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It may seem hard to believe, but we Americans are, on average, living in a time of unprecedented safety and security. Of course, this is not to discount the very real and often very dangerous issues that face many of our communities (in addition to those which we face together as a nation)–certainly these problems are very real too. In fact, sometimes it takes an extreme event, even a tragic one, to remind us of what our rights are, and the way that the law continues to work even in drastic and dangerous situations.

Take the recent violence and unrest in Missouri. Needless to say, there are many viewpoints on such a difficult situation, and we are in no place to judge issues as complex and difficult to parse as what transpired. But one thing we do know is this: in the fallout of increased police action and protesting, and in the intense media scrutiny that this created, a focus was put squarely on civil and criminal rights in a way this nation hasn’t seen in years. With that in mind, we thought we’d run through a basic breakdown of how these rights work in the context of police conduct. We’ll start this week with issues surrounding police misconduct, and move forward into criminal defendant rights in our next post.

You may think we know the rights afforded to police and to citizens in this country–after all, how many cop shows have we seen?–but do you think you’d be able to retain this information in a heated moment, or in a situation in which you were questioned by police in connection with a crime? There are certainly situations, as we’ve seen time and time again, in which one side or the other goes too far, rights are violated, and sometimes tragic circumstances develop. But there are statutes in place that govern the actions of the police, and unless these statutes are violated, the law has not been broken.

While there are several types of claims that tend to be brought against police, the most well-known (though far from the most common) is that of excessive force; of course, this is the issue that was on the minds of all of us as we watched the situation in Missouri unfold. Excessive force is, however, a complex issue itself, one which depends on context, surrounding circumstances and subjective calls. The key word is “excessive”: that is, force can be excessive even if it is a very small amount, or it can be appropriate even if it’s quite a large amount. If, to a reasonable person, the situation merits the use of physical violence, firearms, or the like, then the force is not considered excessive.

As we can see, there are some gray areas here, but it is the flexibility of this sort of law that is paramount in maintaining a safe environment from both the perspective of law enforcement and that of regular citizens. Since criminal situations change frequently and have certainly evolved since the days of the Constitution, an ever-changing and, yes, sometimes subjective framework of laws is necessary to govern and maintain safety.