In March of 1991 the nation was captivated by a video of police officers in Los Angeles, California as they were attempting to arrest Rodney King. Several officers were involved after King initially evaded police and led them on a chase that started on Interstate 210, covered more than 10 miles and exceeded speeds of 80 MPH through residential streets, ending when officers were able to block King and his two passengers at an intersection. A man (George Holliday) who lived nearby, filmed the encounter and offered it to police before providing it to a local television station when the police were not interested in seeing the video. This case was one of the earliest examples of modern surveillance, where incidents involving the police are recorded with video cameras and more recently, cell phones.
Police use of force is perhaps the most polarizing issue within the field of criminal justice today. Few actions are more difficult than having maybe five seconds to make a potentially life-threatening decision and then having that action scrutinized by others for weeks or months. Some departments employ a use of force continuum while others make use of other methods to assist officers in making decisions to elevate the amount of force necessary to make an arrest. Most police officers like to know they have backup available if needed. Does it always help? Does it make things worse at times? Does having additional officers present change the way one may interact with a subject? Consider the case of Eric Garner from 2014; often when multiple officers are attempting to subdue a suspect, one may not know when the suspect is resisting and when another officer is exerting force. Are the cell phone videos of bystanders sufficient to provide an accurate and adequate perspective? Typically, those videos do not begin until after the crisis has already started, potentially missing key events.
According to Black (1976), police are more likely to use force based on the attributes of the concerned parties. This sociological theory of law prescribes that police are least likely to take corrective action against lower status persons, particularly minorities and the poor, when the accusers are also of lower status. Similarly, they are more likely to take action against lower status persons whose accusers are of a higher status. Your text introduces the concept of deindividuation in chapter 10. Used primarily to explain group behavior, it may also have implications with police officers in certain crisis situations. In Festinger’s (1952) seminal work, he argued that deindividuation occurs when individuals immerse themselves in the group to the point of losing some sense of self, becoming anonymous and doing things they would not likely do if alone. Closely related to contagion, also discussed in your text, this may help to explain what happens in crisis events such as the one discussed above.
- Do you think deindividuation or contagion applied to the case of Rodney King and/or Diallo? Did responding officers act in accordance with accepted use of force standards?
- What is the responsibility of police leadership when their officers are accused of excessive use of force?
- Take a definitive position and defend it with evidence from the literature.