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Holding the line between pursuit and punishment

By Joseph D. McNamara

San Jose Mercury News

April 7, 1996

The police officers who beat Rodney King have recently been released from jail, yet, once again, the world is being sickened by videotaped pictures of uniformed American police officers savagely beating unresisting people.

Last week, television cameras caught Riverside deputy sheriffs swinging their batons in rage against a man and woman who had led them on a high-speed chase while driving a truck full of suspected illegal aliens.

A week earlier in a suburb of Los Angeles, police shot and killed the driver of a vehicle after he tried to elude them and drove at plainclothes officers brandishing their guns. In South Carolina, an officer actually used his police car's video equipment to record himself using unnecessary force against a woman motorist.

These, and similar cases raise troubling questions. How much police brutality occurs that isn't recorded? Is it directed primarily against minorities because of police racism? Is there something special about high speed chases? Finally, do police departments have appropriate policies on the use of force?

Immediately after the Rodney King incident the police chief of Los Angeles labeled the incident an "aberration." However, this view was contradicted by many citizens and groups who complained that brutal treatment by the LAPD was the norm not the exception.

The Christopher Commission, appointed by the mayor and city council, criticized the department for allowing racist comments, failing to adequately receive and investigate complaints of unnecessary force by the police, and not controlling a number of officers who had received an unusually large number of complaints.

A Los Angeles officer told the commission that the use of questionable force against suspects did not violate the department' s value system. On the whole, allegations of routine brutality by the LAPD seemed more valid than the chief's claim of an aberration,

But, recent cases of police brutality involve different police departments spread across the nation. Frequently, a high-speed chase triggers the encounter and usually, although not always, the victim of the police batons is a member of a minority group. Only one thing is certain. The percentage of people of minority background who believe that the police are racist and brutal is much higher than in white America. The same disparities in trust among races showed in polls concerning the guilt or innocence of OJ Simpson and general fairness of the criminal justice system.

The chase

I remember what it was like to be behind the wheel of a police car and involved in a high-speed chase. The fleeing vehicle ignores your-emergency lights and siren, drives recklessly, creating great danger for innocent people as well as pursuing cops. It is the ultimate disrespect for your authority as a police officer

Everyone except a few weird militia groupies accept the authority of the police to regulate traffic. So, it begins to build in your, mind that this person driving so recklessly must have done something terrible in addition to the traffic violations he is accumulating with abandon. Your anger grows into rage as the chase continues.

However, we captured far more pathetic motorists with expired drivers' licenses or kids on a joy ride than armed robbers, Panic, not a hardened criminal mentality, led to the wild flight.

Nevertheless, every cop is well aware of that every year more than a dozen police officers are fatally shot while investigating people in motor vehicles. Police officers need to be cautious while simultaneously taking decisive action to arrest the suspect. This is the danger point. The furious flailing of a baton becomes a release of anger, satisfying a need to punish, rather than an application of necessary force to make an arrest.

The law is quite clear. The police may use reasonable force necessary to defend themselves or to make an arrest. In the moment of encounter what may seem reasonable to an officer may later be judged to have been excessive, yet this is quite rare.

Society traditionally forgives an officer who felt great danger when it later turns out to be absent.' However, repeated heavy blows to unresisting prisoners on the ground can hardly be excused in the name of self-defense.


It seems to me that all police agencies need to revisit their policies on the use of force. In my early days as a New York police officer we were allowed to use batons for self-defense, but not to bring about compliance. It is a subtle but essential point.

Most Western police departments allow officers to hit suspects with batons for not obeying the officer's directions to lie on the ground or assume some other search posture even though the suspect has shown no aggression toward the officer.

The problem, as we have seen too often on videotape, is that people being hit with a club try to cover themselves in order to escape injury which can lead to more blows for not "complying." It would be a rare individual who took no evasive or defensive action under such punishment. And, we must remember that they were pursued for minor violations, not serious crimes 4n which an officer would be justified in fearing that the suspects were armed. The amount of force must be weighed against the seriousness of the suspected crime and the potential danger to the officers.

Police agencies must vigorously train officers to recognize that they are likely to be excited and angry in chases and other arrest situations but as police officers they must know how to control their emotions and how to stop other cops who are losing control. After all, most of the people the police arrest for criminal assaults and murders also felt that their rage was justified.

In addition, police departments must ensure that supervisors respond and take charge of sensitive incidents. The supervisors must be well trained in defusing anger among their fellow workers. Some of the officers who got into trouble seemed to have no sense that they had done anything wrong and other officers standing around seemed not to know how to intervene. Clearly, their departments had failed to make it clear to these officers what policies they were expected to follow and what consequences they would face if they broke the rules.

In the end, police departments must convince their officers that they are public servants acting in partnership with the community to prevent crime. Despite the pronouncements of politicians, cops are not soldiers in wars against crime and drugs. There is no enemy for the police to destroy. The job of cops is to enforce the law for our protection. Those who are sworn to enforce the law are also sworn to obey it. The overwhelming majority of cops deserve credit for living by this code, but we must insist that they must do more to weed out those who don't.


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