Saturday, September 03, 2011

Thump 'Em, Danno ...

Just finished reading a nearly-there draft of Rory Miller's next book from YMAA, Force Decisions: A Citizen's Guide, Understanding how Police Determine Appropriate Use of Force.

Title is a mouthful, but what you see is what it is, and I think it's a valuable tool for Monday morning quarterbacks–including Yours Truly–when it comes to second-guessing your local gendarmes after a dust-up in which civilians get drubbed–or sometimes killed.

I'm pretty much a supporter of the thin blue line, and my experience with LEOs has been more good than bad. And I've found that good cops are every bit as ready to kick loose a bad cop as anybody. Their standards as to what constitute that are different than most civilians, and this is a good reference book to understand why.

Mostly, the book covers what is legal and what is departmental policy when it comes to LEOs applying force to folk, be they known felons or relatively innocent civilians. How the various departments come to their rules of engagement and what those are, is the meat of the book. 

There are some first-hand examples of confrontations good and bad, from the best-case to the worse-case scenarios. Some of these are stories Rory has told before, but they bear repeating. Being the first officer on the scene when it turns violent and possibly lethal, puts that officer into an instant pressure cooker. Life-or-death decisions have to be made in a heartbeat, and it's not a position I envy.

Rory has an informal writing style, two-people-having-coffee kind of thing that I enjoy, and it makes for much easier reading when you start getting into what can be dry points of law and policy. 

Overall, the book is well-written, informative, and a must-read for every citizen or group that has interactions with their police forces. You need to know, for instance, that doing what the officer tells you is more apt to get you better treatment. Calling him a motherfucker or physically resisting is more apt to get you thumped. You should know that anything the man with a badge and gun does that is over the line can be sorted out later–as long as you are there to sort it out; if he's wrong and you're dead, that's a bad trade. 

This one will be out in a few months, look for it, it's worth having in your library.

If Rory's book has a failing, it's that it doesn't really address the notion of bad cops. Rory says this could be because his department didn't seem to have many of those, or that maybe they tended to be better-behaved when he was around; still, it does need to be touched upon other than just, "Oh, well, yeah, there are bad cops." That won't do–that weakens the rest of the material. It doesn't have to be harped upon, but it does need to be acknowledged. I'd be really surprised if most of the good cops I've spoken to didn't have stories of guys in their department who got overly enthusiastic in their application of the law. 

Most of the time, when officers get into trouble it's because they have overstepped departmental policy, and while the heat of the moment can excuse some of it, the right to wear a gun and use it with the force of law behind you requires a much higher standard of behavior than needed for civilians. 

We expect our police to be honest and fair, and mostly they are, but when they cross the line, they should get nailed for it. There are LEO's who have been busted for driving drunk, road rage,  sleeping with underage teenage volunteers, and that's all happened in or around Portland in the last couple of weeks alone. You don't have to look too far to find the occasional bad apple. 

Now and then, an officer gets disciplined or even fired for going too far, and how those kinds of things are determined need, I think, to be shown. 

An aside, but relevant to the discussion: Policy protects an officer, but policy isn't always right. Those rules get changed all the time. 

As Rory points out in this book, the sleeper choke-hold used to be allowed all over, and he laments its loss, because usually it is effective and safe. MMA fighters do it all the time. I've had it done to me, just to see how effective it is. 

It's effective. Really.

However: after a couple of folks didn't wake up after having  a choke hold applied–I remember one case in Portland, involving a security guard who died–that policy was changed and the hold forbidden.  

Some of the local police were unhappy with that and had T-shirts made: Don't Choke 'em, Smoke 'em! 

I thought this was fairly stupid. The attitude of, "Fine, next time, we just shoot the bastard!" does not inspire citizens' confidence in their local police. Didn't me, anyway. Resisting arrest is not a crime that should be punishable by death. 

That twelve-year-old girl a couple years back, on the MAX train platform who got shot with a beanbag round at contact distance? Well, there was no written policy at the time about how far away a shooter needs to be to cook one off, but Portland officers were trained (at the time) at ten feet minimum distance. (L.A. based PARC says twenty-one to fifty-feet is optimal. Inside ten feet is considered dangerous.)

The officers who came out in support of Chris Humphreys were reacting to him being hung out by the police commissioner when he had followed department policy, such that it was. I can understand that; but most of the citizens and press did not understand the police attitude. What they saw was the entire force backing up a guy who shotgunned a preteen girl lying on the ground underneath another officer.

(And no department, by the by, says you could should whip out the beanbag shotgun and fire it while another officer is wrestling with a suspect. One officer had taken the girl to the ground, was on top of her, and his partner scooted around to hold the shotgun's muzzle just over her thigh. Good way to make sure you don't shoot your partner, unless he takes a bad roll just then. But it is really bad PR, and crappy policy, no matter how you spin it, especially if it is all on video, as this one was.)

Let me presume to speak for the public: If two experienced street cops can't take down an admittedly-strapping twelve-year-old girl who is resisting but unarmed, without reaching for the beanbag shotgun, they need additional training. 

Look at the video and see what you think ...


Jim said...

I haven't read any drafts -- so I take your word on what Rory's covering in the book.

But define "bad cop" for this purpose. Are we talking a criminal with a badge -- or are we talking someone who maybe doesn't communicate so well. There's an Ohio cop that's been getting a lot of attention lately for his conduct during a couple of contacts. He doesn't seem to be dirty, at least from anything I've heard. But he did use communication strategies that are probably not on many people's recommended list, to put it mildly. Is he a bad cop? or just a cop who maybe needs a break or some refresher training? (No, I don't know.)

Distinguishing between dirty cops and cops who make mistakes is important, I think.

I do think, in a book targeting the civilian population and attempting to educate them on police use of force, some discussion of how to handle it if you believe that they've done wrong is appropriate. I don't know if it's in there -- but I'd recommend it!

Steve Perry said...

Bad cop?

One who abuses his authority to a moral or criminal fault; who gets by more than once with something that would get a civilian tossed into jail; one who has a history of stepping over the line with excessive force; one who does all or any of these repeatedly ...

Anonymous said...

When I look at the video I see two cops dealing with a violent suspect. Nearly as tall as the officers, looks pretty heavy and obviously strong, enraged. Perhaps emotionally disturbed, possibly on drugs and not responsive to pain. They can subdue her without weapons, but it will involve damaging, probably breaking one or more joints or bones. Or they can use the bean bag gun. Will cause severe bruising, much preferred to breaking joints. Bruises heal quickly. Such close range, might break a bone... But that's no worse than the option already on the table. And ended it more quickly, didn't risk his partner getting hurt (human bites are nasty.)

Seems to me like he made the best choice he could, under the circumstances. His priorities were right: safety of his partner, safety of the suspect, then worry about how it looks on video.

Steve Perry said...

Anon --

Hey, that's what you saw, can't argue with that.

There are a couple of other factors: The officers knew the girl from previous encounters, so they knew how old she was. And she wasn't in any kind of excited delirium, just reacting, she says, to having her hair pulled.

Ostensibly, the officer was trying to keep her from falling off the platform by grabbing her hair, but if you buy that one, I have some real estate in south Louisiana you might like.

We aren't all dewy-eyes here; every LEO I know knows what you need to say to avoid sounding like a thug when the reports get filed.

The officer with the beanbag shotgun has a history of use-of-force complaints, since the bureau started keeping those stats in 2004. He ranks in the top three (tied for second), and was involved in the death of a schizophrenic homeless guy who probably was ED but who was only given medical attention afterward when the deputies at the jail refused to process him. Lawsuits on that one have set the city back a million so far, with more in the offing. And the same officer is named in an earlier suit by a woman who didn't pay her fare for the train, ran, and wound up with stitches in her head.

In none of these cases was Officer Humphreys found to be in violation of policy.

Why was he carrying a beanbag shotgun at the time? Portland PD seldom uses one on the street. Last time they did, somebody screwed up and had the thing loaded with live rounds, resulting in a suspect being shot at five times with live ammo. Fortunately he was only hit with a few pellets. Good and bad, that. Good that he wasn't blown up; bad that the officer needed more time on the range ...

Being named in a tort suit over use-of-force doesn't make a LEO a bad cop; shit happens. But when it happens more than a couple times, maybe somebody ought to be taking a closer look at the folks involved.
Could be that the officer is just unlucky. Or maybe not.

And I'll say it again: If two streetwise and experienced officers can't handle a truculent 12 yo girl, that doesn't say much for their ability.

Police officers are not drafted, they are volunteers. Nobody expects them to be Superman, but they wanted the job and if they are still on it after several years, one assumes they've come to terms with the duties.

Shady_Grady said...

My perception would be very different. There have been multiple studies which show police are more likely to use force against black people-all else equal. This is true of both black and white police.

I don't much like police. Their job isn't really to protect people so much as it is to clean up/arrest after the crime has been committed. It's a necessary task and not a job I would want/do but in my experience they tend to be authoritarian type A personalities who are looking for ways to exert power.

Society has given them awesome powers to detain and kill people but too many police seem to forget that they too are subject to the law, not above it.

Steve Perry said...

When the beanbagged-girl story happened, back when, I posted here about it:

There was a lively discussion that included several LEOs, and it might be something worth re-reading if you are interested.

I didn't play the race card at the time, nor when I made the post this time, but the girl involved was black and the two officers white.

If you look at the Portland Police Bureaus report on use-of-force stats for the city, you'll see some interesting items.

From 2009 -- reported uses-of-force, by race:

Whites = 58%
Blacks = 29%
Asians = 2%
Hispanics = 7%
Native Americans = 1%

(There are some stats for "missing," a couple points for each race and precinct.)

Black folks, aka African Americans, make up about 7.7% of Portland residents (less than 2% statewide), and this number includes mixed-race designation.

Hispanics are at 11%, and everybody else in the low single-digits.

Total arrests by race in 2008:

60% white, 25% black, 10% Hispanic, and 6% everybody else.

Now, poverty and crime and young men and gangs combine in many ways, so you can't cut-and-dry it; however, if under 8% of the population is accounting for a quarter of the arrests, and that same number of people gets 29% of the total force reports, one might consider that race could be a factor. I'm not talking about profiling, which everybody is gonna do, but arrests and thumping.

The use-of-force report notes this, and says that more research is needed.