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Friday, June 6, 2008

Perceptions of Brutality: Just Having A Bad Day

Barnes and a group of friends were leaving a bar on Capitol Hill shortly after midnight on April 13, 2005. Outside was a Seattle Police Sgt. who was on patrol there. A bouncer said he seemed "agitated" and had positioned himself directly in front of the door so people would have to walk around him as they left. The bouncer, Tim Rhodes, later said one of Alley-Barnes' friends apparently threw a piece of paper or straw into the gutter. When the officer pointed it out to him, the friend picked it up and apologized, Rhodes said in a court deposition.

The Sergeant decided to detain the man and it was then that Alley-Barnes went up to the sergeant and complained that he was harassing his friend because the friend was black, according to several witnesses. The sergeant called for backup and the first officer to arrive was told to arrest Alley-Barnes, even though Alley-Barnes was walking away. The officer grabbed Alley-Barnes in what the officer described as a "groin pick," where he hoisted the man by his scrotum onto the hood of a police car. Other officers arrived, including one who later said he hit Alley-Barnes as hard as he could twice in the face.

Reports show four officers took Alley-Barnes to the ground (where he was) kicked several times in the head and torso while the others were holding him by his arms and legs. Later, when officers were leading the bloodied Alley-Barnes away, one can be heard on the dashboard-camera video telling him "it's because you're all mouth." After his arrest and while he was in handcuffs at the East Precinct, Alley-Barnes later said, one of the officers smashed his face into a wall. Forensic tests found traces of blood on the wall.
-"Police Chief Exonerated Officers In Violent Arrest"
-The Seattle Times, 06/28/2007

One of the most prevalent threads that run through a majority of police misconduct stories is that of "unnecessary escalation" where an officer turns what would have likely have been a peaceful citizen contact into one that involved the use of force. When such events occur, they begin as what should be a relatively benign encounter, such as the minor littering offense described in the introduction of this article, and then escalate into a brutal assault and charges of resisting arrest or obstruction when there was no real cause for arrest which could have been resisted or obstructed since such incidents should have resulted in a minor citation at most. Hence the term, "unnecessary escalation".

This generally happens in a number of ways, but typically the officer in question will attempt to provoke or instigate a citizen into a reaction that could be used as justification of an assault, in Seattle that justification can be something as simple as the way you're standing, or whether your hands are clenched, or even the way you look at an officer... which leaves officers plenty of leeway to charge someone with obstruction even if there really wasn't any active resistance or threat.

Additionally, once an excuse is achieved and force is applied, if the subject of that force squirms or flinches while being assaulted it can be used as justification for a continuation of that use of force, such as in the case of Hayes and Lujan as pictured above when a jaywalking offense escalated into a severe beating in front of several bystanders... at least according to a host of official exonerations of officers by the Seattle Police Department in cases of unnecessary escalation. However, reports of such "resistance" can be used to cover for retaliatory force, force used to punish a detainee rather than gain control of a detainee who is actively resisting, as there is no distinction for an officer between someone flinching from being kicked and punched and someone trying to squirm out of their grasp to escape.

The typical defense for this type of behavior tends to be that police officers were feeling stressed by work pressures or other personal problems, and while this kind of defense would be laughed at if a civilian used it to justify an assault, it tends to be sufficient when used by police officers. While a failure to maintain control of our emotions can lead to sanctions and imprisonment, their is no such inhibition for officers that force them to keep their emotions in check when such a defense is used.

However, even if this defense were justifiable enough to exonerate an officer in cases of unnecessary escalation, does that not put the onus on the police department itself for failing to identify officers who are suffering from job stressors to the point where they lack the self control necessary to perform their job without exposing the public to the risk of harm? After all, the department was able to determine that an assault was the result of officers feeling stressed, then they should be able to identify cases of stress prior to an incident of assault and take such officers out of rotation until they are treated for such mental disorders.

Indeed, officers in Seattle have been pretty open about expressing signs of stress and disgruntlement in public, especially in statements to the press in response to articles describing police brutality. Some officers even go as far to declare that they "hate the city of Seattle and all the 'liberal' people in it". While seemingly innocuous if this kind of statement were coming from an unarmed citizen, when it comes from a person who has the legal right to assault civilians and constantly caries a weapon, it becomes a very frightening statement akin to a person walking down the street with a gun in his hand yelling that he hates everyone.

Despite such signs of emotional instability, such officers continue to walk the streets, armed, and able to unnecessarily escalate any contact they have with civilians when they happen to be having a bad day at the office. Unfortunately, despite these signs of police brutality time-bombs, we continue to see officers declare their anger in public ways which are alarming and yet utterly ignored by the city government.

Given all the negative press and costly civil rights actions against the city, one would think they would realize that proactively forcing officers have regular mental health assessments and to undergo mental health treatment when signs of stress are exhibited would be seen as more cost effective ans better for public safety than just dealing with the aftermath of their rampages would be a no-brainer. But, as always, it becomes clear that the city's attempts to deal with police misconduct are nothing more than PR efforts to cover up the problems they would rather ignore.

(Part 1 of a planned series on the differing perceptions of police brutality; how civilians see brutality when officers claim there was none)

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