Film sparks debate on police use of force
'Fruitvale Station' is based upon the 2009 death of Oscar Grant III in California
By Mark Gilger Jr.
The Republican & Herald
SCHUYLKILL HAVEN, Pa. — When Penn State Schuylkill senior Elijah Simmons first saw the trailer for the film "Fruitvale Station" several months ago, it was something he had to see. With a limited release, Simmons had his first opportunity to see the film over the weekend when the campus offered free screenings in the auditorium.
"I just had to watch," he said.
The film, released this year, is based on the true story of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old black man who was killed by police in Oakland, Calif., in the early morning of New Year's Day 2009. Like the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida a few years later, the incident ignited national discussions about the use of excessive violence and race.
Every officer is warned about the use of excessive force, Minersville police Chief Michael Combs said.
"It is something we are constantly aware of as chiefs and officers," Combs said. "I can tell you honestly that from the minute an individual enters the police academy, they are cautioned about police brutality. A lot of emphasis is put on it because people lose their pensions or the department or municipality get sued."
Each department's policy book outlines different levels of force and when they can be used, Combs said.
"The way the law reads is that you can use sufficient force to affect the arrest," Combs said.
That leaves it up to the officer to determine the level of force necessary.
"Once a person is in custody, you stop. It's over," Combs said. "But to get to that point is where it gets dangerous."
Combs said education has come a long way since brutality lawsuits were at their peak about 30 to 40 years ago.
"Training is a key component to prevent incidents like this," Trooper Adam Reed, public information coordinator for the Pennsylvania State Police, said. "Police officers have a lot of tools at their disposal but knowing when and how to use each one is paramount."
Reed said Pennsylvania state police cadets have about six months of intense training in all aspects of police work, including extensive training on the use of force. He said cadets are trained to know when it is appropriate to use a Taser and when to use lethal force, such as a firearm.
"Classroom work, hands-on physical training and even simulated incidents are utilized to teach our troopers use-of-force curriculum," Reed said. "In addition to the education we receive as cadets in our academy, each member of our department is given a refresher on use-of-force each and every year."
Combs said there's another side to the issue as well.
"There are many officers out there that get hurt because they don't use enough force," he said.
In his 35 years of experience in the police force, both local and out of the area, Combs said he has seen a number of officers hurt because they hesitated in using necessary force.
"Everyone has a phone with a camera now," Combs said. "Officers are under constant scrutiny for everything they do."
Although "Fruitvale Station" is a dramatization, the movie opens with actual footage shot by eyewitnesses at the scene. The footage was also used in court.
In Pennsylvania, it is legal to film police as long as it does not interfere with the investigation and or have to trespass to do so, Reed said.
"Many people don't understand that it's very dangerous out there and what's been taking place leading up to the incident," Combs said. "It's easy to be judgemental, but officers are making split-second decisions on the scene."
Combs said founded cases of excessive force are probably minimal compared to the number of police officers in the nation.
According to the National Institute of Justice, several studies conducted in the early 2000s revealed just that. One study said force was used by police less than 1 percent of the time between 1999 and 2000. The complaint rate for police was 6.6 complaints per 100 sworn officers, according to another study. Of these complaints, only 8 percent had enough evidence for disciplinary action.
"I don't believe there is a growing trend, but technology does make it easier for police interaction to be recorded and photographed," Reed said.
Violent confrontation with police also tend to happen in areas with a higher concentration of people, Combs said.
"Not that you don't have them here in Schuylkill County, you are going to have a lot more opportunity for those incidents in areas like Detroit, New York and Los Angeles," Combs said. "A lot of it is culture, too. It doesn't seem to happen in areas where residents have more respect for the police."
After watching "Fruitvale Station" on Saturday, students discussed the many issues raised in the film.
"It was an amazing film," Carol King, residence life coordinator on campus, said. "Once you see it, you will never forget it."
King, who is originally from the Philadelphia area, said she has often seen police target and search random groups of young black people. While researching the case involved in the movie, King said it seemed that race was more talked about outside the courtroom than the actual trial.
"It's hard to say if race had to do with it," King said. "Was it because he was an African American or just a young man?"
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- Use of Force