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How is a police use of force incident investigated?

Look, police often have to use force during the course of their duties.

But, sometimes officers apply force incorrectly.

Worse still, the use of force can even lead to the death of an individual.

However, there are times when police apply too much force, or outright abuse their power.

But, how are these police use of force incidents investigated? And how are incidents where police abuse their power corrected?

While police-related deaths may be statistically rare, about 1 death per 67,000 police interactions according to the Police Foundation.

And, more often than not, these deaths are a result of self-defense, or the defense of others.

The fact of the matter is, sometimes police abuse their power. And sometimes this abuse leads to the unjustified death of a person.

And when that happens, the incident may be investigated.

Here is how the use of force incidents get investigated.

How Use of Force Incidents Are Investigated

Incidents of law enforcement using force are investigated differently depending on how severe the encounter was.

Although there are some similarities. Incidents that result in serious injury and death are held to a higher level of scrutiny than those that do not.

For example, an incident where someone’s cuffs may have been too tight and caused abrasion to a suspect will be handled differently than one where an individual was paralyzed or died.

When Force DOES NOT Result in Serious Injury or Death

When police use force and the incident does not result in serious injury or death. It’s not surprising that the incident won’t be handled with the same level of scrutiny.

All use of force incidents are supposed to be documented and reported to the police department. The officer’s actions in the documented report are subject to internal review.

It is unlikely that a police department will question an officers use of force, if they don’t receive a complaint. If you feel like an officer used too much force against you, you may want to make a complaint with the department.

Complaints may trigger an internal review of the incident. When a department reviews an incident, it will rule the use of force as reasonable, or unreasonable.

If an Internal Investigation Determines Force was “Reasonable”

No further action will likely be taken.

If an Internal Investigation Determines Force was “Unreasonable”

Then one of 4 actions will be taken by the department:

The internal review will determine whether or not it was the officer who was at fault, or the departments policies or lack of training.

An officer who knowingly, or neglectfully used too much force will be subject to possible disciplinary action or even criminal charges.

For example, an officer fails to obey the department’s policy to adequately secure a subject in the car. And as a result, the individual was injured. This may result in disciplinary action.

On the other hand, if the officer was obeying department policy, or was not adequately trained, the department will determine if a policy change or more training is needed.

For example, if a department allows the use of a chokehold and it injuries a suspect. They may address the policy and make changes.

When Force DOES Result in Serious Injury or Death

When the use of force does result in serious injury (or even worse, death) the incident will likely be investigated more thoroughly and by more agencies.

First of all, the incident can still be reviewed by internal affairs at the police department. Additionally, the officer or even his department may be subject to civil actions against them.

But when an incident is serious enough or gets enough media attention state and federal agencies may also get involved.

State and Federal Use of Force Oversight

When an incident is serious enough, state and federal agencies may investigate. In fact, some police agencies may already submit their use of force information to the FBI’s use of force database.

Some agencies may be subject to review by the state’s own investigation bureau, as was the case in the police-involved shooting of Andrew Brown in North Carolina.

These various government agencies will determine whether the force used was justified, or if the force was excessive.

If the use of force is found to be justified. No further action will be taken.

On the other hand if the force is found to be excessive, an officer or the officers involved may be subject to state or federal prosecution.

When The System Fails To Govern Itself: Civil Lawsuits

If you or another individual feel that an officer used too much force, and did not receive justice from the justice system itself you may find justice through a civil action in court.

Individuals who feel that a police officer or department used excessive force against them, may only have their issue resolved through a civil action in a court of law. Injured parties may find the justice they are looking for by personally suing a department or officer, rather than relying on the system to govern itself.

Additionally, there are many civil rights groups that may be willing to help someone injured by excessive force if they do not have the resources themselves.

The Bottom Line on Use of Force Investigations

At the end of the day, police will need to use some force to get their job done correctly. Refining department policies and improving officer training may be the best way to ensure that well-meaning officers do their job without using excessive force.

However, crime doesn’t simply exist outside the bubble of policing. There will always be officers who either don’t know how to control their anger, or are simply out to hurt people.

As a result, better oversight, and community awareness will be needed to ensure that those few officers do not abuse their power.

Illustrations were created by the Police Foundation.

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