Hastings Law Journal


When a police officer uses excessive force against an individual, that individual can sue for damages or to enjoin an abusive police technique, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Years after Congress created this civil rights cause of action, however, attorneys, legislators and citizens are questioning the effectiveness of this statute as a legal tool for deterring misconduct. The numerous drawbacks to bringing and winning section 1983 suits hinder this legal remedy. Furthermore, even those suits that are successfully litigated usually have little or no deterrent effect on the police officer's behavior.

This Note examines why section 1983 suits for police misconduct fail to have a deterrent effect in the majority of cases. The Note discusses the inherent problems with the suits, and then looks at the larger context of police accountability-the external and internal systems. As the Note reveals, nearly all accountability systems for police misconduct are ineffective. As a result, section 1983 suits, as a single deterrent, do not bring about change unless the suits gain extensive media coverage, cost the city taxpayers an enormous sum of money, or both.

The Note presents recommendations for instituting police accountability systems. The internal systems need to be restructured so that police department policies are enforced and discipline meted out where deserved. External accountability must be instituted in the form of legislative amendments and civilian oversight. The Note concludes that unless broad changes are made in police accountability systems, the cycle of police abuse will continue virtually unchecked in cities throughout California and throughout the United States.

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