When Cops Take Justice Into Their Own Hands

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

From a reader in the Southwest:

I live in a city that grabbed international headlines for police brutality a couple years ago. Several years prior to the outrage, a former friend/roommate of mine had just gone through the police academy and was going through the on-the-job training. One evening, he came home and wanted to brag about his day.

He and his training officer received a call about a domestic issue. They arrived at a house where they found a woman and a boy (about 5 years old) who both showed signs of being beaten. The woman's boyfriend clearly looked like the person who had caused the harm. They handcuffed the man to take him into custody.

Then they made a poor decision.

Instead of taking him to the police station, they decided to “teach him a lesson.” They repeatedly slammed the suspect’s head onto the trunk of there police car when searching his pockets in order to “show him how it feels,” and they told him to “pick on someone his own size.” They would trip him on the sidewalk to make him land on the concrete while his arms were handcuffed behind his back.

They decided that it was their role as police officers to carry out vigilante justice. And the training officer clearly thought this was a proper procedure to display to his trainee.

A few months later, a lawsuit was raised by the suspect for police brutality against these two officers. My former friend neglected to brag to me about the outcome, although he felt completely justified in his actions. At risk was the suspect being released without charges because of the police behavior. I never heard about the outcome.

As a parent, I can understand the hatred felt towards an abusive adult and the desire for vigilante justice. A police officer, however, must be held accountable to a higher standard. At the very least, these two officers abused a suspect and compromised the case against him. At worst, they set him free to abuse again.