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March 3, 2015

Pennsylvania Police Brutality Cases

Police Brutality Cases

Recent events around the country have drawn significant and much-needed attention to the way that police officers interact with the communities which they serve. The fatal fall 2014 shooting of unarmed teenager Mike Brown[1] in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri sparked riots and protests around the country. Officer Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who shot Brown, was cleared of any wrongdoing by a grand jury later that year. Soon afterwards, police officers in New York City who administered a fatal choke hold to Eric Garner[2] after he was caught illegally selling cigarettes were similarly exonerated.

Many observers and policy makers point to systemic problems in the way that law enforcement agencies and officers interact with their communities as the reason that these incidents continue to occur. Specific problems that are often noted are the militarization of municipal police forces, entrenched racism, the lack of civilian oversight of local police, as well as problems with the way that law enforcement are trained as the root cause of police brutality.  Whatever the cause, victims need to be aware that they often have legal recourse, even if the criminal justice system fails to punish rogue police officers who believe that they are above the law.

Pittsburgh man alleges police brutality and subsequent cover-up

Eyewitness reports indicate that a recent incident in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania may be yet another example of police brutality and the police “code of silence” operating to keep the information from the public. According to an article[3] published by the Post-Gazette, 23-year-old Devon Davis had active warrants when he was spotted and reported to police on Wednesday, February 25th. Davis sped away from officers in his vehicle, was involved in an accident, and then continued to flee on foot. According to authorities, Davis was then taken down by police, at which point he continued to resist arrest. Police documents indicate that officers hit Davis in the head, side, stomach, and legs in order to subdue him. In addition, police indicated that Davis has injured in the crash and was “hobbling.” After the incident, Davis was transported to the hospital for treatment of his injuries, among which is a broken leg, according to reports.handcuffs

Witnesses to the incident tell a much different story about what occurred, however. Those who saw Davis running say that he did not appear to be injured prior to being apprehended by the police. Additionally, witnesses claim that Davis was not resisting when he was being beaten by officers. At least one witness, Samm Hodges, felt so strongly about what he saw that he chose to email[4] the Pittsburgh police chief regarding what he saw and ask him to take action. In response, Police Chief Cameron McLay requested that his staff open an investigation with the Office of Municipal Investigations, according to a report[5] published at Triblive.com. The Post-Gazette indicates[6] that Pittsburgh officials are looking to hire an outside party to conduct an investigation of what occurred.

Common forms of police brutality and misconduct

Though we should be able to trust law enforcement officers to keep us safe and have our best interests in mind, too many officers take wrongful and often violent actions against citizens in Philadelphia and across the United States. These wrongful acts can take many forms, all of which can cause serious physical, mental, and/or emotional injury to victims. Some examples of common forms of police brutality and misconduct include the following:

Assault and/or abuse – This can include unjustified physical attacks, excessive or unjustified use of a taser or firearm, using police dogs or vehicles to intimidate and threaten citizens, misusing chemical weapons, verbal threats of physical harm, and more.

Sexual harassment or assault – Acts of sexual misconduct and assault by officers have been directed toward civilians, subordinate officers, and even minors who were lured to trust the police officer.

False arrest – Under the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States[7], police may not simply detain, arrest, or search you whenever they wish. If you are detained or arrested for no valid reason, false arrest likely occurred.

Unlawful discrimination – The law[8] protects everyone from unlawful discrimination by police based on race, religion, sex, or other protected factors. When a police officer engages in racial profiling or target or harasses a particular individual based on protected factors, the officer is violating the law. 

Section 1983 Authorizes Private Lawsuits Against Police

Fortunately, federal law 42 USC Section 1983[9] provides individuals who have been the victim of any type of police brutality or misconduct the legal right to seek relief from the responsible officer or officers involved. Under this law, you can sue government actors if they violate your constitutional rights. These rights include the right to be free from excessive use of force, the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, and others that may be violated in a police brutality scenario. A “1983 action” is the main way for victims of police misconduct to not only hold law enforcement officers accountable for their wrongful actions. Even if an officer is not criminally indicted for the assault or abuse against a civilian—like the officers involved in the Michael Brown or Eric Garner cases—they may still be held liable in civil court if the injured victim or family of a deceased victim brings a legal claim under Section 1983.

Citizens have the ability to affect change

If the eyewitness reports regarding Devon Davis’s arrest are accurate, his arrest is another tragic example of the misuse of force by an urban police department in the United States. Without fundamental and systemic changes to the way police forces operate in the United States, these types of incidents will, unfortunately, continue to occur, often leaving victims with serious physical injuries and emotional trauma. Fortunately, public pressure through the legal and political systems can cause police departments and policymakers to implement changes that will hold officers accountable for misconduct and promote a culture of professional and community-based policing. 

[1] http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/michael-brown-shooting

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/04/nyregion/grand-jury-said-to-bring-no-charges-in-staten-island-chokehold-death-of-eric-garner.html?_r=0

[3] http://www.post-gazette.com/local/city/2015/02/27/Pittsburgh-officials-seek-outside-review-of-Downtown-chase-arrest/stories/201502270316

[4] http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/02/27/1367284/-Pittsburgh-man-writes-police-chief-after-witnessing-police-brutality-sees-immediate-coverup

[5] http://triblive.com/news/allegheny/7860019-74/mclay-police-chief#axzz3T56nT3st

[6] http://www.post-gazette.com/local/city/2015/02/27/Pittsburgh-officials-seek-outside-review-of-Downtown-chase-arrest/stories/201502270316

7 https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/fourth_amendment

[8] http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/law___legal_resources/18980/pennsylvania_human_relations_act/725567

[9] https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/1983

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