Police brutality is the wanton use of excessive force, usually physical, but also common in forms of verbal attacks and psychological intimidation, by a police officer.
Widespread police brutality exists in many countries, even those that prosecute it. It is one of several forms of police misconduct, which include: false arrest; intimidation; racial profiling; political repression; surveillance abuse; sexual abuse; and police corruption. Although illegal, it can be done under the color of law.
The word “brutality” has several meanings; the sense used here (savage cruelty) was first used in 1633. The term “police brutality” was in use in the American press as early as 1872, when the Chicago Tribune reported on the beating of a civilian under arrest at the Harrison Street Police Station.
The origin of ‘modern’ policing based on the authority of the nation state is commonly traced back to developments in seventeenth and eighteenth century France, with modern police departments being established in most nations by the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Cases of police brutality appear to have been frequent then, with “the routine bludgeoning of citizens by patrolmen armed with nightsticks or blackjacks.” Large-scale incidents of brutality were associated with labor strikes, such as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the Pullman Strike of 1894, the Lawrence textile strike of 1912, the Ludlow massacre of 1914, the Steel strike of 1919, and the Hanapepe massacre of 1924.
Portions of the population may perceive the police to be oppressors. In addition, there is a perception that victims of police brutality often belong to relatively powerless groups, such as minorities, the disabled, the young, and the poor.
Hubert Locke writes,
When used in print or as the battle cry in a black power rally, police brutality can by implication cover a number of practices, from calling a citizen by his or her first name to a death by a policeman’s bullet….