Thursday, October 15, 2009

Response to Accusations of Police Brutality at The University of Western Ontario

Yesterday, a crazy person rampaged through the Social Science Centre at the University of Western Ontario - the building I would have been working in had I not been home sick - and after barricading himself in an office and threatening people, had a run-in with police. His arrest was captured on video and posted to Youtube almost immediately.

Here's the full story at the London Free Press, and the video is below (warning: a bit disturbing).

Opinions are divided on this one. Many people think it is an example of police brutality. Others think the officers used an acceptable level of force. Here are my thoughts.

When it comes to a violent act, people often consider whether or not the person "deserved it." This guy deserved it. He had already punched an officer and caused grief on upper floors (though it's unclear whether he caused physical harm to anyone else) before being taken down on the first floor.

However, we, as a civilized society, and especially our police officers, should need better reasons for violence than whether or not someone deserved it. Judging someone as worthy of punishment is an emotional decision, and not a rational one. In my humble opinion, violence should only be carried out when it is the only possible way to bring about a greater good (e.g., preventing further violence). "Deserving it" has nothing to do with whether or not the violent act would be effective in accomplishing the actor's goal.

I prefer to avoid having strong opinions unless I am fully informed about a situation. With many issues, I think it is more useful to identify the questions that would need to be answered in order to have an informed opinion, rather than immediately forming one based on gut reactions to incomplete information.

In this case, the crucial question is this: after the six police officers had the man on the ground, could they have subdued him without kneeing him, punching him, and beating him with a baton? Or were these actions motivated purely by a sense of "he deserved it"?

I genuinely don't know. It is quite possible that the only way to get handcuffs on a strong, struggling, possibly insane man is to weaken him with pain, and this is reflected in police training and proper procedure. It's also possible that the actions were motivated purely by the darker side of human emotion.

And I understand that. It's quite possible this dangerous man passed by my office yesterday; I feel that dark desire to see him harmed and locked up, for what he did and could have done to me and people I care about. He deserved to be hurt. But if we want the world to be a better, more humane place, we need to resist these gut reactions and look at violence purely with cool-head rationality.


Update Oct. 15, 3:00 - Another video is available here. More of the same, but outside, and with people discussing the really deep implications for race and gender issues.

Also, apparently pepper spray was used and didn't work. Bottom line: being crazy gives you superpowers.

Update 4:30 - Aaaand the remixes are already in:


Katrina said...

Well said.

I also feel the way the arrest took place was unfortunate. Ultimately, and perhaps selfishly, I feel my right as a student and employee to feel safe at school supercedes another's to behave however they want -- especially violently.

Could the police have tried to diffuse the situation? Of course. Perhaps this is further justification for my theory that all police officers should have a BA of some kind -- an english lit grad may have had the social skills necessary to talk this guy down :) Who knows.

I don't believe in corporal punishment, but I DO think the police should do whatever necessary to keep others safe. He was obviously struggling to get away. I shudder to think what such a desperate, unstable person might have done if he had that opportunity.

True, this guy was unarmed. That doesn't mean he wasn't capable of hurting someone. If he had been, would we be okay with what we saw on YouTube?

Rob said...

We're only seeing part of the video - AFTER the police have the suspect on the ground. There is SO much more to this story that isn't told with this video. (I have NO idea what the rest of the story is but there is no way this video tells it.) At best, this video is inflammatory towards police.

The comments on the YouTube page are...fascinating. I think I read on there anywhere between 3 and 8 cops had piled on him. One guy said the suspect was hit "repeatedly 8 times" so I'm not quite sure whether that is 16, 32, 40, 64 or what.

The abuse of the English language in some of those comments, by posters claiming to be UWO students, makes me believe that more than a few of them have also been beat about the head by a nightstick or steel pipe.

For all those crying out "abuse of power" I'd like to hear them say the same thing if they or someone they cared about were the victim prior to the takedown happening.

I would need to see video proof of this guy complying with EVERY request of the officers prior to this video happening for me to even think about saying the police went too far.

Phronk said...

Rob and Katrina: You bring up good points. The thing is - whether he had a weapon or not, or whether he'd hurt someone before the video, these only inform us about whether he deserved it or not.

As I try to get across in my post, that doesn't matter. What matters if it was necessary to beat him to get him into the police car. Even if he'd killed 20 people and had a gun, I'd argue that there is no reason to beat him UNLESS it was absolutely crucial to arresting him. The video shows that he was beaten AFTER 6 officers were on top of him. I want to know what purpose the beating served above and beyond having the weight of 6 officers on him.

Corey said...

Campus police got calls from students and faculty around 5 p.m. Wednesday alerting them to a disoriented and violent student on the eighth floor of the social sciences building, said campus police director Elgin Austen. The student had become confrontational in a PhD student’s eighth-floor office, then barricaded himself in a professor’s office on the seventh floor. When two campus police officers confronted him there, Mr. Austen said, the student attacked them with his fists and fled.

He was again confronted by half a dozen campus and London police officers on the building’s main floor.

The man was so violent, the university's release states, that others in the building fled for their own safety. He was able to elude the campus officers who at first confronted him, and even when subdued and handcuffed by several campus and London police officers “continued to fight violently and would not allow himself to be handcuffed.”

“After numerous loud requests to the suspect to stop resisting, officers used punches and strikes to the suspect's arms to apply handcuffs,” the release states.

Western's police officers acted appropriately to subdue someone who was obviously violent and posed a threat to public safety. In the video, you can clearly see that they are trying to handcuff him, and he is not allowing them to.

The levels of force being used in the video were apparently insufficient to subdue him, which makes it incredibly difficult to argue that anything approaching "police brutality" occurred.

Phronk said...

All true, and all good evidence that he deserved it.

But I ask again: how do baton hits to the head and knees to the back make it any easier to put handcuffs on his hands?

Rob said...

It's hard to tell from the video but someone said in one of the comment threads that he had his arms/hands underneath his torso making it impossible to handcuff him. If he had his hands interlocked it would be extremely difficult to pry his arms out from underneath him if he was unwilling to assist. IF (and it's a big IF) that is the case, then yeah, I can see the need to use the force (as opposed to The Force) that was used. From what I can see in the video, he's clearly not following orders as he's pushing up on his arm - this is when the kneeing occurs. By the time #4 and #5 arrive, the number of officers make it near impossible to even see the suspect but it looks like they still haven't been able to bring his arms back to restrain him.

Rob said...

I'm not a specialist by any means, but I believe that the kneeing and hitting is used as a means to encourage him to allow them to put him in handcuffs with the outcome being that once he's in cuffs the pain being applied will stop. I'm sure that there are many studies that can show that the application of pain will correct certain behaviour but I only took Psych 20. :-) I don't know Mike, I would seriously defer to you in this aspect with regards to any such studies (and/or counter-studies). But that's my thinking.

Anonymous said...

Y'now, Phronk, it would be really nice if, one of these days, you stopped beating around the bush and just really told us what was on your mind.

I'm just sayin'

Dan said...

My take on authority, including police, tends to be.... Go away, leave the little people alone. However, I also understand that the police force exists to protect us from the violent elements of society. To do this they often place themselves in the path of direct harm.
The man who was arrested had assaulted multiple people and resisted arrest. The cops said, over and over, to stop resisting. Yes, the suspect was hit. Yes, the police used physical force. But he wasn't handcuffed, lying down or leaning against a wall. He was still struggling, still resisting arrest, still a danger to himself, to the police, and to the people around him. He was unarmed but...... That hardly means he's not a threat.
Saying that the question of whether or not he deserved is irrelevant is a good point, no one deserves to be hurt. But there are times, when people are in physical danger, when someone being hurt is the only way to prevent someone from causing much more harm.
Without knowing the full story, without seeing all the evidence, I am firmly on the side of the police on this one.

And Katrinastamps? I BARELY made it out of high school, I have no formal post secondary education. I have however been involved in violent confrontations before and in a lot of cases have been able to talk the other party down with little to no violence on either side. A degree DOES NOT mean that someone is intelligent or capable of handling a violent or unruly suspect.

Jennifer said...

I'm on the other side of this somewhat, as several years ago someone I know and care about was involved in a "take down" (or whatever you want to call it). I'm glad it's not on youtube for people to gawk at - but that's another subject.

Anyhow, in my case, the subject in question was clearly nuttier than a fruitcake but did not have any weapons so it's similar. The police approached him, saying they only wished to talk and he went apeshit. Glasses were broken, he was pepper sprayed and wrestled to the ground. He was charged with resisting arrest and assault of a police officer. He attempted to turn it into a police brutality case, but failed.

Did he DESERVE to be beaten? I don't think so. However, he did absolutely need to be removed from the situation he was in and unfortunately, by his own actions, this was the only way it could be done. I don't see a way around this - you can't let people "get away" with violence for fear of bad PR. Might doesn't make right, but the "good guys" have to be the stronger force.

I'm not making as much sense as I'd like, but there you have it.

Chris said...

Hopfully all you poeple who say he desrved it will get your's too, or maybe it will be your son or daughter having rough time and loses it next time.Maybe they can beat the next poor kid into a coma.Did you not grow up and have difficult time's in your life.Some people just can't deal with thing's like other's can.Which is no excuse but there is no excuse for using excessive force on a teenager six cops couldn't subdue this kid... please.There are other procedures of freeing a hand than knee's to the rib's and a baton to the face.If they were beating his arm I might think differnt.

Jennifer said...

I have four children. If one of them starts tossing people out of offices (and this was a 4th year student? Not a teenager!) and refuses to be removed peacefully, I can tell you, I won't be at the jail with a bail cheque.

If they did use pepper spray and it failed, well jesus! 6 officers *were* probably necessary.

Corey said...

@Chris You don't seem to understand what you watched happen in this video. One police officer would have had to SERIOUSLY INJURE the subject in order to arrest him. The way he was acting would have left no choice.

There were five or six officers involved. The suspect was arrested safely, and with only minor injuries. (I haven't seen a report that mentions anything about stitches or a cast, and I have been following this quiet carefully.) It was thanks to their overwhelming numbers that they were able to safely use lower levels of violence to arrest this person.

Campus police do not carry tasers, and the subject had already been pepper sprayed. Put yourself in the position of the officers. What would you do with a suspect who REFUSES to allow you to handcuff him?

I'm a UWO student who passes through SSC regularly. I'm pleased that there are police officers on campus who are trained to deal with people who are threats to themselves or to me.

Phronk said...

Well, I just think it's good that people are talking about and asking questions. Whether or not the police abused their power in this case, they need to be kept in check by people questioning their use of force (and increasingly, catching them on video).

Anonymous said...

What interest us is the Kitty Genovesa case "bystander effect". No sign of anyone in the video trying to intervene at some risk to him/herself no doubt. What if someone had made a fuss in the west coast Polish man situation rather than gawking and taking pix to share with friends. Might he still be alive? Encouraging people to take images for professional media, rather than reacting to what appeared to be a major bullying situation presents a danger to civil society. Perhaps if a youngster had been there he/she might at least shouted out concern that the student was being hurt.

Phronk said...

I don't think this can be directly compared to the Genovese case. That was (at least the story goes) someone unambiguously being stabbed to death by a stranger for no reason in front of witnesses. Here, it was police, and whether or not they were using too much force is at least up for debate.

So I don't think this demonstrates the bystander effect as strongly. And the filming of it demonstrates a lack of apathy. As the comments from the people filming the second video (and immediately uploading to Youtube before it could be seized) illustrate, they filmed it as a way of holding people responsible for their actions. Maybe not as good as direct intervention, but at least it's something.

Anonymous said...

There are other ways of drawing attention to a troubling situation on UWO property than taking few pix to feed to the internet after any damage to the student was done. People seem more interested in dissing Security and LPD than in the safety of the "victim". Perhap Voyeurs is a better description than Bystanders as the video is made accessible to people with no stake in the situation, just thrill-seeking. (Who was seizing videos??) In the '64 case it was not just witnesses but people in the general area who simply ignored signs of trouble instead of calling to the proper authorities. In what violent situation would you as a man feel it your duty to step in at some personal risk?

Phronk said...

"As a man", no. But as a human, I'd be compelled to intervene if a wrong was clearly being committed. In this case, the wrongness is up for debate (and for people on the scene, would be even more uncertain; i.e., not knowing what he did beforehand, if he had a gun, etc.)

Voyeurism certainly plays a role, yes. But I think video also helps keep people accountable for their public actions, and thus its upload was a step in the right direction. A step away from the bystander effect. Nobody seized the videos, but it's always a possibility.

And let's not forget that the "victim" here had no serious injuries. Kitty Genovese's were fatal.

Anonymous said...

During the photo'd events no one watching knew the student would not be fatally injured - consider the West Coast case where the death was unintentional and not known to the photographer at the time. (In the wellknown NY murder there were others who heard the disturbance but ignored it. Enough of that.) The Globe and Mail speaks to the non-involvement issue today too... Well, lots of posters think the security was overdoing it, but no one on the spot seems to have made a move. Maybe law or engineering students might have reacted differently than social sciences. As blogmaster do you ever follow up on points made such as the educational requirements for police mentioned by Katrina? Although I doubt a few Shakespearean quotes would tame a person so out of control. Verona this ain't. -30-

Phronk said...

Yes but during the events no one watching knew he didn't have a gun. And for better or worse (I think for better), they'd tend to give the benefit of the doubt to police officers. It's a lot easier to criticize the police and bystanders in hindsight.

Like what's the alternative? Having citizens intervening with police any time they use force? That'd do a lot more harm than good.

I'm not familiar with the other case you mention so I can't comment on that.

I doubt that one's faculty determines their willingness to intervene with police.

As blogmaster of a personal blog that mostly subsists on fart jokes and forcing my opinion on others, I only follow up on points I'm interested in. As for Katrina's, I'm inclined to agree with Dan's comment above: a formal education has little relation to one's ability to deal with police situations. I think that comes from training specific to policing, and probably more importantly, real-world experience (which may actually be antithetical to the bubble of formal education).