December 5, 2014
It’s getting harder to defend police conduct
Just last week I posted a blog entry about police violence. In it, I explained how the police are allowed to use tactics like restraint, incapacitation, and even deadly force, if they feel a perpetrator is about to commit an act of violence, or if they have committed a crime and resist arrest.
I stand by what I said. While I don’t agree that it’s necessarily the best policy for police to have that much discretion in their use of force, it’s the way things are right now.
But I am deeply saddened by recent news reports that appear to show police officers abusing the rights given them by the Police Protections Act, or whatever it’s called in their jurisdiction. On the news, we watched as Eric Garner was poked and grabbed around the neck from behind, and wrestled to the ground by several burly police officers, something most of us would probably resist just as he did. But his resistance got him put into a tighter neck hold (what some are calling a “choke hold”), in a violent attempt to incapacitate and subdue him. The hold restricted his breathing, and despite Garner’s repeated cries that he couldn’t breathe, it eventually contributed to, if not directly caused, his death.
A Grand Jury found the officers involved not guilty of using excessive force. The jury concluded that they were just doing their jobs. They did what the official code of police conduct allows them to do. Garner died, they said, not because of a choke hold (which is an illegal police tactic), but because of his size and poor state of health. In other words, they essentially said, it was Garner’s own fault he died, not the fault of the police!
In watching the video, it appears to me that Garner was attacked by the police, not because he was displaying any intent to commit violence, nor because he was resisting arrest (the neck hold was applied immediately), but simply because he pissed the police off, and was being belligerent and uncooperative. And that’s the problem.
Police should not be allowed to deploy their arsenal of aggressive tactics just because someone, who shows no signs of violent intent, makes them mad or does not cooperate with them. I’d like to see where, in the official code of police conduct, it says that the police can restrain, incapacitate, or use deadly force on someone simply because they’re being belligerent or uncooperative. Because I don’t think it does.
Again, I feel obliged to point out that not all incidents that appear to show an innocent person being roughed up by the police, are what they seem. If, in their professional judgement, the police truly believe a person is in violation of one or more laws and represents a threat to themselves or to others and needs to be apprehended or subdued, then it’s going to seem one-sided to outsiders, because the police clearly have the advantage in training, equipment, and numbers.
But, then again, there are undeniably cases where an officer overreacts and prematurely exercises his rights to subdue an individual more for personal than professional reasons. I believe these particular police enjoy the power and control they wield over others. If someone defies that control, or taunts or argues with them, then the police find a way to provoke the person into breaching one of those critical tipping points, whereby the police are now “justified” in their use of retaliatory force. All they have to do is grab your arm so that you try to pull it away, and they’ve got you on “resisting”. Or put you into a neck hold until you struggle, and then they’ve got you on “violence”. Or provoke you until you swear at them, and they’ve got you on “potential violence”. I don’t believe that any of these provocation methods appear anywhere in the official code of police conduct, nor should they. I suspect that they are just locker room tactics, shared by the police with their colleagues. And, unfortunately, the courts seem to turn a blind eye whenever they are used. And that’s just not right.
And so, I restate my previous conclusions. Police have to be limited or even stripped of some of their discretionary powers, when it comes to their use of retaliatory violence. Or, better yet, given more training in de-escalation tactics for defusing tense situations. And the rules have to be changed, so that rogue cops cannot provoke people into acting aggressively, just so they can justify deploying their arsenal of forceful tactics. It boils down to this: it’s unjust for any police officer to provoke a reaction as an excuse to subdue someone they don’t like. And the courts must be monitored to make sure they recognize and expose these provocation tactics, and hold those who resort to them accountable.
But, before I go, I still have to reiterate that I believe what we’re seeing on the news is just the worst of police conduct. We’re bound to get some thugs in a police force. The kind of people who, when employed to deal with criminal behaviour and violence on a daily basis, are eventually going to resort to some of that criminal behaviour and violence themselves. You know, cops and robbers. Especially when they’re officially sanctioned to use that kind of violence. Give a kid a loaded gun, and eventually it’s going to go off.
But, all that said, I truly believe that most police are upstanding individuals, who do their best to responsibly and honourably uphold their duty to protect the public. We just have to find a way to muzzle the overly aggressive ones.
I’m just sayin’