Civil Rights and Police Departments Research Paper

Civil Rights and Police Departments

The outline for basic civil rights in America is deceptively simple and straightforward; it appears in the Bill of Rights, with a concentration on the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments. Taken together, these amendments govern the ability of the government to conduct searches and seizures, dictate the rules required for arrest, guarantee the right to remain silent, provide the right to an attorney, and prohibit cruel and unusual punishment (U.S. Const. Amends. IV, V, VI, and VIII). However, while the Bill of Rights provide a broad outline of the civil rights that a criminal accused has in the United States, they are sufficiently vague that they have required constant interpretation. Furthermore, the United States has an ugly history of racial discrimination, and the Civil War Amendments, which include the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments were written to apply the Equal Protection guarantees of the Second Amendment without regard to race and to extend this protection at a state level, not simply a local level. (U.S. Const. Amends. II, XIII, XIV, and XV). As a result, it should come as no surprise that there is a long history of civil rights violations by the police as they have sought information from suspects. These civil rights violations fall into three distinct categories: legal civil rights violations, questionable practices, and prohibited civil rights violations.

It may appear oxymoronic to describe some civil rights violations as legal, but one must keep in mind that it was not long ago that much of the United States was operating under segregation, which provided different rules and standards for suspects, based upon their race. “Jim Crow was the name of the racial caste system which operated primarily, but not exclusively in southern and border states, between 1877 and the mid-1960s. Jim Crow was more than a series of rigid anti-black laws. It was a way of life. Under Jim Crow, African-Americans were relegated to the status of second class citizens. Jim Crow represented the legitimization of anti-black racism” (Pilgrim, 2012). These laws made it illegal for non-whites to enjoy many of the same rights and privileges as whites, such as designating certain areas for the use of “colored” people. If an African-American or other non-white violated those laws then the police would come and enforce the laws. This was dramatized in the famous sit-ins at lunch counters and when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus, though Jim Crow laws dictated that, as an African-American, she was required to do so for a white passenger. This was a legalized process of the systemic violation of civil rights.

As police officers, sworn to enforce the laws of their various jurisdiction, the police were called upon to enforce these laws and they did so. Not only did the arrest African-Americans for violating Jim Crow statutes that would eventually be ruled unconstitutional, but they also failed to protect African-Americans from community violence. In fact, it is critical to realize that law enforcement participation in community violence or its failure to prosecute those who engaged in community violence were critical elements of the segregation that occurred under Jim Crow. “The Jim Crow laws and system of etiquette were undergirded by violence, real and threatened. Blacks who violated Jim Crow norms, for example, drinking from the white water fountain or trying to vote, risked their homes, their jobs, even their lives. Whites could physically beat blacks with impunity. Blacks had little legal recourse against these assaults because the Jim Crow criminal justice system was all-white: police, prosecutors, judges, juries, and prison officials” (Pilgrim, 2012).

Moreover, even when the Supreme Court began to strike down segregationist statutes and the federal government passed sweeping Civil Rights legislation that would protect non-whites from de jure segregation, routine race-based civil rights violations remained part of the underlying social fabric in many areas. There were a number of murders of African-Americans and white civil rights workers during the 1960s, and even when their killers were brought to trial during that time period, they were frequently not convicted. In the 1990s and early 2000s, prosecutors began to revisit those cases, earning convictions for those deaths, but the significant gap between the commission of the crimes and the conviction for those crimes helps demonstrate an underlying social fabric that was designed to prevent African-Americans from receiving full civil rights and liberties.

Of course, while discriminatory behavior describes a significant amount of civil rights violations by police, it does not describe all of them. Instead, much of the early civil rights violations by police officers was due to a failure to fully and completely understand the requirements in the Bill of Rights. It took several years of case law in front of the Supreme Court to fully highlight the requirements of those amendments. The most famous of those cases was Miranda v. Arizona, but another case, Wong Sun v. United States, helped explain the consequences when part, but not all, of a police investigation violated a defendant’s civil rights.

Wong Sun v. United States actually occurred prior to the Miranda case and focused on the issue of an illegal arrest and search and seizure. The defendant’s arrest and the attendant search of his person and property violated Fourth Amendment standards. The results of that search were not used in his prosecution, but his own verbal statements, which were incriminating, were used in his trial. The Supreme Court determined that “verbal evidence which derives so immediately from an unlawful entry and an unauthoraized arrest as the officers’ action in the present case is no less the ‘fruit’ of official illegality than the more common tangible fruits of the unwarranted intrusion” (Wong Sun v. United States, 1963). This decision expanded on the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine, which excludes any evidence that would not have been found, but for the illegal activity, from being admissible against a defendant in a criminal trial. This decision helped highlight some police practices, such as conducting illegal searches and seizures with the hopes of getting confessions that, standing-alone, would provide for a conviction, were civil rights violations.

In Miranda v. Arizona, the Supreme Court was called upon to determine the breadth of the Fifth Amendment right to remain silent and the Sixth Amendment right to an attorney. In the cases, the defendants were interrogated prior to being informed that they had the right to remain silent. Evidence from their interrogations was used in the criminal trial against them and they were convicted of a criminal offense. This practice was not limited to the defendants in this case. On the contrary, it was a widespread practice to interrogate defendants without an attorney being present. Moreover, defendants were generally not apprised of their rights to remain silent or to retain counsel. These may not seem like significant omissions in the current climate, when any person who has seen a police procedural television show is aware of one’s Miranda Rights. However, during that time period, even if criminal defendants were aware that they had a right to remain silent, they may not have been aware of what that right meant. In fact, there was some confusion as to whether the Fifth Amendment merely protected people from being compelled to testify against themselves at trial. Likewise, the right to an attorney was a questionable one. It was clear that defendants had a right to hire counsel to represent them at trial, but far less clear whether they had a right to counsel in pre-trial proceedings, including interrogations. Because these procedures had not been determined to be constitutional violations and were not facially invalid, as Jim Crow laws were, they were questionable practices. The Miranda decision eliminated the question, making it clear that, prior to custodial interrogation, the police or other government representative needed to notify individuals of their right to remain silent, that anything they said could be used against them in court, their right to an attorney, and the right to appointed counsel if they could not afford an attorney (Miranda v. Arizona, 1966).

In the modern day landscape, civil rights laws are sufficiently well-established that most violations do not occur because of officers finding a conflict between state and local laws and federal Equal Protection requirements or because of a lack of understanding about the width and breadth of protected civil rights. Instead, most modern day civil rights violations appear to be intentional and knowing violations of a suspect’s protected rights. While there is a wide variety of different ways that the government can violate a defendant’s civil rights, two of them appear with sufficient frequency to merit discussion: excessive force and racial profiling.

Racial profiling, as its name suggests, is the use of race as a factor in determining suspects for particular crimes and is a violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment guarantees of Equal Protection. “Racial profiling disproportionately targets people of color for investigation and enforcement, alienating communities from law enforcement, hindering community policing efforts, and causing law enforcement to lose credibility and trust among the people they are sworn to protect and serve” (ACLU, 2014). Racial profiling can be a difficult practice to stop, because many well-intentioned officers may believe that race or ethnicity is a valid reason to suspect a person of a crime. For example, in the wake of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, many non-criminal Muslims and people who appeared to be Muslim were targeted for criminal investigation because of activity that, if conducted by a white person, would have appeared harmless. Moreover, much of racial profiling involves an unintentional use of stereotypes and societal norms to inform decision making; officers may not even be aware that they are using race in their criteria. It can also be very difficult to demonstrate racial profiling, especially for the individual victim of the practice. For example, a controversial New York City Police Department stop and frisk policy was recently halted after substantiated complaints by numerous non-white citizens that they were stopped, without any reason to suspect them of criminal behavior, because of their race or ethnicity (Center for Constitutional Rights, 2013).

Excessive force is another way that police officers can violate a suspect’s civil rights. Some acts of excessive force are clear civil rights violations. For example, the beating of an unarmed Rodney King by several armed police officers was clearly a violation of his civil rights. However, not all cases of excessive force are so straight-forward. This is because “There’s no concrete definition of excessive force. Police have to use force to subdue suspects every day. Reasonable levels of force are guessed by cops on the street, second-guessed by police review boards and sometimes tested in civil lawsuits and criminal prosecutions on a case-by-case basis” (Segan, 2013). Furthermore, the type of force that is permissible may vary by jurisdiction; some jurisdictions absolutely bar some moves, like choke holds, while others do not. For police officers, acting in the moment, it may be difficult to gauge when some force is excessive. The reality of police work is that sometimes an officer may be called upon to use tremendous force, up to and including deadly force, to subdue a suspect, protect lives, or engage in self-defense. Knowing when it is appropriate to use such force may be an officer’s most difficult subjective judgment call.

Although one might think of civil rights as a well-defined area, the fact that there are at least three distinct categories of civil rights violations, legal civil rights violations, questionable practices, and prohibited civil rights violations, helps explain why police continue to violate suspects’ civil rights. Moreover, though these areas have gained greater definition and explanation over time, there is still some ambiguity about them. For example, while Jim Crow laws are no longer enforceable, Arizona just passed legislation that will make it legal for businesses to discriminate against homosexuals. The police will, undoubtedly, be called upon to enforce these laws and remove homosexuals from business establishments. Though the law seems facially unconstitutional, without a court decision declaring the law unconstitutional, it will be considered a valid state law. As a result, police will, once again, be placed in a position of having to enforce state or local laws, as required by their job descriptions, or obey the dictates of the Constitution. What this suggests is that, unfortunately, civil rights violations, both intentional and unintentional, will remain connected with police work.


American Civil Liberties Union. (2014). Racial profiling. Retrieved February 21, 2014


Center for Constitutional Rights. (2013). Report: Racial disparity in NYPD stop and frisks.

Retrieved February 21, 2014 from:

Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966).

Pilgrim, D. 2012. What was Jim Crow? Retrieved February 21, 2014 from the Jim Crow

Museum of Racist Memorabilia website:

Segan, S. (2013, July 14). What is excessive force? Retrieved February 21, 2014 from ABCNews website:

U.S. Const. Amend. II.

U.S. Const. Amend. IV.

U.S. Const. Amend. V.

U.S. Const. Amend. VI.

U.S. Const. Amend. VIII.

U.S. Const. Amend. XIII.

U.S. Const. Amend. XIV.

U.S. Const. Amend. XV.

Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471 (1963).

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