Raising public awareness of the realities of use of force
By Dave Smith
The recent video of the University of Florida officers struggling with a rather bizarrely acting attendee at a John Kerry speech and the subsequent scuffle leading to his "Tasering" highlights several key issues of concern about law enforcement and its relationship to the community we serve.
First, it must be accepted that perhaps few locations in the world are politically tougher to police than universities. On most campuses, everyone knows “everything about everything” and a strong anti-authority feeling usually runs rampant. Note how the tragedy of Virginia Tech had five or six easy answers according to academic “experts” who seem to deny the unique and random nature of this terrible act. But, they seem to agree that more should have been done to identify the odd and possibly violent nature of the perpetrator. Jump forward a few months and on another college campus an odd-acting young man takes control of a microphone and begins to ramble on and on. This is after the question and answer time is over. He is obviously acting “bizarre” and the police are called who subsequently end up struggling with the apparent or possible “EDP.”
(AP Photo/Independent Florida Alligator, Andrew Stanfill)
Throughout the struggle the “student” verbally says he is leaving, yet he did nothing except say, “don’t Taser me, bro!” Incongruently, he simultaneously and violently jerks away from the officers and with the sound-off, obviously acting in an active resistance mode, often trying to move back towards the stage where the senator is still talking. He is ultimately Tasered and turns out to be a blogger who in the past has does stunts for his web site. He acts as if being Tasered is akin to enduring Torquemada’s Inquisition! He screams and screams and continues screaming as he exits stage right…
The outcry was immediate and mostly negative toward the officers. He had a right to ask questions. He was complying, just listen to what he is saying. Why didn’t they have bigger officers? Why would they do something as extreme as using their Taser? And so it went, with the University of Florida promising an investigation to try to satisfy the outcries.
In the majority of the newscasts many relevant points were missing, but the one thing that struck home with the public seemed to be the “overreaction” of the police. The greatest problem being the public does not understand the use of force and when they see it anywhere but on TV shows where their favorite heroes use it in abundance they are generally negative about it. It is apparent the law enforcement community needs to teach the public and reach out to the media and educate them about force and how even when applied properly, it’s just not pretty.
The plethora of phone cameras and security cameras and cameras in general is allowing the public to view more and more police actions and I submit we better be proactive about educating the public and better at explaining it when it appears on the news.
Let’s go back to the John Kerry talk for a minute. Had that fellow suddenly broken free and attacked Sen. Kerry every talking head on every channel would have condemned the Florida officers for failing to recognize such bizarre behavior as a warning and in the post-Virginia Tech world how could they have failed to respond with such low levels of control? The Florida officers were in a “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” situation. Thousands of officers are injured in these low level wrestling matches every year, and one of the strengths of the Taser is it eliminates the true and long-term risk of bone and joint injury to both the officers and suspects in favor of a short-term pain compliance action. Imagine if the incident had ended with one of the officers getting injured in a fall or the struggle…I doubt this would have been a media event in that case or the media would have blamed the injured officer for interfering with the political speech of the innocent student and all relevant legal issues to the contrary would have remained unspoken.
As it was, one supposedly conservative commentator complained on his show that the officers were too small and the University should have had larger officers present? Rather than sit around passively, the IACP, the FOP and other high profile organizations should initiate a media and public awareness campaign to educate the people that we protect that (a) it might not be so pretty when we protect them and (b) the size of an officer has little to do with their ability to use proper force. Here are some other factors we need to consider:
We have to consider worst case scenarios when safety is at stake and the best way to ensure the safety of all involved is to win control as quickly as possible. The public needs to understand that resisting arrest is an additional crime and whether they think the subject of the arrest should be convicted or not is a separate issue altogether. Every year thousands of officers spend time on workers comp and some are permanently injured or killed in what starts as relatively minor control actions. The release of the Uniform Crime Reports annually analysis and report on officers killed and assaulted should be made into media events to raise the public and the media’s awareness of the risk of confrontation and violence in law enforcement.
With the terrible events of Virginia Tech and last year’s other school shootings still fresh on the public’s mind we should use that momentum combined with the horrendous officer killed numbers of 2007 to raise the media’s and the public’s awareness and understanding of why, how, and when we use force. We should show them what we do and “yes” it is like making sausage; no one likes to watch it, but in the age of digital images the public needs to learn to think like the folks who risk everything to protect them. We owe it to our personnel to reach out and create an understanding of all aspects of force so we don’t continue to have a nation of sheep who cry and lament at every use of force questioned by the media.