Civil Rights

What's Excessive Force in Crowd Control?

Your rights to free speech and assembly are guaranteed by the US Constitution. Public protests are the shining examples of those rights in action: From protesting US military actions overseas, to the Tea Party challenging recent government policies on healthcare and taxes, people gather to speak as one.

Usually things are peaceful. Sometimes, though, the crowd becomes unruly, and law enforcement has to step in to keep the public peace and protect the safety of others. That's what happened recently in Pittsburgh.

The G20 Incident

At the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh, hundreds of protesters, including some who called themselves anarchists, held a march that threatened to become violent. They didn't have a required permit, either. Old fashioned brutality gave way to technology.

The police started using a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) to broadcast instructions to the crowd to disperse and to emit a loud, unpleasant sound or "deterrent tone." Both were heard up to two miles away. Some protesters at the scene said police instructions were clear and that the tone was "unbearable."

According to one observer, the tone was "overkill" and that "it was an excessive use of weaponry" when the police continued to use it even after protesters began to disperse. A representative from the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said that the LRAD could cause permanent hearing loss, which, he claimed, was "an invitation to an excessive-force lawsuit." No reports of injuries were made.

The police department and other city officials defended the use of the LRAD. The tone itself makes people want to leave the area. To avoid the tone, you have to cover your ears; if you have to use your hands to do that, you can't throw things. The only way someone can get hurt was if they stood directly in front of the LRAD. The police placed it on a vehicle and on a pole 12-feet high so no one could be directly in its path or too close to it.

What's Excessive Force?

When it comes to public protests and demonstrations, everyone involved has responsibilities. The police's duty is to protect innocent bystanders and other demonstrators from being hurt. They're also responsible for protecting private and public property from damage. And they certainly need to protect themselves from being hurt. All of this is done without using force when none is needed or too much when it is.

As a general rule, the police may use reasonable physical force when necessary to make an arrest or to keep the public peace. Handcuffs to restrain a suspect, or even the use of a baton or "night stick" to subdue someone who's hostile are reasonable most of the time. When it's not reasonable and a citizen gets hurt, it's probably excessive force.

The facts and circumstances are crucial here. Throwing a handcuffed suspect hard against a wall, causing head injuries is probably unnecessary and unreasonable force. So, too, is repeatedly hitting him with a baton posing little or no threat to the officer.

Is Force Ever Needed?

This is true when it comes to controlling a crowed, too. There are times when the police have to use force, and sometimes it goes too far.

In New York City, thousands of people held a protest against the war in Iraq. When the crowd became violent - things being thrown and public and private property damaged, the police used force to disperse the crowd and make arrests.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit against the New York City Police Department (NYPD) claiming the force used was excessive. The NYPD was also accused of using horse-mounted police officers to charge through the protesters, intentionally knocking protesters to the ground and injuring them. Was this excessive? Possibly, but a jury never decided because the suit was settled out of court.

Demonstrating by Example

Demonstrators can exercise their rights without interfering with the rights of others, too. Destroying property and throwing rocks and bottles aren't necessary. Peaceful, non-violent ways can express your views with passion and conviction. Stop participating if you see that a demonstration is turning violent or unruly. Find another way to be heard, like writing a letter or making a phone call.

Of course, if you're injured by an officer and think the force used was excessive, contact the police department or an attorney. You may be able to have the officer's conduct investigated and prevent abuse in the future or get help with filing a claim.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can an officer arrest me for calling him names? Is that considered slander?
  • If I don't think an officer has the right to arrest me for something, what should I do? If I argue or fight back, I'll be arrested for resisting arrest, right?
  • The city has refused my application for a permit to hold a demonstration on the public square. What are my options?
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