Newspapers today are filled with headlines concerning police brutality. Our country is, once again, divided between the races, Black and White. People who think no racial injustice is occurring sport decals on their car saying Blue Lives Matter. And those who recognize racial profiling as a significant issue among the police display their decals saying, “Black Lives Matter” and “My Son’s Life Matters.” Yet there are many other types of police misconduct that aren’t making headlines every day. So what are the different types of police misconduct?
Police misconduct most often involves the use of excessive force, sexual misconduct, theft, false arrest, and deliberate indifference to serious medical needs or a substantial risk of harm to a person in custody. However, the Department of Justice also investigates and prosecutes instances of obstruction of justice by attempting to prevent a victim or witness from reporting police misconduct, lying to federal, state, or local officials during a police misconduct investigation, or writing a false report or fabricating evidence. Let’s take a closer look at the different types of police misconduct.
What Are Some Common Types of Police Misconduct
Use of Excessive Force
Legally, police are only allowed to use the amount of force reasonably required when arresting an individual. What is reasonable will depend upon why the individual was apprehended and how that individual responded to the arrest. If the officer believes the person is an immediate threat, their response will be more forceful than if it were just a minor violation.
This can happen when an officer takes a person into custody without probable cause or an arrest warrant. It would be considered probable cause if an officer sees a person commit a crime or has reason to believe that the person either had committed a crime or was about to. If an officer lacks probable cause for the arrest, the person may bring a case against the officer for false imprisonment.
Malicious prosecution happens when an officer initiates a criminal proceeding when there is no proof that a crime has been committed. For example, an officer may charge a person with a crime to cover up police misconduct such as excessive force. Or an officer may threaten a person with criminal proceedings to cover up another crime.
And sometimes, a law enforcement officer may charge a person with a crime to draw attention away from the real criminal. Victims often file this type of claim because the law is supposed to protect an individual from emotional stress, embarrassment, and financial expense.
Unreasonable Search and Seizure
A police officer is legally allowed to stop any person if there is reason to believe that the said person has committed a crime. The officer must have reasonable suspicion and is allowed to pat down the person to make sure there is no concealed weapon.
If an officer enters and searches a home without a warrant and there has been no indication of an emergency that would warrant searching the home, this is considered an unreasonable search and seizure.
It is also against the law for an officer to conduct a body cavity search or strip search on someone who is not under arrest or who was arrested for only a misdemeanor. If the officer performed such searches, it is considered misconduct.
Sexual misconduct includes sexual assault, sexual contact that is persuaded through force or coercion, or unwanted sexual contact such as groping or touching. Coercion often happens when the officer tells the victim they will bring false charges against the victim or cause more punishment if the victim fails to comply with the officer’s advances.
Failure to Intervene
This happens when a police officer witnesses another officer depriving an individual of their rights, but the witnessing officer doesn’t intervene to try to stop the wrongful behavior. If it is proven that the witnessing officer was aware that the citizen’s constitutional rights were being violated and yet failed to do anything to help, the witnessing officer can be found guilty of the crime as well.
If an officer is aware that a person may suffer significant harm, such as if the person has a medical condition or if the officer is aware there is a risk of retaliation should the person be sent to prison but does not make others aware of this or attempt to protect the individual, that officer can be charged with deliberate indifference. Being aware that the person could come to significant harm and failing to act is police misconduct.
Are Police Held Accountable for Misconduct?
Unfortunately, police are rarely held accountable for misconduct due to a federal shield called qualified immunity. Qualified immunity allows state and local officials to avoid being held accountable for misconduct unless they violate “clearly established law.” This means that unless there is a case with the same facts on record, law enforcement can violate a person’s rights without being held responsible.
For example, a victim of police misconduct would be required to identify an earlier Supreme Court or federal court of appeals decision that took place in the same jurisdiction where the exact same misconduct occurred under the exact same circumstances, and it was declared unconstitutional or illegal by the court.
Defenders of qualified immunity say people need it to be able to do their jobs. What was supposed to be an effective tool is simply shielding law enforcement from civil suits and being held accountable for their actions.
What Are Some Examples of Police Not Being Held Accountable Because of Qualified Immunity?
- On July 10, 2017, police set a suicidal man, Gabriel Eduardo Olivas, on fire and killed him. Police had been called to the scene by Olivas’ son, saying his father had poured gasoline all over his body and was threatening to kill himself. Though the police realized that tasing him would cause a fire, they tased him anyway after thinking they saw him pull out a lighter. The house burned down, and Olivas had injuries over 85 percent of his body. He later died. Olivas’ family sued the officers, but they were granted qualified immunity and were never held accountable for their recklessness.
- On July 10, 2013, an officer, in the process of trying to catch a person who wandered into another family’s yard, shot at a non-threatening dog who was in the area with six children. He missed, and the dog retreated into the home. The officer then held the children at gunpoint and directed them to lay down when the dog wandered back out into the yard. He shot at the dog again, only this time he missed and shot a 10-year-old boy. The case went to court, but the officer received qualified immunity.
- In 2013, officers were accused of stealing over $150,000 from two businessmen during the execution of a search warrant covering a gambling investigation. The two businessmen who owned an ATM company were never even charged with a crime. The court stated that since there was no prior clearly established law that found the officers violated the Fourth or Fourteenth Amendments when stealing property during the execution of a search warrant, the officers could not be sued for their actions. Even if the officers admitted that they stole the money, though reprehensible, they still did not violate the constitution in any way that had been clearly established before. So they were granted qualified immunity.
Further Reading: What are Some Famous Police Misconduct Cases?
Why Aren’t More Officers Reprimanded or Arrested for Police Misconduct?
There are a few reasons why more officers aren’t held accountable for their illegal actions. One reason is the informal “Blue Wall of Silence,” also known as the “Blue Code of Silence.” This code is an unwritten rule carried out between police officers where they all silently agree to not report on a fellow officer’s misconduct or crimes, including police brutality. If they are ever officially questioned about an alleged incident involving another officer, the officer questioned would willingly perjure themself by pretending not to know anything about the allegation.
Another reason officers aren’t held accountable for misconduct is because the District Attorney will often decline to prosecute. The District Attorney most likely relies on the accused officer as a chief witness in other crimes the DA is prosecuting. Thus, it makes it politically difficult for the District Attorney’s office to prosecute an officer they need.
What is Being Done to Eradicate Police Misconduct?
Samuel Sinyangwe, data scientist and co-founder of a police reform initiative, Campaign Zero, says there are researched-backed ways to curb police violence and misconduct. Below are four examples of what he believes could help.
Eliminate Language in Police Union Contracts That Puts a Limit on Officer Accountability.
According to the Police Union Contract Project, some provisions disqualify specific complaints from being investigated or resulting in discipline. There are also restrictions on officer interrogations, options for officers to appeal for reinstatement, and police access to privileged information during the investigation.
Track Complaints About an Officer’s Use of Force.
Research has shown that the more officers with a history of excessive force were in a group with other police officers, the more likely those other officers would develop a similar pattern of excessive force. If complaints were tracked, it would help departments predict possible misconduct by officers and provide them with more information about when and how to intervene before an incident occurs.
Increase Non-police Organization’s Role in Responding to Emergency Calls.
At least one in four people killed by the police has a mental illness. Because not all officers who respond to an emergency call are trained in crisis management, having non-emergency workers who are trained in crisis management respond in place of or alongside the police can help alleviate the crisis.
Ratify More Restrictive Laws Governing the Use of Force.
Departments that have tighter restrictions about what use-of-force methods are allowed are less likely to kill people.
Hopefully, new guidelines will be enacted on a national level that would help curb a lot of the misconduct and injustices we are seeing in our police force today. Once that happens, citizens can once again know without a shadow of a doubt that they are being protected by the very people their tax dollars are paying for to keep them safe.
Alexandra Christensen is a freelance writer and editor. When she is not working on an assignment, she can be found hanging around with other writers on Medium.com/@alexandra_creates where she writes mostly about raising foster and adopted kids and those with invisible disabilities.