Essays What's New

History of Police Brutality – Conor Reardon

History of Police Brutality

                If there is an issue more unresolved and more unjust in the history of the United States of America, then it is police brutality. It is one of the biggest problems society faces even today. But what is police brutality? Police Brutality is the abuse of the authority of the police to maintain order which often induces violence.  Police Brutality can find its roots in the 1800s, in the early days of the United States. During that period, a significant amount of foreigners had immigrated to the U.S. and with such a large mix of people and cultures, and with the deterioration of cities leading to the creation of the police force, what remained was prejudice, hate crimes and racial, cultural, and ethnic profiling. In the early days of the nation, when the government was deciding how much power should be given to state governments and their police forces, the founding fathers decreed in the 10th amendment, that any power not granted to the U.S. government would be reserved for the State government. By doing this, individual state’s would have complete control on there police forces. And with these powers, states drew upon the doctrine of police power rooted in English common law. This theory privileged public goods over individual rights. Another thing to mention is that police brutality did not just occur through the south but all throughout the country. As many urban populations were becoming crowded with migrants and immigrants, newspapers recorded how police brutality plagued the cities and many cases of working class citizens were apprehended without cause, beaten, and even tortured. It was during these times that police officers were suffering from a dangerous delusion: That they were invested with judiciary powers and that they could discipline as well as arrest suspects and accused persons. Many Rights organizations could get no result in trying to bring many of the cases into the public eye and many juries, state and local prosecutors were unwilling to press any charges against police officers. It would take federal intervention to get a breakthrough on police brutality.  In its quest to stop police brutality, the federal government found a sword and shield in the newly created Civil Rights Unit under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. Under the direction of political scientist, Robert K. Carr and Attorney General Frank Murphy, with their new written orders, would protect citizen’s civil rights with that sword and shield. In Carr’s words: “The shield enables a person whose freedom is endangered to invoke the Constitution by requesting a federal court to invalidate that state action that is endangering his rights. And the sword is a positive weapon wielded by the federal government, which takes the initiative in protecting helpless individuals by bringing criminal charges against persons who are encroaching upon their rights. But even with this sword and shield, the civil rights section suffered a setback in the case Screws vs United States where a Georgia sheriff, Claude Screws, who had beaten an unarmed black man to death, walked free from court. Many incidents of police brutality started to escalate in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Such examples include, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the Pullman Strike of 1894, the Lawrence textile strike of 1912, and the Hanapepe massacre of 1924. In one of these examples; The Great Railroad Strike of 1877, was a protest by citizens that demanded change (in this case, higher wages) and were put down by local and state militias and federal troops. It continued for 45 days and 100 people were killed across the country in the unrest. Now, flash forwards to the mid 1900s where police brutality really boomed in the fight between segregation and equal rights for black americans. One of the many goals of the civil rights movement was in fact to end police brutality. In fact, the agenda against police brutality is as old as the civil rights movement itself. During the March on Washington in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. said in his address; “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” As the civil rights movement wore on, it won a series of landmark victories. Through a series of cases, the supreme court controlled police conduct and gave several rights for accused criminals. And with the Bill of Rights, the supreme court grew less and less willing to allow states to govern their police forces. One of the most significant cases was Mapp vs Ohio. In this case, Cleveland resident, Dollree Mapp was unjustly convicted of being involved in a bombing upon allegedly possessing “lewd and lascivious” books and pictures. The Ohio Supreme Court recognized the search as unlawful as it violated the 4th amendment. Police Brutality is ingrained in America’s history. It has lasted from the beginning of our nation, all the way to the present. And will likely continue if we don’t change course. It is a part of our history we would like to forget but it’s something we cannot and should not forget. The police these days react with too much authority and do what they can to serve the law but, at the expense of innocent civilians. This problem is still among us and will be with us until another major and permanent breakthrough is made.



Siff, Sarah Brady. “Policing the Police: A Civil Rights Story.” Origins, May 2016,

Nodjimbadem, Katie. “The Long, Painful History of Police Brutality in the U.S.”, Smithsonian Institution, 27 July 2017,

Cosgrove, Abigail Louise. “The History of Police Brutality.” Its a Mad World, 12 Feb. 2015,


%d bloggers like this: