Police brutality in Ferguson: civil lawsuits hold officers accountable

Unnecessary force, threats and unlawful arrest can be addressed in a civil lawsuit. Changes to policy or additional training following a claim may ensure that the same does not occur to others.

Rodney King, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Jianqing Klyzek, Oscar Guzman and Michael Brown - while some of the names are better known than others, all are synonymous with allegations of unnecessary force and police brutality. The beating of Rodney King that sparked debate about police brutality occurred almost 25 years ago. A witness captured the incident on video. Similarly, many witnesses recorded the 2009 New Year's Day police shooting of Oscar Grant in San Francisco.

The acquittal of the officers involved in the Rodney King case outraged many and led to the L.A. riots. The outcome in the Oscar Grant case was different. A jury convicted the officer of involuntary manslaughter even though he claimed he tried to pull a Taser and not his gun.

Militarization of police forces

In recent years, there has been an increasing militarization of police departments across the nation. Tanks once used to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan recently rolled down local streets in American towns. This use of force was on display as officers moved into a St. Louis suburb with armored cars and snipers after the August 9 shooting of Michael Brown. Police used tear gas to disperse protestors.

No video exists of the altercation and the officer involved claimed the African-American teen was reaching for the officer's weapon. Eyewitnesses say that the "gentle giant" (Brown was 6'4 feet tall) was shot while trying to surrender. Unfortunately, the situation seen over the past few weeks in Ferguson is becoming all too common. Police across the country killed 409 people last year. In that same period, there were no police shootings in Britain and only eight in Germany.

Everyone knows that being a police officer can be a difficult and dangerous job. All people should obey lawful instructions from police officers. Officers are frequently the first line of defense in defusing a potentially violent or deadly situation. The issue remains, however, that officers should be trained and instructed only to use force and especially deadly force when it is honestly necessary.

Unnecessary force lawsuits in Illinois

Illinois is not immune to this problem. Recently there have been reports of unnecessary force and of lawsuits brought to enforce the rights of victims. Recent news stories provide examples of such unnecessary force and ways this overreach can be countered. Civil lawsuits can hold law enforcement departments accountable for the use of unnecessary force.

For example, a recent false arrest, excessive force and civil hate crime lawsuit claims a security video shows an officer striking an already handcuffed and kneeling Jianqing Klyzek. Although of Chinese descent, she is an American citizen. The officer allegedly said, "You're not (expletive) American! I'll put you in a UPS box and send you back to wherever the (expletive) you came from!" Charges related to her arrest were later dropped because no probable cause existed. The woman seeks compensation for injuries she suffered as well as punitive damages.

This is not only a current problem. Several years ago, the Chicago City Council settled with the family of an autistic teen, Oscar Guzman, who was beaten by police in 2009. Two officers approached the teen. He ran into his family's restaurant where his parents tried to explain he had special needs. However, in a struggle a baton struck the boy in the head requiring staples to close the laceration. Officers claimed the boy reached for his waistband suggesting he might have a weapon.

Injuries from unnecessary force can include everything from death to brain injuries and broken bones. It often takes a lot of time to recover from these injuries. One proposal to stop such incidents involves equipping officers with body cameras.

Video: a means to reduce violence

A 2012 study conducted by Cambridge University in coordination with the Rialto Police Department found almost a 60 percent reduction in the use of force when officers wore body cameras. Citizen complaints against the department fell by approximately 90 percent. A video recording often adds transparency to policing.

The Chicago police department has dashboard cameras in 700 of its 1,280 squad cars, according to a recent report by the Chicago Tribune. The department has not adopted body cameras yet as these devices cost on average $900 apiece.

Dashboard and body cameras may discourage officers from the unnecessary use of force and they provide evidence to support disciplinary action. For instance, an officer resigned last year after video from a routine traffic stop in New Mexico showed him firing at a vehicle containing a mother and five children as she speeds away.

Civil lawsuits provide a remedy

Civil lawsuits are another way to hold an officer and department accountable. Individuals may file an abuse lawsuit against an officer or police department under the federal civil rights statute Title 42 U.S. Code Section 1983. State statutes may also provide relief.

Success rates in civil lawsuits vary dramatically from city to city. Some cities vigorously fight suits taking them to trial, while others settle quietly and require nondisclosure agreements. When settled secretly it may mean that the offending officer is not disciplined.

Sometimes a civil lawsuit leads to reform. For example in Tennessee v. Garner, the U.S. Supreme Court held that use of deadly force to catch a nonviolent fleeing suspect violated the Fourth Amendment. Following the case, police departments drafted more restrictive deadly force policies. Some other cases brought under Section 1983 have addressed police abuse in use of nonlethal force, strip searches and vehicle pursuits.

When an interaction with law enforcement turns violent, there may be monetary remedies available. Speak with an experienced attorney to discuss the details of bringing a lawsuit. Holding an officer or department accountable may mean others are not subjected to the same treatment in the future.

Keywords: Unnecessary force, head injury, broken bones, civil liability