates fistfights. Or, psychological testing might indicate a volatile temper. Obviously, candidates who exhibit such behaviors may not be suited to serve as law enforcement officers because of their predispositions to either overreact or underreact to given situations.

Police Academy

The police academy provides crucial training and education on the use of force. This formal training serves as the foundation for recruits to step into the organization's culture. Instructors can mold new recruits to fit the agency. They advise the recruits of the rules, regulations, policies, and procedures of the department and the consequences for breaking the rules. No one in the department should bend with regard to the use of excessive force so that recruits do not get a false image of the organization's policies.

Like selection officers, academy instructors must believe in the department's goals, objectives, and ethical policies in order to instill them in recruits. Once established, instructors can move on to formal training in the law, firearms, philosophy, cultural awareness, etc. In other words, instructors set the tone prior to the learning process.

In the past, training dealt with such mandatory requirements as criminal procedures, basic law, defensive driving, and firearms training, just to name a few. Today, administrators must ensure that contemporary training in ethics, human behavior, stress management, cultural awareness, and sensitivity does not take a back seat to traditional training.

One important area of police training that could stand revision is conflict management. Most police departments currently teach their new officers to deescalate, or defuse, tense situations by using physical defense tactics. A more appealing option would be to help officers avoid physical confrontation entirely. In fact, one clinical psychologist suggests that "law enforcement academy training courses, specifically those that utilize primarily tactical or physical techniques, should regularly debrief students from both a psychological and physical standpoint."(2) In other words, officers should be taught to use diplomacy instead of aggression, their brains instead of their brawn.

Field Officer Training

Once in the field, new police officers start to apply what they learned in training. However, through experience, they begin to realize that the realities of the street do not always compare to life at the academy. For the first time, they see where the thin blue line of excessive force lies, and they will learn to stay within its boundaries if coached in a positive manner.

Now comes the job of the field training officer (FTO), which is probably one of the most important positions to hold. FTOs can have either a positive or negative effect on new officers. If FTOs abuse their power, new officers will probably follow along, because they desparately want to fit in and be accepted as team players. However, FTOs who adhere to the philosophies, ethics, and professional demeanor of an organization set an example that will last new officers throughout their careers.

FTOs must also evaluate the new officer's ability to do the job. Even with a good preselection process, an unsuitable candidate can still slip through. A private counselor for officers suffering from stress warns that police officers, as well as supervisors, must weed out those with the inclination to use excessive force. He states, "Police are out there looking for troubled people, they ought to be able to spot troubled cops."(3)

Troubled police officers may be easy to spot, but would their fellow officers turn them in? Officers rarely inform on one another for fear of being accused of "whistle blowing," "breaking the blue code," or "breaking the code of silence." Consequently, training and education must change officers' attitudes regarding the reporting of undesirable behavior by their peers.

Inservice Training

Even experienced officers can benefit from additional training. Therefore, police administrators should schedule inservices that reinforce the department's policies, procedures, and directives, especially in the area of excessive force. These inservices allow officers to brush up on deescalating and technical techniques, as well as any areas in which they demonstrate deficiencies. Quality of training should take precedence over quantity, and as always, the most qualified instructors should teach.

Teaching officers about human behavior can also lessen claims of police brutality. Officers who learn what makes people aggressive can possibly defuse potentially volatile situations without creating conflict. If a confrontation appears to be inevitable, however, police officers can still help to resolve the situation by thinking before they react. This, too, can be covered in inservice training.

Training sessions should also include stress management. Officers suffering from personal or job-related stress may overreact in certain situations, becoming aggressive and using excessive force. Supervisors should watch out for those who exhibit this type of behavior. Teaching officers how to recognize and relieve stress can reduce the number of such incidents.

Stress can be mental as mentioned above, or physical, as in the case of the rush of adrenalin that officers experience during a heated confrontation or a pursuit. Officers who are surprised by their bodies' reactions to such situations may be unprepared to handle these reactions. Effective training increases officers' awareness of these responses and provides practical means to deal with them.


An effective evaluation program can enlighten administrators as to officers' performance and can serve to combat officers' tendencies to use force. If officers demonstrate deficiencies in their work performance, their evaluations should reflect these inadequacies. Supervisors should address and correct problem areas through either training or discipline. If all else fails, the department might consider terminating the officer.

Community Relations--Educating the Public

In many regards, a police department is only as productive as the community perceives it to be. Sometimes, however, the public's perception of a police department is prejudiced by a lack of knowledge. For example, because citizens do not normally face violent, aggressive criminals, they might not realize the force required to subdue such individuals. Therefore, police administrators need to educate the public as to the nature of the police officer's job, as well as the department's policy, procedures, and the law regarding the use of force. The police and the community should have the same understanding of what the overall job requires, and residents should know that force is sometimes necessary to end a violent confrontation.

When officers must use force, they should document the entire incident to avoid misunderstandings by the public or the press. The department should also maintain and make the public aware of statistics regarding situations resolved without force, as well as the number of officers injured by force against them. Police managers should investigate all police brutality cases, keeping the public abreast of the process and the outcome. Withholding information from the public only clouds the issue by creating the perception of a coverup.

Open communication with the public also counteracts the false perceptions that the public might hold regarding a case. To many people, a videotape presents undeniable proof that an act of brutality has occurred. However, in many instances, the person filming might not have presented all the facts. The dead man in the street, the officer with the gun, the woman screaming police brutality--what the camera recorded and what actually occurred may be two different things.

Discipline Procedures

All of the issues discussed so far--the preselection and selection processes; police academy, field, and inservice training; evaluations; and community relations--are all attempts to keep citizen complaints of brutality to a minimum. A police department that administers these areas effectively and efficiently, using qualified personnel, should accomplish this goal. Ideally, administrators, field officers, citizens, and the media would all be working toward the same goals--education and understanding.

However, should a citizen file a complaint that proves valid, management should discipline the officer(s) involved. The department can maintain integrity with the public and its officers by dispensing fair and consistent punishments. In turn, officers will conform to the established policies and procedures to avoid suffering the consequences, while the public will trust the department to protect its interests. As noted above, the department should advise the public of the outcome of the case and the disciplinary action taken.


Police violence is a complicated and controversial issue. Most people do not even agree on what constitutes excessive force, let alone how to combat it. Educating the public as to the complexities of policing can align the community with the police instead of against them, thus decreasing brutality charges.

In addition, police administrators must select the best possible officer candidates and provide them thorough training, not only at the police academy but also throughout the officers' careers. Furthermore, management must continually evaluate the policies, procedures, and statistical data on their department's use of force, revising policy when necessary and disciplining violators. Police managers should accept no less than full compliance from their employees.

Law enforcement, as a profession, continues to make headway, even when confronted with difficult issues like police violence. Indeed, if dealt with effectively, the issue of police violence may be reduced to a mere mention in the annals of law enforcement.


1 Robert J. Friedrich, "Police Use of Force: Individuals, Situations and Organizations," The Annals, November 1980, 82-92.

2 John Nicoletti, Ph.D., "Training for De-Escalation of Force," The Police Chief, July 1990, 37-39.

3 Lance Morrow, "Rough Justice," Time, April 1, 1991, 15.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Federal Bureau of Investigation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Boyle, Danny
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Jun 1, 1993
Previous Article:Police Administration.
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