Efforts To Reduce Police Misconduct Continue

A new regulation bars Cleveland police from shooting at or from moving vehicles. Enacted in late August, the new rule is the latest in a series aimed at reducing excessive use of force by officers. The Cleveland Police Department has come under fire for its practices, especially since a 2011 series of stories in the Cleveland Plain Dealer focused on local officers' use of deadly or excessive force.

The new regulation is similar to those in other cities in the United States. Its purpose is to protect officers and bystanders who might be hit by moving vehicles driven by people who have been shot. Under the new regulation, refusing to stop is no longer sufficient cause for an officer to fire on a moving vehicle.

However, the Cleveland Patrolmen's Association disagrees that such policies are needed or even desirable. The president of the association said, "A vehicle can be used as deadly force, and we should be able to use deadly force to stop a vehicle."

The Plain Dealer series included evaluations from outside experts who suggested that the Cleveland department's review of cases involving excessive use of force was simply a "rubber-stamp process." Despite some officers' disapproval of the new rules, Cleveland's record is improving. In 2006, there were 17 incidents involving deadly force. In contrast, 2012 saw only 12. Nonlethal force cases have also declined, from 476 in 2006 to 202 in 2012. This is positive from several perspectives - it reflects an improved civil rights climate in the city and reduces the city's exposure to claims and lawsuits.

Problems With Stun Guns

Unfortunately, cases involving the use of excessive or deadly force continue to plague cities across the United States. In particular, there appears to be a growing problem with stun guns, the most popular brand of which is the Taser.

In suburban Minneapolis, a non-English-speaking elderly patient in a rehab facility appeared to be trying to kill himself with a knife. Police subdued the man with a Taser. He subsequently died from pneumonia as a result of injuries caused by the incident. Another case in Florida involved an unarmed young man who was chased and fatally shocked by a Taser-wielding officer after allegedly spray-painting an abandoned building. The 18-year-old man's family is suing the city of Miami Beach for "excessive and unconstitutional use of force."

A 2011 request to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) noted that the sheriff in Franklin County, Ohio, engaged in a "pattern and practice of gratuitous, excessive and unconstitutional use of Tasers against arrestees, pretrial detainees and other prisoners, including pregnant women, incapacitated individuals and those with mental illness."

Cases like these appear to be part of a growing trend involving fatal and serious stun gun incidents. According to the blog Electronic Village, there have been 544 deaths related to the use of stun guns in the United States since 2001. Civil rights advocates across the country have asked the DOJ to intervene as they did in Franklin County, Portland, Oregon, and many other jurisdictions.

Law enforcement departments across the country began using stun guns as a less lethal deterrent in 1998. However, some experts say that officers mistakenly believe that such weapons are safe in all situations and, as a result, overuse them. The company that manufactures Tasers has re-classified the product as a weapon rather than a device, the term previously used to describe the controversial item. Steps such as these may help reduce the overreliance on stun guns and the apparent increase in the number of injuries and deaths arising from their use.

Misuse Of Police Weapons

Although police overreliance on stun guns is in the news, cases involving traditional weapons continue to occur. A Louisville man was shot in the leg by an officer who was out of uniform and driving an unmarked car when the man failed to get on the ground fast enough. According to the victim, the officer gave him no warning. A witness saw the incident and called 911, not realizing that the man with the gun was an officer. The officer has been placed on administrative leave pending the resolution of charges that include wanton endangerment, driving under the influence and official misconduct. He pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Do Cameras Protect Police And Citizens?

Some cities have sought to address issues of police misconduct by videotaping all incidents with tiny cameras attached to police uniforms and eyeglasses. The city of Rialto, California, has become famous for its "police the police" efforts using cameras. The program, introduced in February 2012, has resulted in an 88 percent reduction in complaints filed against police officers. Shooting incidents have declined by nearly 60 percent. Because of the positive results, all 66 officers on the Rialto force will wear cameras full time.

The Rialto police chief believes that cameras encourage officers and citizens to follow the rules and behave properly during encounters. He also thinks that having video may improve conviction rates. Cities such as Albuquerque, Fort Worth and Oakland have started to issue cameras to their officers. Like cameras in squad cars, personal video cameras may soon become standard equipment throughout the country.

Although privacy advocates fear that body cameras may represent one more example of the growing influence of Big Brother, the American Civil Liberties Union in Southern California has not received any complaints about camera use in Rialto or elsewhere. Despite the positive-seeming initial results, achieving the right balance between individual rights and public safety will undoubtedly require an ongoing effort as police departments across the country try to improve their records.

If you have questions about your rights after being injured by law enforcement, contact an experienced injury and civil rights lawyer.