Member Directory
Member Directory

The History of American Police Brutality

The Start of Policing


In the U.S., the evolution of police followed England. Early colony patrolling functioned in two formal and communal styles, known as the “Watch” system, or private-for-profit policing, named “The Big Stick.” The watch system involved area volunteers whose primary engagement was to report a crisis. Boston established a night watch in 1636, New York in 1658, and Philadelphia in 1700. Still, this was not an efficient means of crime control. Watchmen commonly drank or slept on the job. Many “volunteers” tried to evade military service, were commanded by draft into duty by their town, or operated watch services as a sort of discipline. In 1833, Philadelphia built the first day watch. Then in 1844, New York began a day watch as an extension to its new police unit. The developing watch system was a practice of official law enforcement officers, constables, typically backed by the fee system for warrants.

Constables had numerous non-law enforcement roles to perform, such as assisting as land surveyors and validating the correctness of weights and capacities. In multiple cities, they held the charge of commanding the activities of the night watch. These means of policing served much after the American Revolution. In the 1830s, the first notion of a centralized community police department appeared. Boston authorized the original American police force in 1838. New York City accompanied this in 1845, Albany, NY and Chicago in 1851, New Orleans and Cincinnati in 1853, Philadelphia in 1855, and Newark, NJ and Baltimore in 1857. All vital American centers possessed local police divisions by the 1880s. These newest police systems yielded similar styles:

  1. Bureaucratic
  2. Backed by the public
  3. Full-time, constant employees
  4. Set systems and practices
  5. Subject to necessary governmental authority

New United States police organizations had two principal elements: they were reputably corrupt and blatantly cruel. Local politicians continued with the authority of the police. In most regions, the home political party ward lead selected the police official to control the ward leader’s community. The ward leader usually was the neighborhood tavern keeper, occasionally the area vendor for gambling and prostitution, and generally the governing power over the area’s juvenile gangs who were employed to threaten adversary party balloters. With poor habits, political crime, and coordinated frenzy, it was known that the policemen were wicked. Police typically accepted payoffs to support illegal drinking, hustling, and gambling. They organized master criminals such as robbers and pickpockets to grant protection in trade for news or bribes. They also actively engaged in vote-buying and ballot-box-stuffing. Genuine political operatives displaced to police officers with zero qualifications and limited training. Police department advances were not won. Instead, they were bought. Police drank alcohol while watching, defended vice actions, and were keen to employ oppressive authority. These modern U.S. police units met three controversies:

  1. Should they dress in uniform?
  2. Should they carry guns?
  3. How much power could they apply?

Neighborhood traders and industry people spurred the advancement of community policing and favored uniformed police. The thought was for clear distinguishment by individuals seeking aid, and apparent police occupancy on neighborhood streets. Some police denied wearing a uniform, considering that it would provoke ridicule and display themselves as clearly identifiable targets for violence. Police officers started bearing sidearms, notwithstanding the public’s concern that doing such gave significant power to the police and state. Departments formally armed their police authorities after officers had informally brandished firearms themselves.

In the 1830s and 1840s, use-of-force in apprehension was as controversial as it is today. Because officers were mainly involved in implementing public order laws upon drunkenness and gambling, irritating labor organizers, and surveilling liberated slaves and immigrants, the public’s view supported limitations on use-of-force. However, the advantage of an armed presence allowed to apply deadly force followed the interests of economic elites who fancied established police departments. The troops were believed crucial because the “organizations intervened between the propertied elites and propertyless masses who were regarded as politically dangerous as a class.” From the derivation, police in the United States have been confined to the economy’s desires and demands.

As for the modern-day, it emerges probable that new weight on technology and science, expressly regarding scrutiny of citizens, and on neighborhood appeasement through policing in communities, will replay the downfalls of history as the ways of the future. Today’s stories of police harshness are not a modern phenomenon.


Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1963, said, “There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?” This message continues to reverberate in modern times after a lengthy past of brutal encounters between black Americans and police. “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”

“This idea of police brutality was very much on people’s minds in 1963, following on the years, decades really, of police abuse of power and then centuries of oppression of African-Americans,” says William Pretzer, Smithsonian museum senior history curator.

Social media and live streams have progressed police brutality incidents beyond the black population and mainstream interpretations. “Modern technology allows, indeed insists, that the white community take notice of these kinds of situations and incidents,” Pretzer says.

As technology has evolved, so has the means of law enforcement. Departments with substantial militant equipment are presented as standard in U.S. neighborhoods. “What we see is a continuation of an unequal relationship that has been exacerbated, made worse if you will, by the militarization and the increase in fire power of police forces around the country,” Pretzer claims. According to the curator, the answers lie in correcting troubled police-community relations and crushing social inequalities.

If you’ve been the victim of police brutality, a personal injury lawyer can help. Please call The Cochran Firm’s 24/7 call center today at 1-800-THE-FIRM (673-1555) or send us a message on our website.

Daily News Egypt


Deaths by police officers are progressively prominent as a political issue. After examining records from the Chicago Police Department from the 1870s to the 1920s, historian Jeffrey S. Adler found that these killings are not new incidents. During the times records cover, police in Chicago killed 307 individuals, factoring one in eighteen killings in the city.

Throughout the late nineteenth century, police officers’ responsibilities in Chicago were to preserve order, serve alongside reputably corrupt officials, and set down the labor crisis. Officers managed leeway on how to achieve these expectations. In Illinois, criminal law warranted using deadly force in self-defense, to prevent riots that endanger officers, or to deter suspects from fleeing.

However, during the first dates of Adler’s examinations, police cruelty was mainly limited to the overflowing use of clubs. Chicago Police Department officers exterminated around 49 people from 1875 to 1900. This number grew to 65 during the first decade of the 20th century. In the 1910s, it rose to 153. An escalation in violent crime serves to explain the increase in police brutality. Chicago’s homicide percentage almost doubled from 1890 to 1920.

Additionally, the nature of cruelty changed. Through the 1870s and ’80s, most murders resulted from drunken arguments. By 1900, homicides were more inclined to result from robberies concerning numerous middle-class victims. 3% of Chicago’s community and 21% of death by police victims within 1910 and 1920 were Black Americans.

Adler registers that among political stress to exert force on criminals and officers’ answers to “a racially different and seemingly more alien, dangerous class of criminals,” the police often discharged weapons at suspects to hinder escape. This was the single explanation that the police presented for shooting weapons in 41% of police murders from 1890 to 1920. They shot loiterers, thieves, and purse-snatchers. Police also slew bystanders by firing their guns into crowds or confusing the suspect’s identity, which accounted for 1 in 10 slayings by police.

A police officer murdered a child by shooting him in 1910 after mistaking his identity. The police chief unveiled that the boy “probably was large for his age.” This response is analogous to those we receive today.


During the 1950s and 60s, the civil rights action confronted police cruelty and further racial discrimination and segregation, alongside the opposition to the Jim Crow systems in the South. In Detroit, black Americans endured unfairness through a segregated housing market and free schools, discriminatory hiring practices, and racist policing.

Wayne State University

Brutality fixed on black Americans by police officers in Detroit and additional places in the Jim Crow North was rooted in progressive police of racial power. Sometimes, the Detroit Police Department operated illegally, such as unlawful investigative arrests, racial profiling, and actively resisted civil rights requests for a civilian review board to review police cruelty. The department additionally and illegally put labor and civil rights organizations, like the NAACP, beneath political monitoring through the “‘Red Squad,’ a parallel to the Jim Crow South that has received insufficient attention.”

“We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality,” said Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963. “We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people,” was covered within the ten points in the 1966 Black Panther Party Platform.


In 1973, Robert Hoyt rear-ended Raymond Peterson on a highway in Detroit, Michigan. Hoyt allegedly fell asleep while driving home after a late night at work. Peterson, a police officer in an unmarked vehicle, considered the crash was a planned action. Gary Prochorow, Peterson's partner, witnessed the collision while operating his own unmarked car.

Prochorow also believed the event was intended. After sounding out of his vehicle for Hoyt to pull over, Prochorow fired at Hoyt from his car. Hoyt left the highway in a panic, with the officers trailing closely behind. Eventually, he was left with no alternative but to surrender following an exit ramp. Peterson exited his car and assumed Hoyt reached for a firearm under his seat. "My reaction was instinctive, sharp like a scalpel," Peterson claimed. "Boom. He went down."

However, Hoyt was unarmed. Peterson cut his jacket with a knife, cleaned it of fingerprints, and flung it near the crime scene. Hoyt was shot in the abdomen and later pronounced dead upon arrival at the hospital.

In a 1971 Detroit Free Press profile, Peterson was defined as seeming "more like a radical college professor or folk singer than what he is—a Detroit policeman who has probably been part of more violence in recent months than any other cop in the country." Hoyt was the 10th gun death that Peterson issued across two years.

STRESS, as the police system became noted, unveiled to be an excessive and lawless authority. In 1961, Peterson became a Detroit Police Department officer at 25 years old. During his first years, he was accountable for six injuries and gained 41 citations and commendations. Peterson was chosen in 1971 to enroll in an elite, deeply undercover unit within the agency. The organization fought crime on city roads, but grew wicked in distinguished Detroit's communities, resembling a killer team. As knowledge about Peterson's murders broadcasted, he was denounced by some of the city's occupants and backed by his associates.


In March of 1991, four officers were caught on videotape beating Rodney King after tracking him through Los Angeles, California. The video and results that followed frightened the city and moved the nation. This footage of police cruelty was one of the first of its kind and enduringly altered discussion about race and policing in the United States.

King sped while intoxicated and strived to elude LAPD officers. Numerous units, including a helicopter, trailed him, ultimately forcing the man to cease his retreat. The video filmed by George Holliday reveals the officers applying tasers while kicking and beating the man with batons more than 50 times.

Hammer Museum

"King claims, and several witnesses support him, that he never resisted," Jerry Bowen, CBS News correspondent, declared. "Twenty-five-year-old Rodney King showed his injuries to reporters -- the bruises, broken leg, and the scar from the stun gun which jolted him with 50,000 bolt shocks."

In April of 1992, officers Timothy Wind, Laurence Powell, Stacey Koon, and Theodore Briseno went to trial and were acquitted by a mostly Caucasian jury. The following days in Los Angeles were loaded with arson, looting, riots, and extreme violence. In a press conference carried out by Rodney King, he begged, "can we all get along?" By the conclusion of the riots, there were over two thousand injuries and 55 deaths.

President George Bush declared the officers' actions "sickening" and faced violent riots, describing rioters as "revolting." King settled for $3.8 million and encountered several disputes with police as the years progressed. In 2011, he was detected driving while under the influence. King died in the pool in his backyard in 2012 with evidence of marijuana, PCP, cocaine, and alcohol in his system.


In 2011, St. Louis officer Jason Stockley shot Anthony Lamar Smith after he fled. Stockley considered the man was dealing drugs. After Stockley was reported announcing he was "going to kill this motherf---er," he was charged in 2016. In 2017, he was acquitted of first-degree murder. Stockley announced he saw a gun prior to shooting, which was considered legally justified.

Stockley's acquittal sparked riots in St. Louis that launched police units dressed in riot gear following rioters throwing rocks and breaking windows. Protesters proceeded to St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson's residence but were halted by officers. The authorities resorted to rubber bullets fired at the crowd and securing hundreds of arrests.

Al Jazeera

In 2013, the department completed a lawsuit for wrongful death with the family of Smith for $900,000. However, Stockley never got jail time. A judge in 2018 allowed the lawyer for Smith's family to resume discovery in the case after learning the defendants had stored evidence of DNA that conferred Stockley had planted a firearm in Smith's car. The family was awarded an additional $500,000 a year later.


In Baton Rouge, two officers took Alton Sterling to the ground after responding to an anonymous call reporting Sterling for loitering outside a store to sell CDs. After sounding that Sterling had a gun, officer Salamoni shot him dead. The officers contended Sterling was a threat, concluding that he reached for his firearm. However, the video reveals Sterling motionless before being killed. Protests arose in Baton Rouge following Sterling's murder, where multiple demonstrators were arrested. The Department Of Justice instated an investigation of civil rights into the occurrence. Salamoni was laid off, but none of the officers were charged.



In Minnesota, police responded to a call of resident George Floyd using counterfeit money. Derek Chauvin and three other police officers escalated the disturbance in an attempt to apprehend Floyd. With Chauvin pinning Floyd down, footage from bystanders shook the nation. Before his death, Floyd repeatedly sounded that he could not breathe. An autopsy later showed "asphyxiation from sustained pressure." Another report associated heart disease to his death. All involved officers were fired and charged. Protests, violent riots, looting, murders, and arson developed instantly across the U.S., growing into a public revolution over police cruelty.


What About Now?

Most police officers are committed and ethical. They work a difficult, life-threatening job, and their days are extraordinarily stressful. However, police officers also exercise a great deal of control over the lives of the people they interact with, and an abuse of this power is particularly egregious. The personal injury lawyers at The Cochran Firm have experience helping the innocent victims of police brutality pursue justice and compensation.

The physical, emotional, financial, and legal consequences of police brutality can be staggering. We place a lot of trust in the police, and a betrayal of that trust should not go unacknowledged or un-pursued. Our police brutality lawyers will not allow that.

At The Cochran Firm, we will be there for you. Our police brutality lawyers will listen to your story and advise you on how best to proceed with your claim.

If you've been the victim of police brutality, a personal injury lawyer can help. Please call The Cochran Firm's 24/7 call center today at 1-800-THE-FIRM (673-1555) or send us a message on our website.

Find an Attorney

The National Trial Lawyers stands as an esteemed, exclusive association comprising top-tier trial attorneys nationwide. Whether you require a Civil Plaintiff Lawyer or a Criminal Defense Lawyer in your state, our network ensures access to premier legal expertise tailored to your needs.
Find Attorney

Read More Legal News

© Copyright 2022, All Rights Reserved | National Trial Lawyers
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram