Monday, October 19, 2015

Police and the Use of Force

Police brutality has been a hot topic for the past several years now.  With the increased access to camera phones (thanks to capitalism), police are being held accountable more than in years past.

Every situation comes down to the basic concept of the appropriate use of force.  When is force necessary?  When is force justified?  I'd like to give my thoughts on the recent shooting of Deven Guilford in Michigan in February 2015.

Click here to read CNN's report if you are unfamiliar with the case.

There are two videos posted at the end of the article.  Discretion advised.  The first video is the side-by-side cell phone video with the officer's body camera.  The second is an in depth analysis in defense of Deven Guilford.  

If someone told you that a routine traffic stop for flashing your high beams would lead to a murder, you wouldn't believe them.  What could escalate a situation to that point?  There is undoubtedly several decisions that both the officer and the 17 year old could have made differently to better resolve the situation.  The teen could have been honest from the beginning and said he didn't have his license on him.  The officer could have explained the bright light situation to the teen instead of making the teen paranoid that the officer was purposefully lying.  The teen could have simply accepted the officer was lying to him and not pushed him any further.  The officer could have avoided further escalation -- and paranoia for the teen -- if he didn't play the semantics game with the question "can I see your badge number?"   In hindsight, many mistakes were made.

But it is clear to me when the situation got out of control:  the moment the officer quickly opened the door and attempted to pull the teen from the car.  This was the first use of force.  This obviously caught the teenager by surprise, but he calmed down and complied once he got his cell phone camera back on.  The teen followed the order to "get on the ground" as he got on his knees.  The teen followed the order to "get on your belly."  The teen followed the order to spread his arms.  All of this while being threatened with a taser.  As the officer approaches, the face-down teen says "I don't have a weapon."  Despite the teen following every order, the officer still found it necessary to throw the teens phone away and forcefully attempt to cuff him as the teen pleads "Officer what are you doing? Officer!  Officer!".  This was the second use of force.   The teen began to struggle, still face down, and the officer jumped up and deployed his taser.  This was the third use of force.  The resulting struggle ended the 17 year old's life.

So back to my original question:  When was force necessary in this situation?  Sure, the teen was being argumentative, but does that justify force?  The verbal exchange never involved threats of violence at all.  Does the initial reaction of the teen not wanting to get out of the car justify force?  He eventually complied with every command.

In the end, it was determined that the officer followed all the correct procedures and training, broke no police regulations, and no charges were brought against him.

Let me restate that: police training/procedures can justify the death of a 17 year old during a routine traffic stop.  This is the problem.  As I highlighted above, the officer was responsible for escalating the situation with the use of force.  Opening the car door and attempting to pull the teen out is justified based on our current laws.  If the officer's training/procedures would have included being infinitely patient with a verbally argumentative subject, then this could have been avoided.  Officers are supposed to be the ones trained to keep their cool and manage the situation -- not the American people.  We don't have "how to get pulled over" training classes.  The worst part is (and this is from the second video) that the final report mentions on behalf of the officer that "self-defense is justified if there's a belief that deadly force is needed, but that belief does not have to be correct."  What about on the teen's behalf?  Is the same not true if he feels threatened?

Then there is the argument for protecting against police shootings.  Police are trained to be super defensive and pro-active against what they perceive as a potential threat.  Our laws have become more and more lenient, allowing police to justify the use of force in situations where none was necessary.  But what about the American people?  We don't get to write our own procedures and regulations that protect us against over-zealous cops who are allowed to use force to defend against a potential threatening situation.  Simply having a bad attitude is enough to warrant the use of force -- the last time I checked a bad attitude isn't against the law.

Do we err on the side of officer safety or citizen safety?  Lenient procedures/training only allow the bad-apples to abuse their power.  In my opinion, we err on the side of the American people.  The job of an officer is to serve and protect.  Let's pay them more money for the dangerous work they do, and let's adjust the standards at which they are held when it comes to the use of force.

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