Police Brutality (defined as a civil rights violation where officers exercise undue or excessive force against a civilian) is not equally prevalent in all governments and all places, which indicates that policy is an influencing factor. What policies are effective in preventing police brutality from occurring, and why?

I have a mild preference for data-driven answers.

If it helps to narrow it down, I am primarily interested in this from a United States perspective, but if things can be learned that are more generally relevant for other countries that would be ideal.

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    Is policy a factor or is it society in general? In a generally peaceful society, will police be more peaceful as well?
    – o.m.
    Commented Jun 2, 2020 at 18:32
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    I don't think such an open ended question really fits well with the format, you might have better luck picking policy proposals out and asking about them specifically in separate questions.
    – user5155
    Commented Jun 2, 2020 at 18:38
  • It would also help to specify if you are looking at the United States specifically or do you primarily want an international perspective. The latter is probably more difficult.
    – Brian Z
    Commented Jun 2, 2020 at 18:40
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    Some things to look into: The quality and duration of police training. How long before a recruit is on the streets? The prevalence of single vs. double patrols. How often is a police officer without backup? The willingness to prosecute police misconduct. Is there a blue wall of silence and does the DA go along?
    – o.m.
    Commented Jun 2, 2020 at 18:46
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    Just came across this really nice list / collection of articles: joincampaignzero.org/research
    – Brian Z
    Commented Jun 3, 2020 at 15:00

4 Answers 4


No one solution will solve the problem, but we can take a look at various policies/changes, from both traditionally left and right wing perspectives, that can be made to help the situation.

Police Body Cameras

One solution, albeit not an entire solution, is police body cameras.

While some of the research surrounding their efficacy is debatable, there are promising positives that emerged from a handful of studies. Some positives found were:

  • More positive interactions between officers and citizens
  • Citizens feeling safer
  • Reductions in citizen complaints

According to the Washington Post's US Police Shootings Database, 189 unarmed and non-fleeting people were fatally shot by police since 2015. Of those, only 25 occurred from police wearing body cameras. Would be interesting to compare this rate to the rate of police officers who wear body cameras, to see if it correlates to a drop in killings.

Camera footage also provides training opportunities for police officers, and provides them an opportunity to witness a point-of-view interaction, and how best to resolve situations they may otherwise not be prepared for, potentially resulting in a decrease of excessive force use often as a result of fear.

Body cameras can also protect police officers from legal trouble when their actions were justified.

While expensive to implement, the studies found a decrease in time spent by officers preparing paperwork, and less people taking their case to trial, which both counter the increased spending.

Still, given all this, the use of body cameras alone likely won't be enough to see a huge decrease in brutality.

End Qualified Immunity

Police officers are often immune from lawsuits for violating citizens' constitutional rights unless the officers' actions violate "clearly established" law. The problem is that The Supreme Court interprets the term "clearly established" so narrowly that there is rarely a case that has identical facts to that in question, resulting in officers routinely getting away with horrendous abuses.

Again, rolling back or narrowing qualified immunity will not stop all police abuse, but will make it possible to hold police accountable in court for egregious violations of civil rights, which in turn will alter their incentives. While some state and local governments might respond by indemnifying police officers for the damages they have to pay, it is still unnecessary money spent, financially incentivising a crackdown on brutality.

Curbing or Banning Police Unions

Empirical research has shown that impunity for police brutality is often promoted by police unions. Eliminating disciplinary issues from the list of matters that are subject to collective bargaining could curb the power unions have over these matters.

There would no doubt be massive push back against this kind of actions, but progress is possible if liberal civil liberties advocates can find common ground with conservatives who dislike public sector unions more generally.

Rolling Back the 'War on Drugs'

No doubt a more controversial measure, but it has been shown that an increased militarization of police, and of hyper-aggressive tactics that routinely lead to violence and abuse, can be linked to the war on drugs.

The War on Drugs results in many of the most extreme police tactics and most dangerous confrontations with civilians, especially minorities in urban areas. In fact, in 2011, the NAACP called for an end to the War on Drugs because it causes great harm to minority communities.

Attempt to curb racial profiling

This is much easier said than done, since often profiling is linked more to the characteristics of a neighbourhood and the predominant race of that area, not directly about race.

However, a 2019 Pew Research Center poll found that some 59% of black men and 31% of black women say they have been unfairly stopped by police because of their race. There is a correlation between a higher level of education, and less profiling, likely as a result of the type of area in question, as stated above. Regardless, it's still happening at an unfair rate. Even Senator Tom Scott has recounted multiple incidents in which he was racially profiled by police. If even a senator is a victim of profiling, it's clearly more than just about class/circumstance.

Camden, NJ Approach

From NPR:

Camden, N.J., took its own big step in 2013. The city was in a public safety crisis, with murder rates 18 times the national average and scores of excessive-force complaints, when the mayor and City Council dissolved the existing police department and created a countywide force in its place.

A majority of the police were rehired, but each had to complete a 50-page application, retake psychological testing and go through an interview process, former police Chief Scott Thomson said. He led the county police from 2013 to 2019 and the city's force before then.

The department instituted other changes, including putting more officers on the street on a regular basis, getting to know the community and changing the way an officer's performance was measured — not by the number of arrests or tickets issued, but other outcomes.

They also moved to a more "community policing" approach, and worked to improve relations between citizens and the police, along with body cameras, and de-escalation training.

After all this, homicides have gone down from 67 in 2012 to 25 in 2019. Excessive-force complaints went from 65 in 2012 to three.

De-Escalation and Mental Health Training

Often police-civilian encounters escalate unnecessarily, often as a result of mental health issues, and the officers in question not knowing how to de-escalate properly, or handle somebody's mental health breakdown.

These negative interactions continue to deteriorate police-civilian relations, and result in some of the extreme "abolish the police" and "all cops are bad" movements we've seen as of late. Proper training can potentially curb this, and improve community relations, as seen in Camden, NJ.

Sources: https://nij.ojp.gov/topics/articles/body-worn-cameras-what-evidence-tells-us https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/investigations/police-shootings-database/ https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/05/02/for-black-americans-experiences-of-racial-discrimination-vary-by-education-level-gender/ https://www.npr.org/sections/live-updates-protests-for-racial-justice/2020/06/08/872416644/former-chief-of-reformed-camden-n-j-force-police-need-consent-of-the-people https://reason.com/2020/05/31/how-to-curb-police-abuses-and-how-not-to/

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    I have to admit, when I see some police force, especially a large metropolitan one, NOT using some form of body cam, I wonder what they are hiding.
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Jun 6, 2020 at 1:03
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    Your very helpful answer could be improved by reference to the large, randomized, controlled trial carried out by/on Washington DC police. They concluded: "Law enforcement agencies ... that are considering adopting [body cameras] should not expect dramatic reductions in documented uses of force or complaints, or other large-scale shifts in police behavior, solely from the deployment of this technology."
    – Matthew
    Commented Jun 7, 2020 at 0:51
  • @Matthew the study looks very interesting and detailed. The summary on the linked page doesn't seem to cover the data that seems most relevant to BodyCameras, how the number of complaints about police behaviour is translated into; Sustained, Not-Sustained and Insufficient Evidence outcomes. The pre-trial plan says these things were being tracked, but I can't see the outcome data.
    – Jontia
    Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 8:33
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    +1 for de-escalation. In my country (Switzerland), de-escalation is required by federal law, as well as the use of the least necessary force. During my military service we were also quickly introduced to these principles. The most peaceful man on earth can overreact and murder someone if he has not received proper training on how to handle and calm a violent interaction. It seems to me that US cops tend to overpower their "oponent" when being confronted to violence. Definitely a training issue.
    – Menkid
    Commented Jun 11, 2020 at 12:17
  • @CGCampbell The main policy argument I've heard as a barrier to body cameras is that they need to be vetted and censored before being released to the public, as they may include footage of things like police interviewing identity-protected witnesses, hearing information that can't be presented in court, seeing literal privates if they have to execute a warrant in a residence, etc. So it's not just a matter of recording, the police also would need people trained to review the footage. Commented Jun 12, 2020 at 15:17

Liability and certainty of consequences

A major part of the current situation is the lack of expectation that brutality will be prosecuted appropriately.

There's a lot of discretion that's misused to avoid accountability of individual police officers - there's prosecutorial discretion that can simply avoid pressing charges; there's abuse of evidentiary process and autopsies (e.g. the initial autopsy of George Floyd that somehow indicated "no physical findings that support a diagnosis of traumatic asphyxiation or strangulation" and would support a process resulting in no charges to the culprits); and there's the court process that avoids convicting police officers (e.g. the 1992 LA riots started not after an act of violence, but after the officers who beat Rodney King where found not guilty by the court).

All these process issues are essentially a matter of public policy regarding the legal system. The process of ensuring a just trial and punishment of wrongdoers is essential both as a deterrant for potential criminals and also as a closure for the victimized communities - who currently far too often see the culprits walk away with a nonconsequential disciplinary action but no real consequences. Policies requiring independent investigations and prosecutions that are outside the influence of local authorities, and removal of policies that reduce the consequences to violators (e.g. 'qualified immunity') would help achieve this goal.

Criminalization of coverups

A particular problem in police brutality is that it's not just a few 'bad apples' stepping over the line, but the whole institution including colleagues and unions covering up for them and thus choosing to join the 'bad apples' as well. For example, in many cases of police brutality the police reports regarding the incident (including those made not by the perpetrator but their collagues) have contained lies with the intent of covering up the actions and/or adding materially false things that would justify the act. Even if it comes to court and the false statements are disproven, it's currently very rare for police officers to be charged for perjury in such cases.

This is a matter that can be changed with policy, requiring strict enforcement of 'law and order' and thorough prosecution of suspected perjury by officials. Also, while the bar for actual perjury is quite high - generally, the statements need to be repeated in court - it's certainly possible to criminalize officers intentionally making false statements in official documents and also make it clear (with harshly prosecuted examples) that covering up for your colleagues by making false statements is a serious crime of corruption. In many countries a police official falsifying such a report would be a more severe crime than some act of actual violence that happens to not result in serious bodily harm.

  • Unions are obligated by their nature to defend every member, no matter how god awful the member or charges. It's their main function. The NFLPA will go to bat for (alleged) rapists, murderers, cheaters, dirty players, and the "innocent" equally on matters relating to their employment. Not because they tacitly approve of those actions, but because they are obligated to defend them as members of the union. Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 7:52
  • So blaming the (Police) union just sounds like anti-union nonsense that misses the point of the union. Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 7:54
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    @zibadawatimmy the core purpose of unions is collective bargaining with the employer regarding employment conditions. In most other fields and countries the unions will not defend every member, no matter how god awful the member - quite the contrary, it's expected that one of the functions of the union is self-policing and ensuring that employees who violate e.g. work safety rules in heavy industry are expelled for the protection of all the other union members. NFLPA does not have to protect 'bad apples', it's their free choice to stand on the side of violent criminals against the society.
    – Peteris
    Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 9:32
  • We're both guilty of conflating things at the moment, I think. The NFLPA is not defending them on charges such as murder, rape, etc. They are defending the terms of their contract and the guarantees those contracts had, the validity of which is largely independent of how awful the person turns out to be (the basic exception being a clause specifically about certain behaviors nullifying certain guarantees, though even that can and will be debated by the union). The criminal and civil defenses are handled by others; how they can nullify contract terms is the union's concern. Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 9:52
  • @zibadawatimmy: Regardless of whether it's intentional or not, NPR is now reporting that the rise of police unions directly preceded a rise in killings, in counties where unions were established. Ultimately, this isn't a matter of "blame," it's a matter of reducing the number of deaths.
    – Kevin
    Commented Jun 10, 2020 at 21:42

I think the case of Daniel Shaver highlights a multitude of problems.

In 2016, Shaver (who was drunk at the time) aimed a pellet gun out of a Mesa, AZ hotel window, which prompted an armed police response (this was not long after the Las Vegas shootings). Shaver and an acquaintance were ordered out of the room at gunpoint. Police shouted commands at the compliant Shaver and repeatedly threatened to shoot him if he did not comply. Ultimately Shaver was ordered to crawl on his hands and knees towards officers. When he stopped briefly (apparently to adjust his shorts) the police shot him to death. All of this was captured on body cameras (graphic note: you see Shaver shot to death in that video).

Police are often allowed overly broad rules and laws for use of force

The policeman who shot Shaver was acquitted of murder and manslaughter charges

A Maricopa County jury on Thursday found former Mesa police Officer Philip "Mitch" Brailsford not guilty of second-degree murder charges in the 2016 shooting of an unarmed Texas man who was on his knees begging for his life.

The main argument against this is that the police created an unsafe environment and then used that to justify lethal force

At trial, the officer testified that he though the suspect was reaching for his gun, and that if he had a chance to do things over, he’d make the same decision again. In other words, he presented the classic defense. He was afraid, so he fired.


[Justifying their actions with fear is] especially true when the police — through their own incompetence — create their own fear. Philando Castile was shot even as he followed his killer’s instructions. Shaver died trying his best to comply with a highly unusual, complicated set of commands while under extreme duress. Scared cops still need to be competent cops, and members of the public shouldn’t face death because a police officer can’t keep his emotions in check.

Generally speaking, few police are convicted for this reason. In many states, as long as they show they were afraid, they often are acquitted, if they are charged at all. And often legislatures are reluctant to amend laws when law enforcement groups openly oppose and/or defy reforms

Most officers are good people who serve their communities. But the records released under SB 1421 make it clear that not everyone with a badge is a hero. That’s one big reason why we need AB 392, also known as the California Act to Save Lives.

Law enforcement groups strongly oppose the bill. Some have even labeled it a “cop killer” in an effort to scare legislators. Opponents claim it would endanger the public and harm officer safety. But these dramatic claims – the same exact claims they made against SB 1421 – fall apart under scrutiny. California legislators should ignore the fear tactics and support the bill.

End Qualified Immunity

Qualified immunity is a serious problem

The doctrine is called "qualified immunity." Developed in recent decades by the Supreme Court, the doctrine, as applied to police, initially asked two questions: First, did police use excessive force, and if they did, should they have known that their conduct was illegal because it violated a "clearly established" prior court ruling that barred such conduct.

The idea behind the doctrine was to protect police from frivolous lawsuits and allow some "breathing room" for police mistakes that involve split-second judgments that are made in tense and dangerous situations.

But in practice, because of a 2009 Supreme Court decision, lower courts have most often dismissed police brutality lawsuits on grounds that there is no prior court decision with nearly identical facts. Several recent studies, including one conducted by Reuters, have found that dozens of cases involving horrific facts, just as bad as the one involving Floyd, were thrown out of court on the grounds that there was no "clearly established" court precedent forbidding the conduct at issue.

Some of the police involved in Shaver's death were able to largely dodge a lawsuit thanks to it

Officers Brian Elmore, Christopher Doane, Bryan Cochran, and Richard Gomez remain with the police force and on Aug. 2 were granted immunity largely because the plaintiffs failed to “identify a case where an officer acting under similar circumstances as [Gomez, Cochran, Doane, and Elmore] w[ere] held to have violated the Fourth Amendment,” explained U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow in a 20-page order.

Meaningful Terminations and Investigations

Eric Garner died in 2014. The cop who killed him with a chokehold was fired in late 2019

The NYPD initially argued that it could not pursue disciplinary action against Pantaleo until a federal investigation into Garner’s death was completed. But in 2018, the NYPD’s Civilian Complaint Review Board announced that Pantaleo would finally receive an administrative trial this year, a process where a judge would hear evidence and recommend if Pantaleo, who had been on desk duty since Garner’s death, should lose his badge. In August, Maldonado recommended that Pantaleo lose his badge for the 2014 incident.

The cop is suing to get his job back

The lawsuit, which was filed by Pantaleo’s lawyer Stuart London in Manhattan civil court on Wednesday, argues that the former officer’s firing was “arbitrary and capricious.” London also told the New York Post that he hopes the state will find that an NYPD judge was wrong to recommend that Pantaleo be fired earlier this year following an administrative trial.

Daniel Shaver's cop has it even better

As for the cop who pulled the trigger, he was “temporarily rehired by the department so he could apply for a monthly pension,” The Arizona Republic reported this month. In 2018, he was reinstated for 42 days and applied for accidental disability. “An accidental disability is one that occurred while the employee was on the clock and permanently prevents the employee from doing his or her job,” the newspaper explained, adding that the pension in question “totals more than $30,000 annually.” A widowed single mother could use a payout like that.

And the nature of the cop’s disability claim? According to an investigation by the local ABC affiliate, Brailsford said the incident in which he had shot Shaver had given him PTSD. “He’ll get a neutral reference if a future employer calls Mesa,” it reported. “And he’s not willing to talk about how his termination for killing an unarmed man turned into a check for life.”

If the police cannot be terminated for violating policy, then policy violations will abound.


Transparency, Accountability, and Training.

Accountability serves not only as a deterrent, it also serves to maintain trust with the public when a "bad apple" commits a crime. Accountability means that trained professionals are held to equal if not higher standards than ordinary citizens when it comes to perjury, forgery, or violent crime while in uniform.

Transparency is necessary to ensure the process of accountability is not eventually warped into something that doesn't serve it's original purpose, and it's also necessary to earn and maintain the trust of the public.

Training is necessary to provide officers with readily available non-violent, legal, and morally justifiable alternatives in highly stressful situations.


I'm omitting examples because other answers already cover how each of the above could be implemented.

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