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Print Vol. 107, Issue 2


Policing the Police Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983: Rethinking Monell to Impose Municipal Liability on the Basis of Respondeat Superior

Jordyn Manly, J.D. Candidate, Cornell Law School, 2022


21 Apr 2022

The callous murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police in 2020 sparked nationwide protests surrounding racial injustice and ignited calls to “defund the
police.” But while technological advances have led to a rise in highly publicized instances of such injustices, police brutality and misconduct are not novel concepts. Indeed, police misconduct has existed in the U.S. for as long as the institution of policing itself. Although the public is often led to believe that police misconduct is the result of a few “bad apple” officers, there are in fact broader systemic factors at play—most significantly, a police organizational culture that incentivizes and endorses violence and brutality among officers. Although individual officers and municipalities may be held liable for civil rights violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a multitude of legal barriers constrain existing legislation from effectively imposing liability on individual officers and holding police departments accountable for their officers’ unconstitutional actions. Criminal liability for police misconduct, at both the state and federal levels, is similarly inadequate in deterring police brutality.

This Note will focus on reforming police organizational culture—a culture that both permits and promotes officer misconduct—by imposing municipal liability on the basis of respondeat superior. First, I will explore police misconduct and explain it as a result of police organizational culture. Here, I will discuss several factors that have contributed to an organizational culture that fosters police misconduct and brutality. Next, I will explore the legislative history of Section 1983 and discuss available legal remedies for victims of police misconduct. Finally, I will argue that in order to effectively address police misconduct, eliminating qualified immunity, while a good first step, is not in itself sufficient; rather, we should impose liability on municipalities through the doctrine of respondeat superior—a common law tort theory which holds a principal vicariously liable for the wrongdoings of an agent committed within the scope of their agency relationship. This section will involve a discussion of how respondeat superior can be legally implemented as well as the limitations associated with imposing municipal liability in this way.

To read this Note, please click here: Policing the Police Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983: Rethinking Monell to Impose Municipal Liability on the Basis of Respondeat Superior.