Police's common sense trouble: How minor offense situations turn deadly

The best officers can discern when asserting is important. Failing to instantly obey doesn't have to lead to death

By Heather Digby Parton


Published July 25, 2014 2:50PM (EDT)


For the second time in a week, a video of police officers subduing a citizen with an illegal chokehold has gone viral. And the usual controversy over police brutality has erupted as well, with many people being appalled by authorities run amok while others think the victims had it coming.  Both incidents happened in New York, which has a long and checkered history with police brutality. And more recent issues with racial profiling certainly add to the dismay of observers who see this pattern being repeated over and over again.

But the fact that some cops are using an illegal procedure to subdue a suspect is hardly unique in American life. It's happened for a very long time in this country.  And far too often police are not held accountable for breaking the law -- which often leads to dire consequences such as the Rodney King riots, which, like this week's incidents, were videotaped, as more and more of these events are likely to be in our smartphone world.

The New York police commissioner has promised to investigate, as they usually do, and indicated that New York will consider the greater use of tasers in order that the police not be tempted to use illegal and brutal methods to force citizens to comply with their orders. But tasers will not solve that problem, it will simply legalize the use of pain compliance by allowing police to administer electro-shock rather than take a person down to the ground with a chokehold.  Just because tasers don't leave marks doesn't mean they are not brutal and violent.

And while it will undoubtedly work to force suspects and others to obey, it will not solve the problem of people dying in police custody. Just as people die from the use of the chokehold (or from being beaten with a baton, for that matter) they will also die  from the use of the taser. Although the manufacturers and various government officials have fatuously argued there exists an underlying "disease" (that's almost always specific to people in police custody) there's no way of knowing ahead of time who might have this strange malady. At this point, the best they can do is tell a police officer at the scene of a highly stressful situation to not aim her taser at the chest and try not to set anyone on fire in a situation where flammable materials might be present.

None of this is to say that tasers could never be useful. If the choice is between using a bullet to stop someone from endangering themselves or others and using a taser, the choice is obvious. And that's how the weapon was sold to the public and to police agencies. But tasers are now commonly used for another purpose entirely: to make people obey a police officer's orders with an application of searing pain that throws them to the ground writhing and screaming in agony.  Situations that might have required some psychology, patience, training or plain common sense in the past are now commonly dealt with by shooting citizens with 50,000 volts of electricity. This has been declared a torture technique by the UN Committee on Torture.  Amnesty has called for strict limits on their use.

And that gets to the heart of the problem. The viral video incidents this week in New York, the first of which resulted in death and the second a beating in the face as well as the illegal chokeholds, were about suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes in the first case and jumping a subway turnstile in the second. These were not people who were suspected of a violent crime requiring that the police spare no energy in protecting the public. Indeed, it appears that the violent acts against these two suspects were entirely based upon the "crime" of failing to instantly obey a police officer. Have we decided that this crime is worthy of beating, torture and possibly death?  Because that's what's happening all over the country. It's happening to children, it's happening to the mentally ill, it's happening to the elderly and the sick, it's happening to average citizens who merely assert their rights and it can happen to you too. (It even happens to NFL players.)

Police officers have a tough job. And they deserve the perks they get such as early retirement and generous pensions. That's the deal we, as a society, make with them because they put themselves at risk and have to deal with very unsavory people and sometimes that requires brute force and violence. I don't think anyone disputes that. But over the years we've also recognized that they do not have the right to physically hurt citizens with impunity or endanger their lives without a very good reason, and a whole body of law was developed to prevent police brutality. Somewhere along the line in the last few years, however, perhaps as more police agencies have militarized and come to see themselves as fighting a war with the American public rather than "protecting and serving," the idea that they have ultimate authority on the streets of our cities and towns and that this authority grants them the right to expect instant compliance from every citizen lest they risk being shot through with electricity, choked or beaten.

Police officers have to have authority. They also have to have common sense and an ability to discern when asserting it is important and when it isn't. The best of them can deescalate these minor offense situations most of the time so that there's no need for violence. They can tell when someone is mentally ill and have enough compassion not to torture them with electricity if there are other means available. They don't treat children and bedridden elderly as if they are threats. And there are plenty of these good cops in departments all over the country.

Unfortunately, these horrible policies like "stop and frisk," which are nothing more than legalized harassment, have given too many of the other kind of police license to behave as if there is nothing too insignificant for them to aggressively confront and no situation in which a "disrespectful" attitude should be ignored. And it's past time for the citizens of this country to wake up to the fact that we are allowing our police to patrol our cities and towns believing they have the authority to demand the citizens of this country be docile, instantly obedient and completely submissive in their presence lest they risk being tortured or beaten. That's a funny definition of freedom and liberty.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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