The presence of cellphone cameras and the popularity of social media have thrust police brutality cases into the news more and more. We all know policing is a dangerous job. And sometimes the police must use force to protect the public. Even so, the police do not have the right to use excessive force. If you or a loved one have been the victims of police misconduct, contact the Ohio police brutality lawyers at Bolek Besser Glesius LLC.

What is the definition of “excessive force?”

Police shootings

The police might need to use force when making an arrest or other investigatory stop. But the Constitution requires that they use it reasonably. In this context, claims of excessive force or police brutality are evaluated under the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment. Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989).

Whether the police have used excessive force depends on “whether the officers’ actions are ‘objectively reasonable’ in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them. . . .” Id. at 397. That is a very fact-specific question, and the Supreme Court has given three central factors to consider when evaluating police use of force:

  • “the severity of the crime at issue,”
  • “whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others,” and
  • whether the suspect is “actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.”

Id. at 396. These aren’t the only factors courts will consider. Ultimately, courts must examine the “totality of the circumstances” to determine whether the amount of force used by the police was objectively reasonable.

Some of the more common excessive force claims involve:

  • Officer shooting or the use of deadly force;
  • The use of pepper spray or tear gas on people who have surrendered, are not physically resisting, or are simply engaging in nonviolent free speech protests;
  • Hitting or kicking suspects after they are already handcuffed, subdued, or in custody;
  • The use of dangerous restraint methods like chokeholds or hog-tying; or,
  • Using a taser gun against an unarmed subject who is not violently resisting or fleeing, or tasering suspects after they have been subdued.

Police use of deadly force in Ohio

The ultimate use of force by the police is the use of deadly force. Cases like the tragic Cleveland shooting of Tamir Rice remind us of the stakes when police use deadly force.

The use of deadly force by the police is a “seizure” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 7 (1985). The police may use deadly force only when an officer has probable cause to believe a suspect poses an immediate risk of serious physical harm to the officer or the public.  The police may never use deadly force—whether with a gun or by other means—against an unarmed and non-dangerous person.

When a suspect flees, the police may use deadly force only under limited circumstances. Officers may not use deadly to prevent escape of a suspect unless it is both necessary to prevent the escape and the officer has probable cause to believe the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical harm to the officer or others. Id. at 11. As the Supreme Court has held, “where the suspect poses no immediate threat to the officer and no threat to others, the harm resulting from failing to apprehend him does not justify the use of deadly force to do so.” Id.

To determine whether the police have violated your rights, contact the Ohio excessive force attorneys at Bolek Besser Glesius LLC.

Excessive force by the police in Cleveland, Ohio

In 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice found widespread excessive force violations by the Cleveland Department of Police. The DOJ found that the Cleveland Police were responsible for “a pattern or practice of the use of excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.” It also found that Cleveland police systematically failed to hold officers accountable and had inadequate training regarding the use of force.

DOJ SealAmong other things, the DOJ found that the Cleveland police had a pattern and practice of using:

  • Excessive deadly force, including shootings and hitting people in the head with “impact weapons” (i.e., batons);
  • Excessive force with non-lethal weapons like tasers and chemical sprays;
  • Excessive force in retaliation for a person’s earlier resistance to police commands, even where the person posed no physical threat; and,
  • Needlessly dangerous tactics that put officers in situations where otherwise-avoidable force becomes necessary.

The DOJ found that Cleveland police supervisors tolerated and sometimes even encouraged these behaviors.

Ironically, these practices make things more dangerous for both the police and community. Aside from needlessly escalating physical confrontation, a pattern of excessive force creates community distrust and disrespect for officers, even those who serve honorably and are doing their jobs well.

The Department of Justice’s findings led to a settlement with the Cleveland Department of Police that included a package of reforms. These reforms centered on increased training and accountability designed to reduce the systemic use of excessive force by the Cleveland police.

Ohio laws banning police brutality

Besides federal law, Ohio law also provides a remedy for excessive force. For example, if the police use more force than necessary to make an arrest or protect themselves, they might be liable for assault and battery. Victims of police brutality might also pursue wrongful death and false arrest claims under Ohio law. As with all claims against the government though, these claims are very complex. To succeed, they require the help of a skilled Ohio police misconduct lawyer.

When is the use of force against prison inmates excessive?

A different constitutional standard applies to use of force against inmates who have already been convicted of a crime. The cruel and unusual punishment clause of Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution governs their right to be free from excessive force.

In Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312 (1986), the Supreme Court held that only the “unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain” constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in an excessive force case brought by a convicted inmate. As a result, it is not enough that the force used was unreasonable. Instead, the question is whether the use of force was a sadistic attempt to punish the inmate. Although courts will grant prison officials considerable latitude, things like sexual assault of a prisoner or the needless use of weapons are undoubtedly excessive force.

Cleveland, Ohio civil rights lawyers protecting the public from police brutality

The occasional use of force by the police is an inevitable part of the job. But there is a difference between necessary force and police brutality. If the police have crossed the line and violated your rights, contact the Ohio police brutality attorneys at Bolek Besser Glesius LLC for a consultation today.