Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Is there too much "force" in our police force?

In case you missed this story, an officer for Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) shot an unarmed man in the back after midnight on New Year's Day. The man died about 7 hours later. The officer has now resigned from the police force. An attorney representing the dead man's family or estate has filed a $25 million claim with BART. A criminal investigation is also underway.

Then I saw this story: Survey: ER doctors suspect excessive police force - USATODAY.com

I have to ask: Is it time for us to rethink the way we train our nation's police officers? Do they shoot too quickly, too lethally? I have lots of opinions and ideas on the subject of how we want our police forces to act and what mentality we should want them to take into the job each day. The police work for all of us, after all, so I think we all ought to be able to demand changes if we don't like the way they're conducting themselves. I'd like to take more time and do more thorough research before I publish my thoughts.

But what do any of you think? Are either of these stories reason for concern? Should the BART officer face criminal charges? Or are our police doing the best they can at a difficult and dangerous job?

15 comments:

Language Lover said...

The article suggests that the shooting was completely unprovoked, that there was no way Grant could have been seen as a threat. I'm sure more details and interpretations will emerge soon, but this doesn't even look like an Amadou Diallo case; it looks like the officer just decided to shoot. Which, given that Grant is a black man, seems pretty sinister. I do think your question deserves some thought, but I'm not sure it applies to this situation---this wasn't just a reflexive action.

Thanks for posting this, btw---I hadn't heard about it, even living here.

S said...

There's actually some video of the incident, shot from a cell phone. The video quality isn't great, but it at least provides more visual than we usually have for these incidents. I think it's at least possible that this shooting was a reflexive action. I'm not sure what was said or what action Grant may have made, like turning his head to say something and be better heard, or even just twitching in response to having a knee put in his back. That kind of perceived threatening movement by a suspect has been the explanation for lots of police force, even shootings.

Of course, if the officer did just shoot because he felt like it, no question he should be charged with murder.

mikeb302000 said...

My idea is that many police officers are unfit psychologically. These need to be weeded out or given desk jobs. New hires should meet higher standards; there must be ways to screen for extreme racism or the tendency to abuse power.

However, all that should always be accompanied with recognition of the fact that most officers are "doing the best they can at a difficult and dangerous job," as you said.

Dan said...

Counter-terrorism training sometimes involves a "shoot to kill" method of stopping suspected suicide bombers and the like. There was a Brazilian running from British police in a underground station, soon after the London bombings in 2005. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4712061.stm

He was running, valuted the turnstile, and didn't obey/understand commands to stop. Given the location, a BART terminal, its possible the officer reacted as trained.

Also, I've seen tasers held in holsters like guns, and the thought occurs that the police may have forgot he was carring a gun instead of a taser. There are many possibilities other than a police officer comitting murder.

Anonymous said...

I wanted to say i really dont think this is about race it's about Human Rights witch have slipped throu the cracks in this society I watched the video and thought of the Nazi's in Germany ripping people off TRAINS. LINING them up and assulting them like storm trooppers and then shooting them. NICE right? I do think the family should be taken care of maybe there should reform in the BART system like fist firing all of the cops that stood by while procedure and protical were not fallowed AT ALL they themselves should live with the guilt of what they did all of these officers come from the same school? You are not to allow abuse of procedure and well walking up to someone that your trying to get info from i dont think punching them in the face and calling them names is how they teach respectable officers to handle a situation,If ya watch the whole tape Raw video on cell phone in the beginning one officer walks up to the young man and basically assaults him before they had him on the ground then he falls to his knees and you can see him plead with the officer how sad is that there is No explanation for this I bet these officer are more sorry all the videos where taken than taken this young man from his mom,sister,father,girlfriend and child. That they killed this man infront of hundreds of people including his own friends. look if these cops had all followed there own policys one makeing sure the other officer is doing there job to standered this never would have happend right? someone didn't take control of this officer and this officer shot someone in cold blood.

OGO said...

I don't like throwing the baby out with the bath water. I think most police officers are good people (like I think most people are good people) who are doing the best they can.

Obviously you have some bad apples. When I make a mistake at work, usually it involves sending a fax to the wrong number or mistyping an email. Unfortunately for a police officer (who is just as human) people can die when he/she makes mistakes. They have to be extra careful and dilligent. I feel sorry for everyone involved.

One Girl's Opinion said...

I agree with Dan ... based on what they say the video contains ... he had to think it was a taser. Which doesn't necessarily mean he's freed from guilt ...

I think it's sad. All the way around sad.

S said...

I have to say, I'm going to have a hard time swallowing it if the official story becomes that he thought he was grabbing his taser. First, if a taser and a handgun are that easy to confuse, tasers need to be redesigned immediately. Second, guys on my side (non-police defendants) claim mistakes with guns (I thought it was the BB gun; I didn't pull the trigger, it just went off; etc.) and are routinely rejected by state's firearms experts and cops. Those claims of mistake aren't just rejected, they're mocked. The answer from the state side is always, "A gun like this doesn't just go off accidentally and anyone with any knowledge of them can't mistake it for anything else than a handgun."

So it will be hard for me (and other defenders, I would imagine) to hear it accepted as truth when it's a cop who claims the mistake. Furthermore, even if my guy were believed, that still wouldn't absolve him of criminal responsibility for his deadly mistake. Perhaps I'm just incredibly tired of police suffering no criminal consequences for their deadly mistakes when I have many guys serving time behind bars for theirs. (Of course I agree that police who make deadly mistakes suffer personal consequences, but surely we can then agree that so do non-cops who make such mistakes. The non-cops just don't get a pass from the DA's office and the public.)

I think my real concern is that we are training our police to react to all situations with too much reliance on force. I don't want my metro police to be trained to approach all situations as counter-terrorism incidents. I just don't. I don't want people being shot in the back in subways. That's not the kind of service I want from my police. I don't want police who can't resolve conflict with a suspect or arrestee without relying on a dang taser. In the BART shooting, my question is why on earth was he reaching for his taser (if we really are going to accept that explanation)? The guy was on his stomach, handcuffed. I think the explanation might be that he was turning his head, asking questions like, "Why is this happening?" I am sick and tired of police treating people this way. People are not resisting arrest or obstructing police duty or being at all unreasonable when they ask police for a little explanation, but all too often police refuse to answer these basic questions. I've seen it more times than I'm comfortable with.

I'm also tired of making excuses for the police behavior in each separate incident and never, ever taking a step back and looking at the big picture. It's time (past time, perhaps) for us all to stop and ask why we have to make so many excuses for so many individual incidents.

I think it is time to redefine the culture surrounding our nation's police forces. I think it is time to improve training everywhere so police don't use force as the first (or even second) resort when trying to get suspects or arrestees to "comply." Frankly, I think it's time for us to make our police forces rethink what it means for those people to comply. I want a better-trained, more professional police force. I think we have let police slide away from that for far too long.

One Girl's Opinion said...

You may be right. I don't think it's a good excuse that he thought it was a taser, I just think that could be the excuse.

I agree with your point that private citizens you make mistakes are punished criminally, so why should this police officer be free from the same treatment? The answer is he shouldn't. I'm not smart enought to know what his punishment should be.

But by the same token that you don't want your clients judged until the jury has made a decision, until all evidence is presented, I think you should offer the same in this instance. I'm not saying I'm for excessive use of force or police officers who think they are above the law, I agree with you that Metro police should have a couple of different levels other than just 'terrorist threat, shoot to kill'. But rushing to judgement here seems like a bad thing, and judging a national police force on the action of a few seems wrong too.

S said...

Believe me, I'm not at all rushing to judgment in the BART shooting. I don't think I've written anything that could be construed as such. I haven't said anything beyond hypotheticals of whether he should be charged criminally or with what.

I'm talking in broad generalities about what we should expect from our police and how we should respond when incidents like the BART shooting occur.

As for judging the national police force on the actions of a few, I think it's absolutely time for us to do that. How many incidents like this is enough for us to reach that point? The Robbie Tolan shooting in Texas (the shooting of an unarmed man in his own driveway for suspicion of having stolen his own damn car)? The shooting of the groom leaving his bachelor party in the early morning hours of his wedding day in NYC? Amadou Diallo? How about the poor guy who was sodomized by NYC police using their nightsticks? There was a 19 year-old girl who was unconscious from a medical condition a few years ago. She didn't respond to police requests to get out of her parked car (probably due to the fact that she was un-freakin'-conscious) so she got shot 19 times, at least 5 in the head. She's dead. How about the guy in Michigan who was suffering an epileptic fit but was tazed for not complying with police orders and subsequently charged with obstructing? (I'm pretty sure the jury did the right thing there.) How about the guy in Topeka who was having some kind of coronary event that made him irrational and incoherent, and therefore non-compliant with police "orders"? He was tazed 3 times, which his heart couldn't withstand. Oh, and there was the guy who was tazed at least 9 times. The coroner estimates he was dead for at least the last two. How about the 90-something woman in Georgia who awoke to her house being burglarized and when she tried to resist the home invaders, wound up shot to death? Turns out the invaders were a bunch of cops serving a bad search warrant on the wrong house. And then there's the survey of the ER doctors who have to treat the folks that our cops are shooting. They say cops overdo it.

We have more than enough information from all regions of this country to now acknowledge that the way our police forces conduct business might need to be rethought. It's just cowardice on our parts if we refuse to see the problem and deal with it.

One Girl's Opinion said...

I dunno ... I don't see the difference between judging an entire profession based on a dozen or more incidents (and I'm sure there are more than the list of horrible crimes you've given) than judging an entire group of people based on the crimes of a few.

Because do we agree that while some cops are bad / criminal / negligent many are good / ethical / stand up people? Or are all cops bad?

Edintally said...

And that is just it, there is NO accountability.

I think it was an accident but so what. If he thought it was a Taser.....there is still no reason to pull a Taser out. But police routinely do this all the time. The Taser is being used as a Pain Compliance tool.

If he meant to pull his weapon, why? There is no need to bring a gun to an open hand confrontation (force continuum).

If this officer hadn't resigned, he would probably be sitting at a desk or at worst on paid leave. And from the President to the Supreme Court, to Judges, and to prosecutors....nobody cares. They want to believe it is Us v. Them. "Them" is at all times good and wholesome. The rest of us are a mixed bag of potential law breakers.

This isn't even close to being an isolated incident. Take a trip over to: http://www.theagitator.com/ or the http://www.ratemycop.com/ forums* and you will see daily postings of police misconduct. But hey, Scalia says there is a brand new professionalism in police work so now worries. Would hate to see the old professionalism.

*(I'm no longer the moderator even though the owner has not taken my name off the site)

One Girl's Opinion said...

I know that this was bad and the cop involved is insane and should be punished. I'm not taking anything away from that and nor do I disput that ...

However, a police officer serving a warrant here in Dallas was shot in the head on Tuesday. I bring this up for perspective.

http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/news/localnews/stories/DN-copshoot_08met.ART0.State.Edition2.4a849dd.html

S said...

Obviously cops face danger, too, and it's terrible when they got shot and/or killed. That really ought to go without saying. It shouldn't give them license, though, to use force indiscriminately.

It bothers me that we seem to be unwilling to judge an entire profession. At some point, we're allowed to say maybe it's time to rethink some basic training, policies, and procedures. Can't we agree that it's ok to say, "This isn't working as well as we'd like. Maybe we can try something different and find a better way." I'm suggesting that it's appropriate to have that discussion about police training, policies, and procedures. I don't see that as denigrating the entire police profession or calling all cops bad. On the contrary, I think refusing to have that discussion is foolish and dangerous. The escalation of force I think we've seen isn't good for the safety of police officers, either.

I'm bothered by the willingness of so many to be so reflexively defensive of cops simply because they're cops. They serve us. They ought to be accountable to us. We ought to have some say in how we want them to perform their duties. I want them to be less reliant on force. I believe there is ample evidence, from everything I've cited which really is just the tip of the iceberg, that police training has become a little too comfortable with use of force, even reliant on it.

Every organization or system or agency needs to refocus once in a while, tweak the training manual, or overhaul the policies and procedures. Reassessment of what is and what is not working is a necessary step for corporations, charitable organizations, the Boy Scouts, etc. Same for for the police force.

A Voice of Sanity said...

http://blog.simplejustice.us/2008/01/08/the-first-murder-in-lima-ohio.aspx

From Mark Draughn at Windypundit comes this story of a search warrant execution by the police SWAT team in Lima, Ohio, that left a mother dead and her one year old son shot by police. As Lima councilman Derry Glenn said, "The first murder in 2008 came from a police officer."

The facts are nothing unusual. The SWAT team, which clear enjoys the machismo of weaponry as demonstrated on its website, executed a search warrant for a suspected drug dealer at the home of 26 year old mother of 6, Tarika Wilson at about 8:15 in the evening. They knew that there were children in the house from the toys on the porch and in the yard. There were two dogs in the house, identified by police as pit bulls (because poodles don't carry the implication of killer dogs), though no claim that the dogs were vicious or attacked any officer. Just to be sure, the police shot them both.

There's no explanation of how or why Tarika Wilson, holding her 1 year old in her arms, was killed. The police chief feels badly about it, but has withheld the name of the officer who killed her. Of course, all other names involved were disclosed, together with as much negative information as possible to make sure that no one feels too badly for the dead woman.
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