Rarely does a day go by during which I don’t have one of my clients or potential clients complain of police brutality or excessive force by the police. In fact, the opposite is almost true. That is it is rare these days when clients tell me that the police effected their arrests in a professional and respectful manner and without resorting to the use of unnecessary excessive force.
So it came as no surprise to me to read in today’s edition of USA Today a survey of 315 emergency room physicians found that an astounding 98% percent of them believed that some of their patients had been the victims of excessive force at the hands of the police. Think about that – 98%? You can’t get 98% of people in a survey to agree that the Earth is round and here we have almost unanimity amongst a large group of emergency physicians across the country that the police use and more often than not, get away with using, excessive force.
Of course the police deny that excessive force is widespread and actually challenge whether the doctors could know if excessive force was used without having witnessed the encounters. I don’t know, but I’m going to guess that emergency room doctors have seen enough injuries working day in and day out in the emergency room to be able to tell the difference.
Unfortunately, unlike in cases involving domestic violence and child abuse there are no reporting requirements for hospitals or physicians regarding cases of excessive force. So what is a victim of excessive force to do? The only real option is hire a private attorney and file suit. Unfortunately, these cases are expensive and difficult to prosecute. Police officers are afforded qualified immunity for official acts and in most jurisdictions there are caps on non-economic damages. The terrible truth is that serious physical injury is almost a prerequisite for filing a case for excessive force.
Case in point: We recently accepted a case that occurred in Baltimore County last summer. The Reader’s Digest version is that my client called the police because he was in a verbal altercation with his wife and a friend of her husband had intervened. His wife had gone into the friends house and my client did not want any trouble with her husband. He waited outside for the police to arrive and then proceeded to knock on the door to get his wife to go home with him so they could amicably resolve their dispute. It is important to note that there is no allegation that this dispute between my client and his wife ever became physical. His wife came out on the patio and they began speaking. At some point he took his wife by the arm and said “let’s go”. He did not grab or yank her and she expressed no discomfort or unwillingness to go with him.
In spite of those facts, the police then approached my client and told him he was under arrest but wouldn’t tell him why. He did not argue or resist in any way. Instead he complied and simply asked to hand his wallet and keys to his wife. As he reached over to hand her the items, the police attacked him. I have two completely independent witnesses who both say that the events of the next few minutes transpired as follows.
My client was thrown to the ground by several officers. He was not resisting and if fact was screaming out “I’m not resisting” over and over. Several officers were holding him down while a rather large officer jumped on his back and began driving his knee into the back of my client’s head, crushing his face into the earth so he could not breath. Each of these officers was kicking and punching my client repeatedly. Next, two officers stood on either side of my client and began kicking him “as hard as they could” in either side of his ribs until he passed out. They then threw him in the back of the paddy wagon and took him to the police station.
The police eventually had no choice but to take him to the hospital after he complained of not being able to breath and began to spit blood. He was admitted to the hospital where he spent five days in the ICU with multiple broken ribs and two collapsed lungs along with a concussion and bruises and abrasions over most of the rest of his body. When he was released from the hospital the police booked him on four counts of assault. One against his wife for “grabbing” her arm and 3 against the police officers. He was also charged with failure to obey a lawful order and resisting arrest.
The bottom line is that the police have become increasingly aggressive of late. Even in seemingly minor circumstances, one can almost expect to get some degree on “the business” if unlucky enough to be arrested by our valiant men and women in blue.