There are some police officers who engage in misconduct and commit acts of brutality. Properly handling such a situation of abuse on the part of the police is vital to protecting oneself, obtaining the justice that is deserved, and putting a stop to such wrongdoing, so as to protect oneself and the community as a whole.
By way of background information, I am an attorney who handles a variety of cases including criminal defense and police abuse in Iowa and Illinois. I have seen cases where the police have made justified arrests, as well as ones where the police were completely out of line in their treatment of a client. Such cases range from ones where the police have used improper force in an arrest that itself was not unwarranted, to situations where the police arrested a client for no valid reason whatsoever. I have had clients who were injured by the police, ranging from being roughed up during an arrest to being shot. In my personal life, I have had multiple police officers pull me over for what I knew to be nothing other than racial profiling. Indeed, my first memory of the police is an officer falsely and without any basis in fact whatsoever accusing my parents of shoplifting. While the situation was quickly resolved, that memory has stayed with me. It is my hope that by addressing police misconduct now, it will be less of a problem for future generations (including my own children).
It is a fact of life that some police officers are racist, and will act on that racism when they have a chance to do so. Other police officers act improperly not out of racism, but simply because they wish to (improperly) assert their authority or engage in violence. One need only read or watch the news to see instances of police officers being convicted of crimes committed in connection with their official duties – often against the most vulnerable victims. What makes police misconduct so much worse than the misconduct committed by people in any other job is that corrupt police have taken an oath to uphold the law and protect society, and then use those powers to cause harm and cover it up. Such abuse from within the law enforcement agencies that are supposed to detect and root out crime is a cancer upon society like no other, as it is more difficult to detect and stop and undermines the public’s confidence in law enforcement.
Misconduct on the part of police officers takes many forms. Some of the more common acts of abuse committed by the police include the following:
- Wrongful arrest
- Sexual assault of a person in custody
- Excessive force
- Planting of evidence
- Fabricating evidence to justify a search
- Lying about statements made or not made by a person
- Stealing of money from a person who is searched or arrested
Dealing with police misconduct is never easy, but it can be done. A person who is the victim of police abuses must handle the situation properly in order to maximize their chances of being able to demonstrate the improper action by the police in court.
Starting with the incident of police abuse itself, a person who is being mistreated should conduct themselves in the most reasonable manner possible. This is difficult, but has a purpose. Imagine a situation where a police officer is mistreating a person, and that person is cussing and swearing at the police officer. Eventually, a jury may hear the audio from that incident and hold the person’s foul language against them. Obviously it is not fair for a jury to do so, as a person has the right to free speech and such exercise of the right to free speech is not a justification for a police officer to break the law and brutalize the person. But, juries may be less favorable to a person who they see as being “disrespectful” and it is far more satisfying to take a cop to court and win than to cuss them out and end up losing. Moreover, a person who is cussing in an angry fashion is also likely to say something that can be twisted later to help the police try and justify their actions.
A person who is being mistreated by the police should also refrain from talking to the police or answering questions about the situation that the police claim justify their presence. A person’s words can be used against them by the police to try and justify the improper actions that the police have already taken or are about to take. Looking across thousands of clients cases where they spoke with the police on their own, I cannot think of one where the client did themselves a favor by speaking. I can, however, think of a great many where the client caused tremendous harm to their case.
The need to handle things correctly extends to the time after an instance of police misconduct. Indeed, it is difficult to overstate how important it is to handle the hours and days after an incident of abuse by the police, as the actions taken (and not taken) by a person can cause tremendous damage to their case. Even something as simple as talking about what happened, going to the police department to file a complaint, or posting about the abuse on the internet can essentially ruin a case. That is because a person who is not an attorney will likely not perfectly pick their words when discussing or writing about the police officer’s improper actions. That will give the police officer and their attorney the opening they need to try and wiggle out of liability for the misconduct.
The best thing for a person to do after they have been a victim of police misconduct is to promptly seek an attorney. By doing so, a police misconduct victim puts themselves in the best position possible to right that wrong through the legal system, and have justice visited upon the police officer in court. Their attorney can take the necessary steps to demand that the police department preserve evidence (police departments have been known to destroy evidence of misconduct), to obtain that evidence, and to ensure that any complaints or statements about the abuse are worded in the just the right way to ensure the police cannot twist the statements and dodge liability for their actions.
Clients who have been mistreated by the police in Illinois or Iowa often ask what they can do to be as prepared as possible for the future, should they ever have such a problem with the police again. I generally advise such clients that there are things they can do, and that they will have to consider the cost/benefit ratio when deciding what, if any, such steps to take. Some ways that people can make themselves better able to avoid and address police misconduct are:
- Avoid taking action that gives the police an excuse to intrude into your life. Signaling every turn when driving, not texting while driving, and otherwise following traffic laws will improve a person’s safety and take away the reasons that police like to use to justify a traffic stop that they can then escalate to something more. While this will not prevent a police officer from fabricating a basis for a stop, not every officer who engages in abuse of citizens is willing to fabricate a reason for the initial stop.
- Have witnesses around if you believe an interaction with the police will occur. Having a friend or relative around can reduce the risk that a police officer who is intent on violating a person’s rights will pick you as their victim. Much police misconduct occurs when it is just the word of the officer against that of their victim, so adding another set of eyes and ears can prevent a situation from occurring in the the first place.
- Invest in a home video security system. Having video of the outside of one’s home is of great use for refuting untruthful statements that may be made by police after the execution of a search warrant. Such systems are quite affordable these days, with the Nest company selling standalone cameras that are internet enabled and record video offsite (so a police officer cannot improperly delete the footage) for $199 or less. Having such a camera also improves home security, and can be set in a windowsill to view the outside of a home while safely being kept inside.
- Don’t talk to the police without an attorney present. If the police wish to question you, do not speak to them without first consulting with an attorney and having that attorney present. So many clients over the years have talked themselves right into an (unjustified) arrest that could have been avoided had they not spoken to the police alone.
- Get an OBD2 data recorder for your car. Such devices cost about $75 or less on Amazon.com and can record many details about your driving such as speed, throttle setting, etc. This information can be helpful when defending against a police officer’s inaccurate allegations about traffic infractions that led to a traffic stop.
- Obtain a dash camera for your car. Amazon.com sells many models for under $100, and having video and audio to prove what really happened during a traffic stop can go a long way. Such cameras can be useful in the event of a hit-and-run car accident too, so it is money well spent.
To be sure, I hate having to give advise to anyone about how they can avoid being a victim of the police who have sworn an oath to uphold the law. No one should have to worry about the police abusing them, or spend their time and money guarding against such officer misconduct. But, we don’t live in an ideal world. Just as it is wise to buckle one’s seat belt as a defense against a drunk driver who may crash into one’s car, it is similarly wise to guard against police abuses.
As an attorney who has represented many clients in lawsuits against police officers and police departments in both State and Federal courts in Iowa and Illinois, I find addressing police misconduct to be one of the more professionally satisfying things to do. Cases where we take on police officers who have abused our clients allow us to help protect the most vulnerable members of society and take those who misuse their badges. To be sure, there are many police officers who conduct themselves properly. It would be wrong to assume that every police officer commits crimes while hiding behind their badge. However, there are many police officers who do exactly that, and putting a stop to such misconduct is an important issue for our society as a whole – and we embrace our role in doing so.
A person who has been the victim of police misconduct is well advised to remain silent and seek an attorney at once. Anything they do or say (or post on facebook) may cause serious problems to their case, and nothing is more frustrating than seeing situations where a corrupt police officer gets away with their misdeeds due to the victim not handing the situation properly.