Police brutality is the abuse of authority by the unwarranted infliction of excessive force by personnel involved in law enforcement while performing their official duties. The term is also applied to abuses by corrections personnel in municipal, state and federal penal facilities including military prisons.
While the term police brutality is usually applied in the context of causing physical harm, it may also involve psychological harm through the use of intimidation tactics beyond the scope of officially sanctioned police procedure. In the past, those who engaged in police brutality may have acted with the implicit approval of the local legal system, e.g. during the Civil Rights era. In the modern era, individuals who engage in police brutality may do so with the tacit approval of their superiors or they may be rogue officers. In either case, they may perpetrate their actions under color of law and, more often than not, engage in a subsequent cover-up of their illegal activity.
The word brutality has several meanings; the sense used here (savage cruelty) was first used in 1633. The term police brutality has been in use since at least 1833 when it appeared in the London paper The Poor Man's Guardian.
Efforts to combat police brutality focus on various aspects of the police subculture, and the aberrant psychology which may manifest itself when individuals are placed in a position of absolute authority over others.
Beyond police departments and DAs, mechanisms of government oversight have gradually evolved. The Rodney King case triggered the creation of the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department, informally known as the Christopher Commission, in 1991. The commission, mandated to investigate the practices of the LAPD, uncovered disturbing patterns of misconduct and abuse, but the reforms it recommended were put on hold. Meanwhile, media reports revealed a frustration in dealing with systemic abuse in other jurisdictions as well, such as New York and Pittsburgh. Selwyn Raab of the New York Times wrote about how the "Blue Code of Silence among police officers helped to conceal even the most outrageous examples of misconduct."
Within this climate, the police misconduct provision of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 was created, which authorized the Attorney Manager to "file lawsuits seeking court orders to reform police departments engaging in a pattern or practice of violating citizens' federal rights." As of January 31, 2003, the Department of Justice has used this provision to negotiate reforms in twelve jurisdictions across the U.S. (Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, Steubenville Police Department, New Jersey State Police, Los Angeles Police Department, District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department, Highland Park, Illinois Police Department, Cincinnati Police Department, Columbus Police Department, Buffalo Police Department, Mount Prospect, Illinois Police Department, Seattle Police Department, and the Montgomery County, Maryland Police Department).
Data obtained by The Associated Press showed a racial disparity in officers' use of stun guns.