Police Use of Excessive Force: What to Do if It Happens to You

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 15, 2021

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It can be frightening to be in a situation where the police become involved and you face arrest, especially if the incident escalates and the police officers use excessive force, causing severe injury or even death. Although police officers are usually protected from suits, you may be able to sue if the police used excessive force in dealing with you or a loved one.

What Is Excessive Use

Generally, police officers are given broad powers to do their job. In fact, the law provides police officers with “qualified immunity,” or protection from being sued in certain circumstances, so that the fear of being sued does not affect their job performance. When carrying out their duties, police officers are allowed to use reasonable force against citizens, which is the degree of force necessary to subdue an individual under the circumstances, but the law protects people from officers who cross the line and become excessively forceful. While there is no strict legal definition of excessive force, it is viewed as the use of an unreasonable amount of force, given the situation, that often results in serious injury or death. Whether a police officer intended to employ excessive force is irrelevant; what matters is whether the force used in a particular situation was excessive, and it is considered by courts on a case-by-case basis.

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Excessive Force Cases

If you have been victimized by a police officer’s use of excessive force, you may have recourse through both federal and state laws. Typically, excessive force claims are brought under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 – this is a federal law known simply as Section 1983. The statute makes it illegal for anyone acting under the authority of the law, such as a police officer, to deprive another person of his or her civil rights under the U.S. Constitution.

In an excessive force case, the court is usually most interested in the circumstances surrounding the incident, as this will be the basis for its determination of whether the amount of force applied by police was excessive. The court looks at the details about the severity of the crime for which the police were called and whether you posed a threat to the officers or other people, and it considers all the information from the perspective of a reasonable police officer in that specific situation. Another important aspect of an excessive force case is the use of police experts. Both parties generally call on police experts to provide an opinion about the amount of force used by police. However, the experts hired by the police try to paint a picture of the officers following protocol or just “doing what they have to do.” This can be a frustrating stance for the victim to overcome.

If you prevail in your suit for excessive force, you may be entitled to damages, or monetary compensation. The court may award you civil rights damages, which compensates you for the violation of your civil rights by the police. You may also be awarded actual damages, which will provide payment for emotional and physical injuries and other related costs. In the case of malicious actions by the police, punitive damages, which are meant to punish the police officers involved  may be awarded.

Your Excessive Use of Force Claim – Where to Begin

The first step in suing for excessive force is to begin carefully preserving and documenting evidence as soon after the incident as possible. Since there is no concrete definition of excessive force, it is up to you to convince the court that excessive force was used in your particular case by producing evidence. Evidence that can be helpful includes:

  • Your story.  Some people have trouble remembering what occurred during a traumatic event, and it is important to be able to tell your story clearly and precisely when you testify in court.  If you can, write a detailed account of what happened as soon after the incident as possible.
  • Photographs.  If you have physical injuries caused by the police, take pictures to document them.
  • Clothing and objects.  If you have clothing that was torn or other personal objects that were damaged by police during the incident, set these items aside and keep them in a safe place.
  • Witnesses.  If there were other people present during the incident who witnessed the police’s behavior, try to obtain their names and phone numbers so that they can corroborate your story and confirm the use of excessive force.  Attempt to get signed statements from them in case they forget certain details by the time you go to court (your lawyer can and should assist you with this).

Next, promptly seek the advice of a civil rights attorney, preferably one who has experience with police misconduct cases. It is important to do this as soon as possible because many laws have a statute of limitations, which restricts the time that may elapse between when an incident occurs and the filing of a suit – if you miss the deadline, you will be barred from suing. A lawyer will know these time frames. Excessive force cases can be very complex, making it important to have an attorney working for you. If cost is a concern, you may be able to find a lawyer that will take your case on a contingency basis, meaning that the lawyer will get paid only if you win. This is a common payment arrangement for these types of cases.

Lastly, file a complaint with the police department at fault as well as a police misconduct report with the United States Department of Justice and the United States Attorney General’s office. These reports can help or hurt your case depending on your particular circumstances, so it is very important to work with your attorney on filing complaints.

While police officers have a difficult job and receive certain protections to enable them to perform their duties effectively, there are many laws in place to protect citizens from officers who abuse this power. If you have been the victim of police use of excessive force, do not hesitate to contact a qualified attorney to discuss your case.


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