Recent allegations of police officers using excessive force against people of color have received considerable attention in the media. Yet such incidents have largely stalled in the legal system. With a few notable exceptions, neither criminal nor civil proceedings, at either the federal or state level, have provided recourse for those injured by the police or for the families of those killed by the police.
This Essay examines the media coverage of police excessive force in relation to one federal statute bridging criminal and civil rights concerns—18 U.S.C. § 242. While the statute is criminal in nature, allowing federal prosecution against government officers who willfully violate constitutional rights, it addresses civil rights concerns by offering a remedy against those who use state force to infringe civil rights.
An empirical examination reveals that—despite considerable media coverage of police excessive force—such coverage is reactive rather than proactive when it comes to federal civil rights charges. That is, it discusses charges under 18 U.S.C. § 242 only when an investigation that might result in such charges is already underway, rather than examining whether one will or should take place. An original empirical survey of ten years of coverage by thirty-six major newspapers reveals that, of 445 articles that discussed federal civil rights charges, only forty-four, or 9.89%, did so proactively rather than reactively. Such an approach is uncharacteristic for the media, which typically plays an important role in questioning whether the government should take action in rectifying alleged abuses of power directed against citizens. The Essay considers why the media has assumed a more reactive role in police excessive force cases than in other cases involving civil rights violations, discusses the consequences of this role, and finally proposes a number of ways that media coverage of police excessive force incidents should be improved.