Civil Liability

The issue of the use of force and civil liability amongst police officers has been the subject of debate for many ears. The Rodney King trial and subsequent riots brought a great deal of attention to the excessive use of force and the justice system. In the years since the Rodney King case, there have been many incidents of excessive force.

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The use of force and civil liability is problematic for citizens, victims of brutality, the police and other public officials. It is important to understand that the problem does not arise as a derivative of “the use of force” but rather it is the “excessive use of force” that is problematic for the aforementioned stakeholders. One of the problems that arise when police officers use excessive force is the distrust that occurs between citizens and officers. Citizens begin to fear the very people that are supposed to protect them. In addition, police officers and their departments face the humiliation of officer misconduct. Civil liability suits can also be extremely costly for everyone involved.

The purpose of the study

The purpose of studying this issue is to examine civil liability in terms of use of force as it relates to police officers. The study will seek to determine the steps that can be taken to reduce the excessive use of force and regain the trust of citizens. The discussion will include a comprehensive literature review that will define the issue and its consequences.

Literature review

There are two main concepts that are essential to understanding the basis of this study, “excessive use of force” and “civil liability. The excessive use of force is usually defined as any force that can result in serious bodily harm or death (Alpert and Smith 1994). In addition, excessive use of force can be described as any action that is unnecessary when subduing or arresting a subject.

Alpert and Smith (1994) explain that a clear definition of excessive force is not present in many jurisdictions around the country. The authors assert that the lack of a clear definition is detriment to the public and the police. The lack of a clear definition also led to the creation of an “objective reasonableness” standard which occurred as a result of Graham v. Connor 1989 (Alpert and Smith 1994). Alpert and Smith (1994) contend that this standard for many different reasons. The authors explain that One of the obvious problems created by a reasonableness standard is determining the appropriate level of reasonableness. Research results have indicated that police officers, especially street officers, are able to assess what is good police work and when force is excessive.(14) This may explain why most accusations of excessive force are denied at the department level. Of course, it may also be that police officers band together, close ranks, and protect their fellow officers against accusations of excessive force…. Reasonableness may have several levels and several audiences. It is, however, the assessment of force by the civilian “reasonable person” that matters. And force may involve hands, batons, or other weapons if used appropriately and according to policy and training (Alpert and Smith 1994).”

Civil liability is defined as “potential responsibility for payment of damages or other court-enforcement in a lawsuit, as distinguished from criminal liability, which means open to punishment for a crime (“civil liability,” n.d.).” According to an article published in Monthly Labor Review explains the problems that arise when police officers use excessive force and civil liability claims are filed (Bohling 1997).

The article describes The United States Supreme Court’s reaction to the issue of civil liability and the police in the decision of Board of County Commissioners v. Brown (1997). In this case, the Supreme Court addressed the liability the public employers have for the actions of employees (Bohling 1997). In this particular case,

In a five-to-four decision, the Court ruled that the municipality is not liable for the actions of a police officer using undue force. The claimant in this case argued that the county was liable because the offending officer had a criminal record which was overlooked in the municipality’s employment screening process (Bohling 1997).”

The issue of police liability and excessive force was never more evident than in the case of Rodney King and the Los Angeles Police Department. In the years that have followed there have been other cases of civil suits filed against police officers. According to Anderson (1999), a series of lawsuits were filed against the LAPD for the excessive use of force with dogs. The lawsuits alleged that several subjects were bitten by dogs after being chased by police. The suits contend that the subjects were injured and that the use of dogs was unnecessary and a use of gratuitous force. Anderson (1999) asserts that the attorneys in these cases were able to present,

Chilling videotape of an actual dog attack and pointing out the disproportionate number of serious injuries that resulted from arrests accomplished with the help of dogs. The city eventually paid $3.5 million to settle these lawsuits. More important, Los Angeles Police Chief Willie Williams ordered a change in police policy. Instead of following a “find and bite” procedure, dogs and their handlers were retrained for “find and bark.” The results were immediate and impressive: dog bites declined from 360 per year, including more than 100 requiring hospital treatment, to 30 per year with no hospitalizations (Anderson 1999).”

In other cases, civil liabilities related to excessive force of a police officer have also gone in favor of the victim. An article entitled “Civil Liability for Government Wrongdoing” explains that police officers are often the target of civil liability claims (“Civil Liability for Government Wrongdoing,” 2004). The article explains that there are more than 30,000 civil claims are filed against police officers every year (“Civil Liability for Government Wrongdoing,” 2004). The author explains that approximately 4-8% of these claims end in judgments for the victim. These lawsuits carry an average settlement of $2 million (“Civil Liability for Government Wrongdoing,” 2004). In addition, nearly half of police liability cases are settled out of court and civil liability claims against police officers can take up to five years to settle (“Civil Liability for Government Wrongdoing,” 2004).

The article also explains that there are two ways to file a civil suit against the police (“Civil Liability for Government Wrongdoing,” 2004). The accuser may file a tort law claim, which is the most popular method because officers can be found guilty based on a preponderous of the evidence and offers a monetary reward (“Civil Liability for Government Wrongdoing,” 2004). The second way to sue the police is through a civil rights claim. This accuses the police of violating an individual’s constitutional rights. The article also explains that States cannot be sued in a civil rights claim, but municipalities and sheriffs can be sued if they are (a) acting under color of state law, and (b) violating a specific Amendment right in the Constitution. The standards under federal law are custom or policy, and deliberate indifference, a rather poorly defined concept which is similar to totality of circumstances (“Civil Liability for Government Wrongdoing,” 2004).”

According to an article found in the Journal of Criminal law and Criminology, explains that disciplining police officers that have been found guilty of wrongdoing is essential (Iris 1998). The article explains that such discipline is difficult to enforce because of the nature of the police culture (Iris 1998). The author insists that any strategies that are put in place to offer discipline to overly aggressive officers must have the ability to withstand challenges (Iris 1998).

The article also asserts that criminal cases involving officers are usually extremely limited because in most jurisdictions officers and district attorneys have extremely close relationships (Iris 1998). For this reason, criminal cases only tend to be filed if the use of force is extremely obvious. The article also explains that civil cases often provide law enforcement agencies with the impetus they need to improve the tactics of officers (Iris 1998). The article explains,

Civil lawsuits against the police for misconduct, filed by persons alleging civil rights violations, are more significant to police management than to individual officers. Typically, a jurisdiction is obligated to provide legal representation to an accused officer in a suit arising from the actions the officer took under color of law, whether on or off duty. The employing jurisdiction is usually obligated to indemnify the officer for any damages awarded in court.(14) An officer may be personally liable only if punitive damages are imposed, which is an infrequent occurrence (Iris 1998).”

If jurisdictions want to reduce the likelihood of having to deal with a civil liability case because of excessive force, one report suggests that they hire more female officers. According to a report published by The National center for women and policing female officers are less likely to use excessive force than male officers. Harrington et al. (2002) asserts, “that only 5% of the citizen complaints for excessive force and 2% of the sustained allegations of excessive force in large agencies involve female officers. Women also account for only 6% of the dollars that are paid out in court judgments and settlements for excessive force among large agencies (Harrington et al. 2002).”

Harrington et al. (2002) also reports that male officers cost taxpayer 2.5 to five times more than female officers. In addition, female officers were less likely to be accused of sustained excessive force, than male officers were (Harrington et al. 2002). The report also asserts that female officers also have fewer complaints about female officers using excessive force. Harrington et al. (2002) conclude that Whether citizen complaints, sustained allegations, or civil liability payouts are examined, the pattern is the same — the average woman on patrol is significantly less likely to use excessive force than the average man…she exposes the citizens to less abuse and the department to less civil liability….Results from all three sources uniformly support the conclusion that female officers are significantly less likely to use excessive force in comparison with their male colleagues (Harrington et al. 2002).”


The method of research for this project will involve extensive research of both primary and secondary sources. The preliminary research was found in books, journal articles and reports from reputable organizations. The primary research also contains articles from text that is available on the internet. Secondary research will involve gathering information about civil liability from various jurisdictions and suggesting ways to reduce the occurrences of civil liability suits amongst police officers. This research will also allow the researcher to draw valuable conclusions about the causes if excessive force amongst police officers.


Our discussion focused on the excessive use of force and civil liability. Initially, we asserted that the “use of force” and consequential civil liability claims that may follow are problematic for citizens, victims of brutality, the police and other public officials. We also sought to define b the excessive use of force and civil liability. Our research defined excessive use of force as any force that can result in serious bodily harm or death. Civil liability was defined as “potential responsibility for payment of damages or other court-enforcement in a lawsuit”(“civil liability,” n.d.).”

The literature indicated that civil liability suits are often dependent on the objective reasonableness standard. We also found that more than 30,000 civil liability suits against police officers are filed each year. In addition, our investigation found that many of these suits are settled out of court.

The literature also suggests that the culture of most police departments make it difficult to discipline aggressive officers.

Our research also indicates that women are less likely to be involved in cases of excessive force. We also found that female officers cost taxpayers less than their male counterparts did. We concluded that hiring a larger number of female officers might reduce excessive force and civil litigation.


Alpert, G.P., & Dunham, R.G. (1990). Controlling Responses to Emergency Situations. New York: Greenwood Press.


Alpert, G.P., & Smith, W.C. (1994). How Reasonable Is the Reasonable Man?: Police and Excessive Force. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 85(2), 481-501.


Anderson, D.C. (1999, January). Policing the Police. The American Prospect, 49.


Bohling, B.E. (1997). Public Employer Liability. Monthly Labor Review, 120(10), 33+.

Civil Liability for Government Wrongdoing,” 2004 Retrieved September 20, 2004, at

Civil Liability.” Retrieved September 20, 2004, at

Collier, A. (1992, December). High Noon in L.A.: Willie Williams, the City’s First Black Police Chief, Confronts Massive Challengers. Ebony, 48, 71+.


Coulton, G.F., & Feild, H.S. (1995). Using Assessment Centers in Selecting Entry-Level Police Officers: Extravagance or Justified Expense?. Public Personnel Management, 24(2), 223+.

Dripps, D. (2001). The Case for the Contingent Exclusionary Rule. American Criminal Law Review, 38(1), 1. Retrieved September 20, 2004, from Questia database,

HARRINGTON. P., LONSWAY, K,. WOOD M., FICKLING M,. DE LEON A., MOORE M., SMEAL E., SPILLAR K., (2002) MEN, WOMEN, AND POLICE EXCESSIVE FORCE: A Tale of Two Genders A Content Analysis of Civil Liability Cases, SUSTAINED ALLEGATIONS & CITIZEN COMPLAINTS. The National Center for Women & Policing. Retrieved September 20, 2004, at

Huber, P.W. (1988). Liability: The Legal Revolution and Its Consequences. New York: Basic Books.


Iris, M. (1998). Police Discipline in Chicago: Arbitration or Arbitrary?. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 89(1), 215.


Irwin, L. (1991, September/October). Cops and Cameras: Why TV Is Slow to Cover Police Brutality. Columbia Journalism Review, 30, 15+.

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Parry, J.T. (2002). Judicial Restraints on Illegal State Violence: Israel and the United States. Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, 35(1), 73+.


Police Brutality Must End. (2000, April). The Progressive, 64, 8.


Reed, F. (1997, August 18). Cop Brutality Thrives in Bad Departments. The Washington Times, p. 2.


Ross, J.I., & Hale, D.C. (2000). Making News of Police Violence: A Comparative Study of Toronto and New York City. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.


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Sipe, J.R. (1997, June 16). Crime Rate and Killings Drop, but Critics Say Brutality Is Up. Insight on the News, 13, 42.


Skolnick, J.H. (2000, March 27). Code Blue. The American Prospect, 11, 49.


Smith, B.W. (2003). The Impact of Police Officer Diversity on Police-Caused Homicides. Policy Studies Journal, 31(2), 147+.


Vila, B. & Morris, C. (Eds.). (1999). The Role of Police in American Society A Documentary History. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

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