Excessive Force Used by Law Enforcement: What if It Happens to You?
On September 8, 2015, Santa Clara California sheriff’s officers arrested a man, Jose Salazar, for riding his bicycle without a functioning headlight. In effectuating the arrest, officers allegedly slammed Salazar to the ground and then kneed and kicked him. Salazar suffered a broken elbow and forearm along with other injuries to his face and back. Salazar maintains that he complied with officers in stopping and showing his hands while fully surrendering by lying spread eagle on the ground. Despite his capitulation, the officers are alleged to have used excessive physical force on him and then altered the arrest reports to cover up the incident. Salazar retained an attorney who has filed a lawsuit seeking compensation and punitive damages against the sheriff’s office for the officers’ alleged use of excessive force.
The above case raises the question of what to do if you believe you are the victim of the excessive use of force by police. First, we start out with the proposition that most police departments have strict protocols for how to effectuate an arrest and the custody chain that follows. Many departments have started using body cameras on officers which will assist in investigations of the excessive use of force. In addition, departments across the county have tightened these protocols due to heightened scrutiny by the media in cases such as the Rodney King incident and more recently in cities such as Baltimore, Maryland and Ferguson, Missouri.
Despite these precautions, these incidents do occur and often times the victims can be left with little recourse. First, one must speak out. Whether it is to a lawyer or some community advocate. Many times individuals will often “let it go,” which only perpetuates the problem. Secondly, the victim should immediately consult with a lawyer if possible. Many times individuals are incarcerated, so that can be difficult to accomplish. Third, one must document everything. In this digital age, it is highly possible there is a cellphone video or pictures of the incident in question. In addition, you should get the medical records. There will often be clues in those records that will assist a lawyer in proceeding with a civil rights case on your behalf.
Law enforcement officers are under a great deal of stress by consistently putting their lives on the line in effort to protect the public. The dangers they face are real, and like in any stressful profession, they can crack and allow their emotions to get the best of them. In my experience, I have seen many decent officers exhibit the utmost professionalism when dealing with the public while a small minority hold criminal defendants in utter contempt and show little regard for their civil rights. Fortunately, the latter group is a small subset of law enforcement as a whole, yet they are often protected by those in a position of authority around them. This is inherently the root of the problem.
In sum, you must act fast to collect the evidence of this incident and cast aside feelings of hopelessness with the situation. There are good lawyers and plenty of resources at your disposal to assist you in your case.