A number of events have had me pondering our police forces and their respective use of force policies in contrast to their use of force actions. One aspect of that contrast that strikes me is the number of officers who quickly escalate to the use of pepper spray, the club, or the TASER instead of using what has long been taught as the minimum force necessary.
I understand the hazard of writing this post in that it could be construed as generalizing all police officers' actions or second guessing their actions in situations that required quick decisions. Neither is true. My point is that I think we as a society don't consider the ramifications of the use of what is classified as nonlethal force in situations where it need not be used since it is considered nonlethal. I don't think we examine whether the amount of force used was appropriate for the situation.
If you've ever watched the TV show Cops, you may have laughed at the stupidity and ignorance or felt gratified when the bad guy was caught. But every once in a while you'll see a situation where a suspect is under control and it wouldn't take much more effort to cuff them and yet one officer employs a TASER. I noticed this and wondered if the officer was ever chastised or disciplined for using what I considered unnecessary or excessive force. A good example of what I'm referring to is Andrew Meyer, a University of Florida student made famous for the line "Don't tase me, bro." With something like six officers holding him down he was clearly under control and it wouldn't have take much more effort to cuff him and lead him away. Instead an officer applied an electrical shock. There was no need to.
Of course, in our infamous case here in Spokane, the entire Otto Zehm tragedy could have been avoided had Officer Thompson simply taken his time and questioned Otto instead of immediately clubbing him into submission.
More recently, an officer in North Carolina used his TASER on Roger Anthony, an elderly man riding his bicycle home. Roger ended up brain dead. Granted, not all the facts are in, but I really struggle to come up with a situation where a TASER would be necessary to use on an old man riding a bicycle.
I'd like to point out that the only reason we know about this is probably because the man died. But how many cases do we not hear about where unnecessary or excessive force is applied? And how often do we look at those and make a determination that the level of force was justified or not?
If ever there was an argument for a separate oversight or investigatory body of a police force it would be the use of force implemented by the police. The claim that policing is a dangerous job or that snap decisions must be made is not enough to excuse excessive force in situations where it's clearly unwarranted. It does not erase the fact that police officers can be wrong or that they may need more training.
If you read Karl Thompson's statement you may have noticed his description of Otto's jacket as a type of body armor, the possibility that cans and jars on the shelves could be weapons, and the unknown demeanor of the other people in the store. He said he was prepared to defend himself and his intent was to "control this person and physically detain them in handcuffs so we could continue our investigation as to whether there was evidence of a crime and if he was armed." He went on to say there were other situations where he had confronted suspects by himself and they had not always been non confrontational. It's as if Officer Thompson was thinking and expecting the worse to happen.
Is it appropriate or reasonable for police officers to think like that all the time? If so, then you or I could be the next Otto Zehm or Roger Anthony simply because a police officer thinks the worst could happen. And for Karl Thompson the worst did happen, but not in the respect he was considering at the time.