If you believe that you have been a victim of police brutality in Pennsylvania, it is important to know that the law is on your side. Even though it may not feel like it, you do have rights even when being arrested. However, it is not easy to prove police brutality and hold irresponsible and dangerous law enforcement accountable. You need an experienced and skilled Pennsylvania attorney on your side to help you through this difficult time.
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Lee Ciccarelli and his criminal team our experienced and devoted to fighting for our clients. Contact our federal criminal defense team today if you are seeking a federal criminal defense attorney in Pennsylvania. We serve clients in Pennsylvania including the greater Philadelphia metropolitan area, including West Chester, Lancaster, Norristown, Media, King of Prussia, Doylestown, Harrisburg, Reading and Lebanon. Contact us today by email or call us at (610) 692-8700.
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Police Brutality in Pennsylvania
In the state of Pennsylvania, law enforcement is highly decentralized—a patchwork of more than 1,100 agencies at the state, county, and local levels. In fact, the state of Pennsylvania has more local police departments than any other state in the nation. While Pennsylvania does have a state board that sets the standards as far as officer certification and training levels, beyond those two issues individual departments can determine how they will investigate and discipline officers accused of police brutality.
Since the state does not collect data on officer misconduct and use-of-force incidents, it is virtually impossible to know how widespread police brutality actually is in Pennsylvania. As far as national statistics, the FBI began collecting data related to use-of-force incidents in 2012 but individual police departments are under no obligation to disclose these incidents.
Further, the state of Pennsylvania is one of 23 states that allow disciplinary records of public employees to be shielded from the public. Viewing a police officer’s misconduct file would require a lengthy legal battle. Under state law in Pennsylvania, the standards that currently govern use-of-force by law enforcement contain less than 300 words, total, stating in part “an officer can use any force which he believes to be necessary” to defend himself and others from bodily harm while making an arrest, and is allowed to use deadly force when an individual facing arrest is trying to escape, is in possession of a deadly weapon, or could seriously injure or kill others.
Unfortunately, “use of force” is not clearly defined under Pennsylvania law, although federal law includes chokeholds, beatings, and the use of tear gas and firearms. Because the laws are so vague, individual law enforcement agencies in the state of Pennsylvania are essentially allowed to set their own standards regarding the use of force. While these policies are, ostensibly, public records, it can take considerable time and perseverance to obtain use-of-force policies via a public record request.
What is Considered Police Brutality?
Police brutality is generally considered the use of unnecessary or excessive force by law enforcement as they deal with civilians and suspects. Police brutality is also applied to any abuses perpetrated by corrections personnel, whether in municipal, state, federal, and military penal facilities. In the vast majority of situations, excessive force is not warranted, although there are certainly instances in which an officer may be required to exceed the minimum amount of force. If, however, an officer exceeds the force necessary to restrain an individual, it escalates into police brutality.
What are the Most Common Types of Police Brutality and Misconduct?
While most of us trust police officers to keep us safe, far too many officers take wrongful, even violent actions against citizens in Pennsylvania and across the nation. Such acts can cause serious physical, mental, and/or emotional injury to the victims. Officers are supposed to adhere to the “five levels of force,” which include officer presence, verbal commands, empty hand control, less-lethal methods, and lethal force. In some cases, a police officer may jump from level one to level five with virtually nothing in between. Some of the most common types of police brutality and misconduct include the following:
- Physical assault—Physical assault in the context of police brutality can include the misuse of chemical weapons, verbal threats of physical harm, excessive or unjustified use of a taser, excessive or unjustified use of a firearm, the use of a police dog or a police vehicle to intimidate and threaten, and unjustified physical attacks (including chokeholds and a knee on the neck of a suspect). The following are further examples of police brutality in the context of physical assault:
- Any action that causes unnecessary injury to an individual
- Failure to use verbal commands prior to escalating to physical force
- The use of deadly force when a non-lethal alternative would be as effective—and is readily available.
- The use of physical force after an individual is restrained
- The use of physical force when an individual is cooperating, unarmed, and is not acting in a violent manner
- The use of physical force when no crime has been committed
- Sexual harassment or assault—When any act of sexual harassment or assault is directed toward a civilian, a minor, or a subordinate officer, it can be classified as police brutality and/or misconduct.
- False Arrest—False arrest is another type of police brutality and misconduct, occurring when an officer detains, arrests, or searches a citizen simply because they choose to, rather than as a result of real probable cause.
- Unlawful discrimination—Police misconduct includes unlawful discrimination by law enforcement towards any citizen when that discrimination is based on race, religion, sex, or other protected factors. Racial profiling or targeting or harassing an individual based on protected factors violates the law.
In general, the use of deadly force on the part of law enforcement is only justified as a last resort under extreme conditions, and when all lesser means have failed, or cannot be reasonably implemented. In the state of Pennsylvania, deadly force is only allowed when the officer is under the belief that deadly force is necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury to the officer or to another individual, or when the suspect is armed and is attempting to escape.
Who Investigates Police Brutality in Pennsylvania?
Each of the hundreds of local, regional, and private law enforcement forces across the state decide how they will address complaints against officers, including police brutality complaints, although Governor Wolf announced he intends to appoint an independent watchdog and civilian commission to investigate the use of force by officers under his jurisdiction (State Police troopers and Attorney General agents).
Under Pennsylvania’s open records law, however, the complaints that lead to an investigation, along with the findings of the investigation are not required to be made public. You may wonder what happens if an investigation reveals clear evidence of misconduct or police brutality. Again, this is largely left up to the individual law enforcement agency. If police brutality or misconduct is determined to have occurred, the agency can terminate, demote, discipline, or ignore the behavior.
Even when an officer is terminated or undergoes other types of punishment for bad behavior, those punishments can be overturned in a union arbitration process. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, this was the case for more than 100 officers that were disciplined by the Philadelphia Police Department from 2011-2019. Just as alarming, a police officer that has been disciplined for bad behavior is free to go to work with a different law enforcement department.
History of Police Brutality
Although we may think of police brutality as a relatively new occurrence, this is far from true. In fact, a yellowed cardboard placard from the 1963 March on Washington is displayed in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The red and white letters on the sign say, “We Demand an End to Police Brutality Now!” Nearly 60 years later, the message on that sign remains unresolved. A greater emphasis on police brutality has surfaced over the past few years, due to a number of tragedies in which Black people were brutalized—and killed—by law enforcement.
The fatal 2014 shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown, the death of Eric Garner in New York City after a fatal chokehold was administered, the 2020 shooting death of Breonna Taylor, the death of George Floyd in 2020 as the result of an officer’s knee on his neck for more than eight minutes, and many, many more have brought the painful subject of police brutality to the forefront. Many believe these incidences of police brutality represent systemic problems in the manner in which law enforcement interacts with their communities.
Deeply entrenched racism, a lack of oversight for police officers, and the militarization of municipal police forces have all led to a seeming onslaught of police brutality cases. Unfortunately, there is no country-wide standard that governs when law enforcement is allowed to use force—and how they will answer for unwarranted brutality.
Transparency Necessary for All Police Departments—In Pennsylvania and Across the Nation
In the wake of the rash of police brutality occurrences over the past few years, it’s clear more transparency is necessary as a means of weeding out bad police officers. To that end, some police unions are backing a bill that would create a private database of police misconduct files. These files would be searchable by law enforcement agencies prior to hiring new officers.
Federal Law 42 USC Section 1983 provides those who have been the victim of police brutality the right to seek relief from the officer or officers involved, suing officers who have violated the constitutional rights of an individual. Known as a 1983 action, this is the primary way victims of police brutality can hold officers accountable for their wrongful actions. Under Section 1983, even officers who are not held criminally liable can still be held liable in a civil court by the injured victim or the family of a deceased victim. Those who have been victimized by a police officer should speak to a knowledgeable civil rights attorney as quickly as possible.
Get the Help You Need
You want a team of experienced, passionate federal crimes lawyer that are ready to fight for you. Contact the Ciccarelli legal team today at (610) 692-8700. We serve federal criminal clients throughout Pennsylvania and are convenient to our clients with office locations in Philadelphia, West Chester, Lancaster, Springfield, Malvern, Plymouth Meeting, Lancaster, and Radnor and also available for phone and video meetings. You can have our lawyers provide an honest and thorough evaluation of your case when you call (610) 692-8700 or complete an online contact form to schedule a free, confidential consultation.