Police torture

What is police torture?

The United States Supreme Court, in Brown v. Mississippi (1936), equated “confessions obtained by violence” (p. 286) with torture and declared that by either name the practice was unconstitutional. In Chambers v. Florida (1940) the Supreme Court held that in some instances it was torture to when psychological (or mental) pressure was used to obtain a confession.

The view that police torture only occurs during interrogation is fairly standard. In 1931, the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement (usually known as the Wickersham Commission) defined the third degree (which it used as a synonym for torture) as “the employment of methods which inflict suffering, physical or mental, upon a person in order to obtain information about a crime” (Wickersham Commission, Lawlessness in Law Enforcement, p. 19). The Commission noted that police in Chicago engaged in “brutal arrests,” but did not include that violence in its analysis of police torture in the city. Courts typically draw a similar distinction between abusive arrests and torture during interrogation, though a few victims have successfully connected violence at the time of arrest and during interrogation into a single claim of torture.

In contrast, the U.N. Convention Against Torture defines torture to include both acts that cause mental or physical pain to obtain information or when law enforcement or instances when government agents engage in the type of vigilante acts that Daniel LaChance aptly calls “street corner justice.” Article 1.1 of the Convention provides:

For the purposes of this Convention, the term “torture” means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

Published by

erdale13

Professor, History and Law, University of Florida

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