The term "police brutality" was used by American newspapers as early as 1872, when the Chicago Tribune reported on the beating of a civilian under arrest at the Harrison Street Police Station.
The origin of modern policing based on the authority of the nation state is commonly traced back to developments in 17th and 18th century France, with modern police departments being established in most nations by the 19th and early 20th centuries. Cases of police brutality appear to have been frequent then, with "the routine bludgeoning of citizens by patrolmen armed with nightsticks or blackjacks." Early large-scale incidents of brutality occurred during labor strikes, such as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the Pullman Strike of 1894, the Lawrence textile strike of 1912, the Ludlow massacre of 1914, the Steel strike of 1919, and the Hanapepe massacre of 1924.
Portions of the populations may perceive the police to be oppressors. In addition, there is a perception that victims of police brutality often belong to relatively powerless groups, such as minorities, the disabled, the young, and the poor.
Hubert Locke writes,
When used in print or as the battle cry in a black power rally, police brutality can by implication cover a number of practices, from calling a citizen by his or her first name to a death by a policeman's bullet. What the average citizen thinks of when he hears the term, however, is something midway between these two occurrences, something more akin to what the police profession knows as "alley court"—the wanton vicious beating of a person in custody, usually while handcuffed, and usually taking place somewhere between the scene of the arrest and the station house.
In March 1991, members of the Los Angeles Police Department harshly beat an African American suspect, Rodney King, while a white civilian videotaped the incident, leading to extensive media coverage and criminal charges against several of the officers involved. In April 1992, hours after the four police officers involved were acquitted at trial, the Los Angeles riots of 1992 commenced, causing 53 deaths, 2,383 injuries, more than 7,000 fires, damage to 3,100 businesses, and nearly $1 billion in financial losses. After facing federal trial, two of the four officers were convicted and received 32-month prison sentences. The case was widely seen as a key factor in the reform of the Los Angeles Police Department.
According to data released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (2011), between 2003 and 2009 at least 4,813 people died in the process of being arrested by local police. Of the deaths classified as law enforcement homicides, 2,876 deaths occurred of which 1,643 or 57.1% of the people who died were "people of color".