Use of Force 2007-08

Posted 8/31/08

IS IT TOO EASY TO “ZAP”?

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel. Smarting from its first-ever loss in court, Taser International was assessed damages in excess of $6 million by Federal jurors who ruled that the company “failed to warn police that its stun guns could be dangerous when used on people under the influence of drugs or in conjunction with chest compressions.”

     The June 2008 verdict held the company 15% responsible for the death of a Salinas (CA) man whom police zapped as many as thirty times while trying to calm him down.  An autopsy attributed the cause of death to methamphetamine intoxication, heart problems related to chronic drug abuse and being Tasered.

     In another recent “first” a Winnfield (LA) cop became the first officer ever charged for unlawfully killing someone with a Taser.  The 22-year old cop, son of the town’s late police chief, was indicted for manslaughter and malfeasance in office for Tasering a handcuffed suspect as many as thirty times and not getting him medical help.  According to physicians, the man died from heart failure brought on by multiple shocks. If convicted the officer could face a 40-year sentence.

     Tasers are pistol-like devices that use compressed nitrogen to shoot two darts that attach themselves to a target’s clothing, delivering a 50,000-volt shock for up to five seconds per trigger pull.  They have been cited as contributing factors in numerous fatal encounters between citizens and police, but until recently virtually every death was ultimately attributed to other causes.

Click here for the complete collection of use of force essays

     It’s easy to understand why cops like the Taser.  In the heat of a struggle batons and other impact weapons are difficult to use: blows must be placed so as to disable but not kill, and officers must get close to suspects who may be larger in size and more physically adept.  Pepper spray is often ineffective.  Not only must the stream be carefully aimed, but its action is not instantaneous and the spray can contaminate others.  In contrast, the Taser is simple to use, allows officers to keep their distance and immobilizes instantly.  A 2004 study in San Jose, California concluded that Tasers were highly effective and reduced officer injuries by twenty percent.  A recent North Carolina study revealed that despite its apparent hazards the Taser was greatly favored over pepper spray for dealing with combative suspects.

     How dangerous is the Taser? Although death reports keep coming in, a 2007 medical study of the weapon’s after-effects determined that it was safe and effective.  Indeed, following a string of questionable police shootings, RAND recently recommended that New York police substantially increase the deployment of Tasers so that officers would have less lethal options than firearms.  Still, confidence in the Taser’s safety is by no means universal (see, for example, the report by Amnesty International). There is considerable concern about the Taser’s effects on persons who are ill or have heart conditions, particularly when repeated shocks are administered.

     Here’s where a little self-criticism can pay off. No matter how easy and convenient Tasers are to use (and that might be part of the problem) they should not be viewed as a solution to the rough-and-tumble of everyday policing.  “Going to the mat” is often inevitable. Instead, their real value lies in helping officers gain a momentary advantage over the physically belligerent so they can be taken into custody without anyone getting hurt.  To that end, officers should be trained in appropriate physical control techniques so that a single jolt is all that’s necessary.

     No approach will always apply, and special rules and tactics may be necessary for cops working alone.  Still, if we blindly continue on the same path and Taser-associated fatalities keep mounting it’s only a matter of time before this valuable tool winds up occupying the same place in the use-of-force continuum as a gun.  And that’s an outcome that no one wants.

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RELATED POSTS

Policing is a Contact Sport I II     Every Cop Needs a Taser

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Police Executive Research Forum guidelines     NIJ reports:  2010   2011     60 Minutes report

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Posted 7/26/08

WHEN COPS KILL (PART II)

Why are some officers repetitively involved in questionable shootings?

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel. Here are the words that lit up Ohio: “Cleveland police officer Jim Simone has an alarming record of killing people.  If anyone else gunned down five people, we'd call him a serial killer.” That’s how Plain Dealer columnist Regina Brett kicked off her July 16 piece about a 60-year old street cop who’s shot at twelve people in his 35-year career and killed five, most recently an ex-con with a long rap sheet.

     Here’s how that happened.  While off duty, officer Simone was in a bank when another customer passed an “I’ve got a gun, give me money” note to a teller.  As the robber fled Simone chased him, and when the suspect climbed into an idling truck he ordered him to freeze.  According to Simone, the man reached down instead.  That’s when he fired. It turned out that the robber was unarmed and that the truck was his. Simone is under restricted duty while the shooting is investigated.

     As one might expect, most of Cleveland, including the Plain Dealer’s own staff, disagreed with columnist Brett. Here’s how columnist Phillip Morris put it:

     “There are some who wonder why Cleveland police officer Jim Simone, who has killed more civilians than possibly any officer in the city's history, is being hailed as a hero in some quarters. The answer is really quite simple. He is a hero.”

     Columnist Brett has since chatted with Simone.  What’s his explanation for all those shootings? He cares, and he’s a hard worker: “I go to work with the intention of finding some bad guys.” But this suspect didn’t display a gun.  Why did he shoot? Because he felt threatened:  “If you put me in jeopardy -- whether that jeopardy is real or imagined -- I have to defend myself.”  While not retracting her remarks, the columnist apologized for not speaking with Simone before publishing her original piece. But not to worry: as soon as he’s back on the streets she’ll accompany him on a ride-along!

     Two-thousand fifty-four miles to the west, in sunny Inglewood, California, another cop felt threatened.  For the second time in two months Inglewood police officer Brian Ragan shot and killed a man, this time while responding to a family disturbance in an apartment house. When Ragan and three other officers knocked a 38-year old man came to the door. He had a gun; when he allegedly raised it, Ragan fired. It now seems that it was the wrong apartment -- the victim, a well-regarded postal worker, lived alone. The gun was registered in his name.

     In May, as PoliceIssues previously reported, Ragan and another officer shot and killed a passenger in a vehicle whose occupants they mistakenly associated with a shots-fired incident.  Now there’s a $25 million lawsuit. Meanwhile officials are asking why he was allowed to return to the field so quickly. Expressing “sincere regret” for the latest death (she called the earlier one a “tragedy”), Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks explained that officer Ragan was cleared by a psychologist so there was no reason to keep him on limited duty.

     And that’s not all. On July 1st. other Inglewood officers chased a known gang member into an alley after witnessing a drug deal.  Police claim he was noncompliant. When he allegedly reached into his waistband they fired, killing him. Apparently he too was unarmed.

     It’s little consolation to a dead person’s family and friends that officers made an honest mistake. Are there ways to reduce the possibility of lethal errors?   Here are three things to consider:

     Environment matters.  Although Cleveland (pop. 461,000) has four times as many residents as Inglewood (115,000), both are demographically similar, with one in four citizens living below poverty level.  Both cities are also plagued by gangs and violence. In 2007, according to preliminary data, Cleveland’s murder rate was 20.5/100,000, while Inglewood’s was 16.5 (in 2006 it was an alarming 31.16).  Cops in Cleveland and Inglewood clearly have a far harder time of it than officers in Beverly Hills, where one murder means a bad year. Police behavior reflects the environment, so one can expect that Cleveland and Inglewood cops will be more likely to interpret ambiguous situations as threatening and react accordingly.

Click here for the complete collection of use of force essays

     Organizations matter.  In recent years Inglewood and its police department have been hit with waves of accusations.  Inglewood’s Mayor currently faces felony conflict-of-interest charges, while several cops are under Federal investigation for accepting sexual favors from massage parlors. Seabrooks, a former Santa Monica PD captain, was hired to clean up the mess. But after three officer-involved shooting deaths in as many months, none “clean,” critics complain that she’s in over her head.

     By and large, police officers work independently. Controlling their behavior is never easy; when departments are as rudderless as Inglewood seems to be, it’s virtually impossible. In these days of police unionism it takes a strong and respected Chief to motivate officers while keeping them in line. Go too far in one direction and they’ll be reluctant to act for fear of punishment; go too far in the other and you’ll have a department-full of independent contractors marching to the beat of their own drummer.

     Finally, individuals matterJim Simone’s comment that “fear will make you respond” was particularly revealing.  Considering the situations that officers regularly face, where things are often not what they seem, they must be able to tolerate considerable risk. In fact most do; if they didn’t our streets would be lined with dead citizens. An overwhelming majority serve out their careers without killing anyone.  That’s not an indication, as some have implied, that they’re slackers.  On the contrary, it’s evidence that they’re sufficiently skilled, levelheaded and risk-tolerant to do their jobs without needlessly taking life.

     Those “supercops” that some in Cleveland seem to long for are a sure bet for trouble. Leave policing to trained, thoughtful professionals, and leave Dirty Harry for the movies.

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Good Guy/Bad Guy/Black Guy (I) (II)     More Rules, Less Force?     Working Scared

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Posted 5/25/08

WHEN COPS KILL

Individual differences are key to understanding why some cops shoot

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel. This much is known.  During the early morning hours of May 11, 2008 someone opened fire outside a fast-food restaurant in Inglewood, California, a working class community adjoining the L.A. Airport. Patrol officers who happened to be nearby saw a man jump into the back of a car. The vehicle then headed in their direction. Whether it was moving slowly, as witnesses say, or speeding right at them, as the officers claim, is a matter of controversy. Thinking that the man who got in the car fired the shots, and fearing they were in harm’s way, the officers opened fire, wounding two of the vehicle’s occupants and killing a third.

     As it turned out, no one in the oncoming car had done anything wrong. Within days the Inglewood police chief expressed her condolences but stopped short of apologizing. “I won't go so far as to call it a mistake. The process that the officers went through had a very tragic outcome.”

     This much is known. During the late evening hours of May 17, 2008, police officers responded to a hardscrabble neighborhood in north Long Beach, California on a 911 call about someone behaving erratically. On arriving they spotted a thin, shirtless, middle-aged man wandering around.  Whether he “charged” them, as the officers insist, or was minding his own business, as witnesses claim, is a matter of controversy. Unfazed by a Taser strike and baton blows, the man punched an officer in the face and grabbed his stick. As they tumbled to the ground the cop’s partner pulled his gun and fired, with lethal results.

     It turned out that the dead guy was a diagnosed schizophrenic whom other officers had previously handled without serious difficulty.  By all accounts he was a harmless pest. Just before the fatal encounter he gave a gift basketball to a local kid; tragically, the youth ran over and watched him die. Irate residents surrounded the officers and only dispersed when reinforcements arrived.  Police were criticized for not dispatching a mental health unit. Whether one was available wasn’t said.

     Cops hate to admit error. But assuming that 19-year old Michael Byoune didn’t deserve to be shot dead for riding in a car, and that 46-year old Roketi Su’e didn’t deserve to be shot dead for being crazy, that’s exactly what these episodes were: mistakes. And they didn’t just “happen”. In the first example officers acting on incomplete information wrongly identified someone as a perpetrator, leading them to interpret innocent behavior as threatening.  In the second case there wasn’t even a crime to begin with, only a mentally disabled person of the type that patrol officers successfully deal with every day. Why these particular cops couldn’t handle the 120-pound man without shooting him is yet to be explained.

Click here for the complete collection of use of force essays

     Acting in the absence of good information, jumping to conclusions and making tactical errors are bad enough by themselves: when these three sins are combined the consequences can be deadly. Officers aren’t robots; differences in personality, experience and training can make them respond differently. Some may escalate force too quickly, others not quickly enough.  Still, most are very careful about using guns; if they weren’t every traffic violator who reached for a wallet before being asked would wind up dead.

     What to do? Here are some commonsensical approaches to preventing needless shootings:

  • Being a real professional means dealing with the good and the bad and the ugly.  Engage officers in continuous dialogue about lethal force.  Dispassionately examine screw-ups.  Provide moral support but don’t make excuses.
     
  • Adopt the “best practices” model from private enterprise.  Officers make excellent decisions to not use deadly force all the time. Reward them! Praise examples of good work at roll-call; use them to set behavioral standards and for training.
     
  • Don’t ignore individual differences. A minority of officers use a majority of force.  Personality traits such as impulsivity must be proactively sought out and addressed, hopefully before hiring, no later than during field training.
     
  • Policing is a contact sport. Insure that officers can always go mano-a-mano through regular physical combat training.
     
  • Rethink pay plans. Day in, day out, it’s patrol work -- not investigations, not SWAT -- that’s the more mentally and physically challenging. Demand that street officers stay in good shape and compensate them accordingly.
     
  • Police work is done in an uncertain environment. Making it perfectly safe for cops can make it perfectly dangerous for everyone else. Those loath to take personal risks should be encouraged to look for a different line of work.

     To advance the profession one thing is crucial: shed the cloak of denial. All those efforts spent building bridges to the community can be rendered moot in the instant it takes to squeeze that trigger.

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RELATED POSTS

Is it Always About Race?     Good Guy/Bad Guy/Black Guy (I) (II)     More Rules, Less Force?

Working Scared     De-escalation: Cure, Buzzword or a Bit of Both?     Does Race Matter? (Part II)

Does Race Matter?     Lessons of Ferguson     A Very Hot Summer     Homeless, Mentally Ill, Dead

First, Do No Harm     Making Time     When Cops Kill (Part II)


Posted 11/16/07

ASSISTED SUICIDE IS NOT POLICE WORK!

Less-than-lethal weapons can keep cops from becoming executioners

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel. Four nights ago, after menacing family members with knives, an 18-year old New York City psychiatric outpatient with a violent past confronted officers responding to his mother’s frantic 9-1-1 call. In the dark, the youth drew an object from his clothing, pointed it in the cops’ direction and demanded to be killed. Four uniformed officers and a plainclothesman fired twenty shots. Ten struck and killed the boy.

     The item turned out to be a hairbrush.  An emergency response team with less-than-lethal weapons had been summoned but was not yet on scene.  The shooting continues to be heavily criticized by angry residents but is being staunchly defended by the Police Commissioner, who said that the officers were reasonably in fear of their lives.

     After a heavy night of partying, an 18-year old Huntington Beach, California girl stumbled home, slashed at her mother with a knife, then ran around the neighborhood, brandishing the weapon at passers-by and stabbing a tree.  When two officers approached, the woman yelled "I'm on drugs, just ... kill me".  Ignoring orders to drop the knife, she charged the cops.  They fired, striking her fifteen times. Later, the coroner confirmed that the youth had been high on meth.

     When the shots rang out a third officer, who had just arrived, was loading a pepper ball launcher; a fourth was on the way with a beanbag shotgun.  Citizens protested the killing as senseless but it was ruled justified by the D.A., who said that the officers were caught by surprise and had no alternative.

     Occurring at opposite ends of the U.S. fifteen months apart, these remarkably similar incidents are unusual only in their tragic ends. Thanks to deinstitutionalization, a lack of funding and widespread NIMBY’ism, the streets of our cities are awash with the drug-addled and mentally ill, and guess who gets to be their “counselors”?

     Police routinely defuse potentially violent situations without hurting anyone.  Some of the credit goes to a new generation of hardware, from projectile launchers to the ubiquitous Taser.  (Forget aerosol sprays, which have a very limited range and immobilizing effect.)  Yes, less-than-lethal weapons can be misused (shades of MacArthur Park.) Sometimes they cause serious injury and occasionally even kill.  But their benefits are on balance so compelling that no modern law enforcement agency should go without them.

     So why aren’t they available to those who most need them -- the cops on the beat? A few progressive agencies (Irvine, California comes to mind) go so far as to equip every patrol car with a projectile launcher. Others like LAPD and Miami strive to insure that each officer has at least a Taser.  But in many agencies, including the colossal NYPD, less-than-lethal hardware is considered too specialized to distribute. Instead, these critical tools of the trade get locked up in SWAT vans and the trunks of Sergeant’s vehicles, to sit and rust.

Click here for the complete collection of use of force essays

     Policing is an unpredictable business, where events can -- and frequently do -- turn on a dime. If officers have nothing at hand other than a baton, a lousy can of pepper spray and a gun, what do you think’s going to come out when things get dicey? Look, it’s a no-brainer: effective less-than-lethal weapons must be readily available to every street cop.

     Either that, or keep using officers as executioners.

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