Police misconduct, particularly allegations of police brutality, is a divisive topic. Some, particularly those in law enforcement, believe that legitimate cases of police misconduct are few and far between and that most officers take their oaths to serve and protect seriously. They argue that their jobs are dangerous ones and that they have to be able to protect themselves and the public, which may require the use of force.
Others, however, particularly those living in communities that have been subjected to questionable if not illegal police practices, believe that police misconduct happens much more frequently than is reported and that in most cases, nothing ever happens to the officers who have abused their authority. For these people, police officers are viewed as someone they need protection from, not as someone who will protect them.
The truth of the matter, however, most likely lies in the middle of these two camps: while many officers do take their jobs to protect the public seriously, there are those that cross the line between what is an appropriate use of force and what amounts to police brutality. And when an officer crosses this line, they should be held accountable for assault and personal injury and professionally disciplined.
Unfortunately, however, this is not always what happens.
What is Police Misconduct?
Police misconduct is a broad term describing any actions by the police that exceed the level of authority and power entrusted in them by the public and their office. Many acts of police misconduct are illegal. Some of the most common types of police misconduct include:
- Use of excessive force and police brutality
- Harassment, including stop, question and frisk practices
- Abuse of power
- Illegal search and seizures
- False arrests
- False charges
- Malicious prosecution
Misconduct Occurs at a Greater Rate in Minority Neighborhoods
The issue of police misconduct is further complicated since the majority of victims of police brutality and other illegal police practices are minorities. According to Amnesty International, racial and ethnic minorities have been disproportionately harmed by police misconduct, including physical assaults, false arrests and harassment.
Many of the reports of police misconduct in New York concern the controversial practice of officers stopping people on the streets, asking for identification and then asking them questions. A report by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) reveals that of the more than 2 million New York citizens who were stopped and interrogated on the streets by police from 2004 to 2010, the overwhelming majority of them were black and Latino. For example, police records show that there were more than 600,000 of these stops made in 2010. Of those stopped and questioned, 53% were black, 32% were Latino and 9% were white. The overwhelming majority – 86% — were innocent of any wrongdoing.
A 2010 story published in the New York Times found that that 14,000 residents in a minority neighborhood in Brooklyn had been subjected to more than 52,000 stops in a four year time span. Police records show that of those stopped and questioned in Brownsville, roughly 9 out of 10 had not committed a crime.
Perhaps the most notorious case of police brutality in New York, the 1999 shooting death of Amadou Diallo, occurred in a minority community in Brooklyn. The 22-year-old West African immigrant was shot 19 times while standing in the entranceway of his apartment building. The four plainclothes officers who shot him believed Diallo was pulling a gun when he reached for his wallet to show them identification. Diallo was unarmed and did not have a criminal record.
Most Police Misconduct Cases Do Not Result in Disciplinary Action
Public confidence, particularly in minority neighborhoods, also is hurt by the perception that police officers who commit misconduct are not punished for their acts.
According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice, the incidence of the use of excessive force among the police, prison guards and other law enforcement personnel increased by 25 percent between 2001 and 2007. However, during the same time period, the rate of prosecution and disciplinary action against officers accused of misconduct did not increase.
Similar results have been found in New York. Citizens who want to report instances of police misconduct in the city can do so by filing a claim with the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), an independent agency tasked with investigating the more than 8,000 public complaints of misconduct made against the New York Police Department each year.
The CCRB then investigates the claim. If substantiated, the claim is sent to the NYPD for review. Under the complaint procedure, the NYPD has the last say in whether any disciplinary action will be taken. According to police records, the NYPD declined to prosecute 33 percent of cases referred to it by the CCRB in 2008 and 40 percent of the cases referred to it in 2009.
In a story published by the New York Times in 2009, the Police Department attributed the low number of prosecutions in part to different legal standards used by its own lawyers to determine whether misconduct had occurred as compared with the standards used by the CCRB to substantiate claims.
If you have been a victim of police misconduct, including the use of excessive force or other civil rights violations, you have the right to file a civil lawsuit against the relevant police department for any harm caused to you. A civil claim can be filed regardless of whether criminal charges were brought against the officers or whether the officers were disciplined for their actions.
In New York, there is a limited amount of time to take legal action against the NYPD for police misconduct. To learn more about your rights under state and federal law, contact an attorney experienced in bringing civil rights claims today.