The short of the story is that this 22-year-old girl (yes girl, not woman, sorry) was at a bar with her boyfriend. There was a fight. Her boyfriend got kicked out. It sounds like she didn’t quite know this and went looking for him. And tried to get over to where he was. That happened to be a location she wasn’t supposed to go due to the whole fight and cops and things.
According to the linked article, “Police say she ‘shoulder checked’ a bouncer and an officer while trying to get to him.” Him being that prized boyfriend of hers.
It goes on to read, “On Thursday, she insisted she had done nothing wrong when trying to find him. ‘I found out my boyfriend got kicked out of the bar and so I went out to see what happened, and then the altercation happened and one think [sic] led to another. It just escalated,’ she said. “
The final part of the article I will mention before I get rolling on my point is this, the police say the video lacks context.
“They say the social media video lacks ‘context’. While Surat’s lawyer admits she was ‘highly agitated’ and ‘irritated’ before she was thrown to the ground, both he and her family say she did not deserve to be treated so violently.”
There are many sides to this story I’m sure. But my first impression is that this officer used excessive force.
That’s right. I agree with her attorney, she did not deserve to be treated this way.
In most jurisdictions an officer is allowed by law to use “that amount of force that is reasonable and necessary to effect the arrest”. That or similar language is nearly universal in state law.
That’s a more complicated issue than you think. Let’s break it down bit by bit.
- Force is authorized
- Force must be reasonable
- Force must be only that which is needed
- Force must be necessary
Those are the elements of that clause. Google your own state law and see how it matches up. I think you will find something like it. Hopefully so.
Force is Authorized
Arrest in this case normally doesn’t mean going to jail, though it might, it means “not free to go” which has various levels in law enforcement. One can not be under arrest but be under “investigative detention” which in terms of you deciding you want to leave means the same thing, you can’t. Officers are authorized by law to use force to keep you there. This is one reason frequently say that an officer has more actual power than the president of the United States. The president does not have the power to take your liberty. He does not have power of arrest. As an aside, this is why it is vitally important that we keep the Justice Department from being a political arm of either party or any branch of government. This is why arming IRS agents and sticking TSA in airports is a tremendously bad idea. This is why when Obama called for a federal police force I knew he was not the man to be our president. No one who loves liberty could ever want that!
Force Must Be Necessary
I tend to scoff a bit when I hear people crying how “the police are out of control in America!” If you stop to think about it the vast majority of calls for service and police interactions occur without going hands on. Literally millions of contacts each day require nothing more than officer presence and verbal commands. In almost all police contacts force isn’t necessary. Even in many arrest situations the suspect is compliant and verbal commands are all that are required, “put your hands behind your back” and they do.
But in some cases force is needed. “Sir, please step out of your car.” “No” “Sir, I’m not asking, I’m instructing you, step out of the car, please.” “No” and out they go! Remember, at this point the situation is already one where force is authorized. The suspect’s non-compliance has made it necessary.
Force Must Be Only that which is Needed
This one has a lot of variables to it but for a well-trained officer running through those variables should be second nature and fluid. A suspect informs the level of force needed and an officer responds. If the suspect begins to comply then the officer should take that cue and deescalate the level of force being used. It should be a back and forth of escalation and deescalation with the officer responding accordingly.
I should point out that this doesn’t mean an officer can only use the same force as the suspect. Officers are always one level above what the suspect is using. For example if the suspect is using passive resistance the officer is hands on. If the suspect is trying to get the officer in an arm bar the officer is going to strike them, if the suspect is swinging the officer will use a baton or pepper spray and if the suspect has a bat the officer has a gun. The officer does not need to wait for the suspect to shoot before he shoots. The officer isn’t matching, he’s trying to control. Suspects and citizens should keep this in mind. If you want to end up at the bottom of a pile of blue then keep swinging. But if an officer is doing his job then once you stop, he will lower his level of force accordingly.
If an officer doesn’t need to use a certain level of force or technique to make the arrest, then he shouldn’t.
Force Must Be Reasonable
The reasonableness clause in an interesting one because it is not the same measure from state to state. What is considered reasonable in Phoenix, Arizona might be much different from what is considered reasonable in Topeka, Kansas. America is big, very big, so big in fact that each state really is a country unto itself with its own unique culture. Attitudes toward police, violence, crime, and the expected toughness of people all play a factor in what is considered by that community to be reasonable. An officer from out-of-state who has joined a department in another state, may have some difficulty in this area. He’s not likely to run into issues if the standard in the state he came from is less force-centric than the one he moved to but if he moved from a rough and trouble state to a delicate one, well, he’s likely to wind up in trouble if he doesn’t understand and learn the culture of that state.
The judge, jury, and use of force board are going to determine reasonableness, not the media. That’s how it should be. It’s a complicated issue that requires discussion and thought. Many things go into what is reasonable. For example, perhaps the officer has some prior knowledge of the suspect that he knows this particular suspect always fights and is a skilled fighter. So it is reasonable for him to use Conducted Electrical Weapon (CEW) right from the start when he sees the suspect’s body language change. If the officer can articulate all of this then such action may be deemed reasonable.
Reasons Officers Violate This Clause
What happens when this goes wrong is pretty simple. It can’t be stated enough that police officers are human beings. Within the profession are differing personalities, differing levels of experience, and backgrounds. All of this goes into the choices an officer makes. It’s what makes so few people truly suited to be a police officer and why agencies nationwide have difficulty filling empty slots. It’s not for a lack of applicants, it’s for a lack of those who pass the process.
Bad mood, hungry, tired
You have probably heard someone say “that officer was just having a bad day and took it out on me”. While that is likely not true very often, it is certainly true some of the time. An officer working a 10 hour shift of longer who hasn’t slept well, is fatigued and by 3am is pretty “hangry” is physiologically at a disadvantage. Supervisors should monitor their squad in order to prevent this from happening, but that’s not always possible.
Especially when considering smaller agencies with lower crime instances and budgets the level of training officers receive will vary. Even large agencies are only recently adding solid education on deescalation into their training. Though it isn’t substantially different from what has been taught for the last 25 years in law enforcement it does change the focus. In the past a “continuum of force” was taught. That gives the implication that the use of force continues in one direction. Deescalation uses the same concepts but presents them in a fluid way.
Training becomes muscle memory. If you are trained then you do without having to think about it. So it becomes vital to train well. Boxers, for example, don’t have to think about what to do next, they react. Officers should be doing the same thing.
When we see a jurisdiction where there are consistent violations it’s very likely that they are poorly trained.
All of the reasons officers do not follow the arrest clause boil down to being human. However, in this segment what I mean by that is the simple making of mistakes. One common mistake is overestimating the opponent. An officer may think that a certain technique or amount of strength is required and it turns out they are wrong. Perhaps that person the officer thought because the suspect pushed the scales at 200 or more pounds that they would be strong. But size and strength are not always connected.
Other times the officer may be aiming at one part of the body and miss. A baton meant for the common peroneal may just hit the knee. That’s a mistake, a human error.
Some cops are just jerks. This is sometimes called being “badge heavy”. It isn’t the job of an officer to look down on people or give them an “attitude adjustment”. Their job is to enforce the law. When an officer fails to recognize the humanity of the other individual they will exercise their authority in an unrighteous manner. With many men a little power is corrupting of what may already be a fragile character. However, more often than not this builds up over years of seeing the worst humanity can do to each other. It’s called being jaded.
Sometimes this manifests itself when the suspect challenges the officer and the officer wants to prove that he’s tough, or he’s a man.
Sometimes, cops take things personally for whatever reason and they just get mad. Control is vitally important for an officer in an arrest situation. Every officer has his limits and when a suspect crosses that line an officer can just get downright angry and will react based on emotion instead of training. Perhaps it’s when a suspect spits on then. Or perhaps it’s when they ask, “do you have any sharp objects in your pockets?” and the suspects says “no” and then the officer gets stuck by a needle. He gets mad. Whatever the reason this is often one reason officers fail to use the proper amount of force.
Possible Explanations for the Behavior in the Video
I will always grant that an Internet video and news article do not show the entire story. So I can only discuss what is in front of me. It is possible that the officer had prior knowledge of this woman that she was a black belt and dangerous. Or perhaps we don’t see that she was reaching for a gun. Nothing like that is mentioned in the story and it seems like a fact they would have brought up. It’s possible, though not likely. Maybe he is poorly trained. Maybe this was the only thing he knew to do. Toss her to the ground. I can’t say for sure. I don’t know what training they get in Fort Collins. Maybe soft hand techniques just aren’t on the menu.
She’s a small woman. The amount of strength required to subdue her really can’t be all that much. Based on the video she isn’t a body builder type. Even if she were, she’s in very high heels and clearly not balanced to begin with. She had been drinking as well.
In the video the officer doesn’t seem to try any other techniques first. It’s clear from his positioning and span of control that numerous other options were available to him. Look at the video. Even someone without much training can see a moment where a wrist lock or arm bar was easily available to the officer. While the move he chose is excellent in terms of effectiveness and the use of body weight and surprise we aren’t really critiquing that kind of thing. We want to know if it was reasonable. Was it? Could he really think it was reasonable and necessary to slam her face into the ground in order to effect the arrest? Maybe. But if he did think that he has a lot of explaining to do in order to demonstrate why to a review board.
Many of the cases we see in the news and which have spawned protests like Black Lives Matter were, when reviewed, perfectly acceptable uses of force. Officers and citizens alike should be trained to understand this part of police work and each community needs to make it clear to their police departments what they consider reasonable. That’s the thing about police officers, they do what they are allowed and when they do something that crosses that line, more often than not, they are punished for it. Know that line. It is not being anti-police to hold them to that standard. On the contrary, it shows a great deal of support for police to make clear to them their role in your community and the parameters within which you will stand behind them or won’t.
Michaella Surat, 22, said she was left ‘humiliated’ when Fort Collins police officers violently threw her to the ground outside Bondi Beach Bar on April 6.