Misconceptions and Violence Prevention: Use of Force in The U.S. Justice System

By Nellie Vinograd

We hear about the police constantly. We watch them in procedural crime shows and on grainy car-cam footage. We hear about them saving lives and ending them.

Recent events locally and in New Mexico have brought police brutality to the forefront of our minds. But the issue may not be as clear-cut or as rampant as we may think.

Use of force by the police is a complex issue. According to Kenneth Adams, author of “What We Know About Police Use of Force,” there are a few reasons to explain certain misconceptions about this issue.

“Different definitions of force and different definitions of police-public interactions will yield different rates,” Adams writes. “In particular, broad definitions of use of force, such as those that include grabbing or handcuffing a suspect, will produce higher rates than more conservative definitions.”

The numbers, then, may not tell us everything we need to know. Individual and detailed stories can be more telling, but can also lead to lack of understanding. Widely publicized events such as the beating of Rodney King and the killing of Oscar Grant III create lasting images in the public’s memory, despite the fact that events of this degree are few and far between.

According to Will Pizio, associate professor of justice & policy studies, news sources will often focus on less-positive images of police as it makes for more interesting news, though this does not provide a complete view of the issue.

“Out of 100 cases where force is used by police, about 2 to 5 percent of those cases include excessive force,” Pizio said. “There’s actually been a slow decrease of instances of excessive force because of things like tasers and pepper spray, which reduce the need for physical altercations.”

It is hard to ignore the few instances of police brutality that do arise, though.

A recent popular YouTube video shows North Carolina rapper Xstravagant being questioned, harassed and eventually arrested by a police officer in Fayetteville, N.C. The police officer seems to think Xstravagant is drinking alcohol in public, though he shows the officer he is drinking a can of iced tea. The video currently has over a million views.

In Albuquerque, N.M., citizen protests have erupted over the Albuquerque Police Department’s recent brutalities, notably the shooting and killing of a homeless man, also caught on video. The protests have prompted responses from the Albuquerque government and mayor Richard J. Berry.

Though awful and unfortunate, police brutality is not a hopeless issue. From the national level to the local, government and justice departments can continue making improvements to the system that will help minimize these incidents.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s website, there are a few laws in place that are meant to prevent abuse of police power, such as The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.

Other than codified law, individual police departments can make other changes to prevent use of force. The police department of Rialto, Calif., recently carried out an experiment in using body cameras on police officers. According to a report by the New York Times, during the first 12 months of the experiment, conducted from 2012 to 2013, there was an 88 percent decrease in the number of complaints filed against officers.

These body cameras allow for a better view of events than the car cameras, and they protect both the police and citizens. Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the ACLU, told the New York Times that both officer and citizen will benefit from the cameras: police officers can avoid unfair accusations of abuse, and citizens have evidence if such abuse occurs.

Another way to prevent instances of police abuse is through the screening and training process for new officers. The selection process includes sturdier background checks and improved training, according to Pizio.

“Just like in any job, there are bad apples,” Pizio said. “There are a few officers who shouldn’t be on the job because of their aggression, but the selection process is made to root that out.”

An important part of this selection and training is the development of interpersonal skills, which Pizio said are an imperative skill for all officers.

“I talked myself out of 10 fights for every one I was in,” he said.

Of course, the issue of police force is not resolved and unfortunately will continue to have an effect into the future. However, we may see a more positive picture than we might have initially imagined.

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