Use of Force 101
Use of Force and The Hollywood Factor
By Jeffry L. Johnson
The Heart of the Problem
What is the difference between reasonable police force and excessive force? Who decides where one ends and the other begins? How objective is the standard? What influences impact that standard? This article will examine conflicting views of reasonable force, identify and isolate particular factors that have created and perpetuated this growing conflict, specifically between police and community members. It will also attempt to identify how police managers can make that standard more objective, fair and understandable to both officers as well as civilians, particularly those civilians who directly make and influence judgments of officer conduct in force incidents.
We know that California law, like most states, allows officers to use “reasonable” force when attempting to apprehend a suspect. The US Supreme Court has further defined the reasonableness standard for all states in Graham v. Connor. This 1989 landmark case mandated that the determination of objective reasonableness must be judged from the perspective of the officer on the scene, allowing for the fact that force situations often call for split-second decisions, and must be reviewed without regard to the officer’s underlying intent or motivation. The Court expressly understood and stated that “not every push or shove, even if it may later seem unnecessary in the peace of a judge’s chambers,” is unreasonable in the final analysis if we are judging it through the eyes of the officer at the scene. Translation? No Monday morning quarterbacking should be allowed.
The truth is, we do see Monday morning quarterbacking, particularly in high profile or video taped force incidents. To some degree there has to be. When we are talking about inflicting injury or even taking someone’s life, of course individual officers and police agencies need to be willing to submit to scrutiny. However, the scrutiny must be fair, and based upon an objective standard. Our officers—and our communities—need to be able to count on the rules being consistent, and that they won’t change or vary if the incident happens to be a high profile one.
There are many individuals at various levels that have input into the decision of what is reasonable force. Many are civilians with no law enforcement experience. They may be members of civilian review boards, civil service boards, district attorney offices, attorney general, justice department or part of numerous other outside agencies. They may be civilian administrators, elected officials, politicians, judges, attorneys, members of a grand jury, trial jury, or other entities. And this does not include community activists, special interest groups, and members of the media that impact public opinion and may in turn influence official rulings on force incidents.
Some of these people will have had training and experience in the use of force, but many—probably most—will not. Some will depend upon police force experts to explain and clarify the legal, policy and procedural issues, tactics, equipment, and force option training, as well as the psychological factors that influence force incidents. Yet some of them will have limited—if any—resources to clarify the force incidents they are reviewing.
This can be a big problem. Police officers often forget that most people do not share their experience and knowledge of how force works. Even sworn
officers sometimes become somewhat hazy on practical force principles if they have been removed from it for a long time, if for example they assume management or administrative roles. This can present a problem as well if they are the ones passing judgment on officer force incidents.
Police managers need to periodically remind themselves of the unique dynamics involved in every use of force incident. Further, they must ensure that those civilians who have little or no experience in such matters, yet who are in positions to judge are educated so their concept of reasonableness will be fair and consistent. We all must be aware of the factors that influence reasonableness, and strive to consistently read from the same page of music. If we do not, our officers and our agencies will continue to face unfair scrutiny that will tarnish our reputations and negatively impact our profession.
WHY SO CRITICAL?
The following quote by Federal District Court Judge John Davies, the judge who presided over the Rodney King officers’ second trial, helps to illustrate the problem.
Where an officer’s initial use of force is provoked and lawful, the line between a legal arrest and an unlawful deprivation of civil rights within the aggravated assault guidelines is relatively thin.
The line between reasonable force and a criminal excessive force beating is thin indeed. There is no middle ground, no buffer zone. It’s either reasonable or criminal. One extra baton strike, shove or control hold can make the difference between an officer doing his job and being sent to prison.
The diagram below may help illustrate the problem. This being the case, how critical is it that the standard is defined and objective?
You may recall that in the Rodney King officers’ federal (second) trial, Sergeant Stacy Koon and Officer Lawrence Powell were found guilty, subsequent to the LA Riots that ultimately cost over a billion dollars, resulted in the deaths of 58 people, and as many as 2,000 injuries.
Judge Davies ruled in his sentencing memorandum5 that, of the total fifty-plus baton strikes, only about the last six (or so) inflicted by Officer Powell were unreasonable, and therefore excessive. The judge further ruled that Rodney King’s head injuries, facial fractures, as well as his fibula (leg) fracture were all part of a reasonable use of force. It only became unreasonable when Officer Powell failed to stop striking him toward the very end of the tape, when it was judged that King had stopped resisting.
This incident went from reasonable to criminal in the blink of an eye. Yet many might disagree on that conclusion. Some may claim the whole incident was excessive from the outset. Interestingly however, the five-second clip of video that was played incessantly on the news for weeks after the event, upsetting so many people and contributing to the rioting and social unrest, was a portion of the incident that was subsequently ruled reasonable and justified by Judge Davies.
This leads us to the conclusion that the public may not always perceive and evaluate force the same way law enforcement and the justice system do. Why is this? It can lead to serious problems when it is members of this same public who are the politicians, board members, administrators or elected officials evaluating police force incidents. In truth, there are actually some very specific influences that have created this divide. Identifying and understanding them may help explain why we see things differently and how we can correct the problem.
POLICING IN THE VIDEO AGE
What causes many in law enforcement to view a force incident as reasonable, yet many civilians to see the same incident as unreasonable? This was not a major issue even twenty-five years ago because, except for the participants and a limited number of civilian eye-witnesses, few people had seen an actual use of force incident. If an incident was scrutinized, it was normally done on the basis of a police report or witness testimony. The introduction and ready availability of the video camera to the general public has had an immeasurable impact on police use of force. It effectively took the force incident off the cold, sterile pages of the police report and brought all of its seething ferocity and violence into the living rooms of the general public. It has also polarized law enforcement from much of the community, because each group often comes to a different conclusion on the reasonableness of a video taped force incident. Why is this?
THE HOLLYWOOD FACTOR
The Hollywood Factor may be defined as the influence the media, i.e., television and the movies have played on the public perception of what constitutes reasonable force. It can be divided into three sub-categories: the Demonstrative Bullet Fallacy, the Code of the West, and the Violent Police – Violent Business misconceptions.
Every person who has reached the age of majority in this country has witnessed literally thousands of force incidents. They have not only observed numerous police fights and skirmishes of various kinds, they have also seen countless officer involved shootings and homicides. The problem is, none of it was real. It was all filmed by people who have little or no experience in police force situations. That is to say they do not understand or appreciate the physics and dynamics of how force works. What does a real fight look like? How do people react to the impact of police weapons? What is the physical effect of a gunshot wound? What is it like to be in the shoes of a police officer having to use force in the course of his job? Experience shows that real life is very different from the movies. This doesn’t mean that the viewing public does not truly believe they understand how it works and how it looks based on what they’ve seen on movie and TV screens.
Many also base their ideas of the rules, laws, policies and morality that govern police force based on what Hollywood has shown them. This is often erroneous as well. This is a critical issue that has led to a great deal of public misunderstanding in its perception of force incidents.
The Demonstrative Bullet Fallacy
Ever since Dirty Harry came along with his .44 Magnum hand-cannon, when someone gets shot on TV or the movies (and don’t forget video games) two things immediately happen: 1) the victim will jerk convulsively, go flying through windows, off balconies, or lose limbs, and 2) there will immediately emerge a geyser of blood spewing forth from his wound, leaving no doubt that this person has been shot, and pinpointing exactly where the bullet has struck. This depiction has become progressively more severe and graphic each year in order to maintain the public’s interest and ensure box office profits. It definitely adds to the dramatic effect, and it is obvious why Hollywood perpetuates and amplifies it, but it is not reality.
This concept is reinforced by various firearm and shooting magazines that discuss and propagate the idea of handgun “knockdown power” and “one-shot stopping power.” The truth is, the whole idea of handgun knockdown power is a myth. It simply doesn’t work that way.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation Firearms Training Unit published a concise yet insightful report that speaks directly to this issue.
A bullet simply cannot knock a man down. If it had the energy to do so, then equal energy would be applied against the shooter and he too would be knocked down. This is simple physics, and has been known for hundreds of years. The amount of energy deposited in the body by a bullet is approximately equivalent to being hit with a baseball. Tissue damage is the only physical link to incapacitation within the desired time frame, i.e., instantaneously.
The report cites previous studies that have calculated bullet velocities and impact power, concluding that the “stopping power” of a 9mm bullet at muzzle velocity is equal to a one-pound weight (e.g., baseball) being dropped from the height of six feet. A .45 ACP bullet impact would equal that same object dropped from 11.4 feet. That is a far cry from what Hollywood would have us believe, and actually flies in the face of what even many in law enforcement have come to mistakenly believe.
For example, recall the President Reagan assassination attempt in 1981. The shooter, John Hinkley was firing a .22 cal. Handgun. The courageous Secret Service agent who took a bullet for the president jerked quite noticeably as he observed the bullet strike him in the lower torso. Yet President Reagan, who was struck by the same type of bullet, also in the torso, but didn’t know someone was shooting at him, wasn’t even aware he’d been hit until minutes after it happened. Often even experienced officers react based on how they believe the dynamics of the force should work rather than how they actually do. In other words, even cops are not exempt from the Hollywood Factor.
The FBI report also emphasizes that unless the bullet destroys or damages the central nervous system (i.e., brain or upper spinal cord), incapacitation of the subject can take a long time, particularly if one is engaged in a firefight.
Failing a hit to the central nervous system, massive bleeding from holes in the heart or major blood vessels of the torso, causing circulatory collapse is the only other way to force incapacitation upon an adversary, and this takes time. For example, there is sufficient oxygen within the brain to support full, voluntary action for 10-15 seconds after the heart has been destroyed.
More often than not, an officer firing at a suspect will not immediately know whether he has even struck his target. The physics are such that the body will rarely involuntarily move or jerk, and usually there is no noticeable spewing of blood or surface tearing of tissue. Often there is no blood whatsoever.9 In fact, generally in the excitement of the moment the only way the officer will even know he is hitting the mark is if and when the suspect goes down. Seeing how we universally teach our officers to fire until the threat is eliminated—i.e., the suspect surrenders, goes down, and/or is otherwise incapacitated—this may result in the firing of numerous rounds, unlike the “one-shot drop” mentality the movies have created. And if in fact it takes 10-15 seconds for a suspect to become incapacitated, an officer can easily empty a full 17-round magazine before he or she observes any indication of incapacitation whatsoever. If there is more than one officer firing, that total may reasonably increase exponentially.
Too often officers’ judgment is questioned when it appears they have fired too many rounds at a suspect. Recall the example of Amadou Diallo, the suspect in the 1999 incident in which four New York PD officers fired a total of forty-one rounds, fatally striking him nineteen times, believing he had a gun. The Diallo incident caused serious rioting, public protest and unrest, comparable to the Rodney King riots in LA.
The four officers were criminally charged but ultimately acquitted after a full trial. The medical examiner testified at trial that based on bullet trajectory, Diallo was standing upright when struck by at least sixteen of the nineteen hits, then was either falling or down for the remaining three.
Were the officers justified in firing as long as the suspect remained upright and was armed as they believed? And even when down, does that mean a suspect is “incapacitated” and officers must cease firing? How many other shootings have been negatively scrutinized because of the perception that too many rounds were fired? Do you think an understanding of the demonstrative bullet fallacy might make a difference in the way the public views such incidents?
The Code of the West
From the earliest days of film making, Hollywood has instilled in us that there is an unwritten code that all good guys must live by. The code may not always make much sense in the real world, but it has created an implied expectation for real law enforcement.
1. Good guys never have the advantage. In earlier films, if the bad guy ran out of ammo, the good guy felt somehow compelled to throw away his own gun and finish the conflict mano a mano. Even in more modern films the code lives on with good guys routinely giving up their guns to save hostages, or fate somehow places them in hopeless, outgunned situations from which they ultimately triumph. With this in mind, how can an officer reasonably strike an unarmed suspect with a baton? Or mace him, or shoot him with a less-lethal weapon or even a lethal handgun? This clearly violates the code of the west, but not sound police training standards. Recruit officers are taught to always maintain an advantage in order to gain and/or maintain control. This may include striking an unarmed (and non-compliant) subject with a baton or impacting him with a less-lethal TASER® or bean bag. It may also include shooting someone who ultimately turns out to be unarmed.
2. Good guys are always outnumberedby the crooks, or at best, numerically even. The image of the lone hero facing numerous villains is pervasive in the movies. The real life spectacle of numerous officers standing over a suspect, attempting to control him (e.g., Rodney King) just feels wrong based on this standard. Yet we train our officers to maintain numerical advantage whenever possible. And there is definitely no rule against more than one officer engaging a single suspect—quite the contrary.
3. Good guys are never the aggressor. Good guys don’t fight unless forced to do so. They don’t like fighting or using weapons, but are usually really good at both (interesting paradox). It usually takes some dramatic, tragic event to motivate the good guy to use force. In real life officers must often be the aggressors to maintain control, particularly in situations of passive resistance, i.e., refusal to comply with reasonable and necessary directions.
4. Good guys never shoot first or throw the first punch. Movie heroes need full, clear and personal justification before they jump into action. They must first be violently and unjustly assaulted so they have full moral authority to kick butt, and have the audience fully behind them. In real life, an officer can’t wait until he or she has been incapacitated by a bullet or knocked unconscious by a punch. He/she must anticipate a suspect’s actions and control the situation. The officer may be required to grab, take down, mace, tase, strike, or even shoot a suspect before the suspect has shown any physical aggression. Again, this will always look bad to untrained witnesses and on tape.
5. Good guys never hit a man when he’s down. The “Code” tells us once a man is down he is not a threat. By that time he is thoroughly beaten and the movie can end. But even if he’s faking, he is no match for the merciful yet lucky hero, who can never be defeated through skullduggery. In reality, once the bad guy is down the hard part is just beginning. He must be taken into custody, handcuffed, searched and booked. The movies usually omit that part, yet it is often the most dangerous stage of the encounter. An officer is at his or her greatest disadvantage and vulnerability when taking a suspect into custody. Direct and intimate contact must be made.
6. Once the bad guy surrenders it’s all over. Similar to the previous rule, however the bad guy doesn’t have to be “down” to surrender. After all, the movie bad guys normally capitulate—or die—when defeated anyway, so the scene can simply end there. But once again, the most dangerous part of the encounter comes after the surrender, when the officer must take the suspect into custody. A feigned surrender is a perfect way to draw an officer into a disadvantageous position, particularly if the officer is acting alone without back up, or the suspect possesses a hidden weapon, superior physical skills or conditioning. It is at this point that the suspect has virtually equal access to the officer’s weapons. FBI statistics show that in the last ten years, of all officers killed in the line of duty, nearly 16% had their weapons taken away by the suspect.
At this point in the arrest, an officer will reasonably be extremely wary and intolerant of any active resistance by the suspect, i.e., fighting, kicking, attempting to take the officer’s weapons, etc. More importantly, he will and must be intolerant of even passive resistance. In other words, even if the suspect is not fighting and is standing there passively, but refuses to turn around and place his hands on his head, spread his legs in order to be cuffed and searched, or in more serious cases, refuses to lay prone on the ground, the officer must take action. He does not have the option to wait-out the suspect, or simply approach nonchalantly and hope for the best. In most cases it is reasonable for the officer to make the suspect comply with his orders through the application of force, e.g., baton strike, TASER®, chemical agent, etc. The problem is, it violates the Code of the West, and looks really bad to civilian witnesses and on video.
7. Good guys never shoot a person in the back. This may be the best-known and most oft-quoted code of the west. Shooting someone in the back is conclusive evidence—proof—that the shooting was unjustifiable and unreasonable. Only a cowardly, yellow dog would shoot a guy in the back. Right?
The reality is a gunshot wound to the back only proves where the bullet struck. It provides no more evidence of culpability than does a gunshot wound to the front, side, big toe, or anywhere else.
There are a myriad of scenarios in which an officer is perfectly justified in shooting a suspect in the back, either to defend himself, others, or prevent the escape of a dangerous felon. Examples would include a suspect that shoots at the officer and then runs, or a suspect with his back to the officer who is threatening deadly force against a third person. It is also not uncommon for a person to instinctively turn away if he or she is being fired upon by another, thus causing a back, rather than a front or side wound.
8. Good guys will always outlast bad guys in a fight.In other words, even though the hero has struggled through a long, harrowing battle with the villain, he will never be defeated, or be the first one to surrender or retreat. He is stronger and better than the bad guy. At best they are evenly matched physically, but the hero is never outmatched when it counts.
The reality is quite the opposite. When an officer is struggling with a suspect and is attempting to control and overcome the suspect’s resistance, it is very analogous to a football game where the defense attempts to control the offense. As anyone who’s played football knows, the defense will tire before the offense because it takes much more energy to anticipate and control the actions of another.
The bottom line is that an officer only has a short time—maybe a couple of minutes—to gain control of a suspect before the officer’s energy is spent, placing him or her at a dangerous disadvantage. We call this the fatigue threshold. The fatigue threshold will be reached despite the added strength adrenalin provides (which a suspect has as well). In fact, it may actually contribute to officer “hitting the wall,” or experiencing a sudden depletion of strength. Modern officers are at an added physical disadvantage due to the personal equipment they carry, specifically wool uniforms, twenty-pound belts, and motion-constricting, heat-retaining ballistic vests.
The closer an officer gets to his or her personal fatigue threshold, the more dangerous the situation becomes, not only to the officer, but often to the public in general. Once the fatigue threshold is reached or passed without placing a resisting suspect in handcuffs or otherwise restraining him, the officer may easily be overcome, then injured or killed should the suspect(s) be so inclined.
We will often see officers in this situation using increasing levels of force to gain control the closer they get to their fatigue threshold. This point may be reached generally anywhere from one to five minutes into a fight, depending upon such factors as the officer’s physical conditioning and abilities, the suspect’s conditioning and abilities, the suspects level or intensity of resistance, weapons involved, as well as the surrounding environment, i.e., temperature, humidity level, etc. This issue cannot be emphasized enough; it is an area that has largely been overlooked until now.
9. Good guys always win. Though they face horrendous odds, get beaten and bruised, and are even subjected to temporary disgrace, in the end the good guys always come out on top in the movies. As much as we all wish this were reality, it simply is not. Police officers get beaten and killed daily. Hollywood doesn’t portray the real pain—the unsexy part—of injury and death. It doesn’t show the real long term damage of a bullet, the chronic, lifetime pain of a severe back, neck, or knee injury, or the lives of injured officers in their prime forced into early retirement at a fraction of their salary. And it doesn’t show the pain to young families who have lost a father or mother.
It may be for this reason more than any other that real life use of force can’t be like the movies. There is simply too much at stake, and there are no second chances if an officer is too lax or careless in his or her response to a resisting suspect.
Violent Police – Violent Business
The final Hollywood myth is the concept that officers fly from call to call shooting and beating people, maybe even justifiably so. After all, in a one-hour cop show there is at least one officer involved shooting or violent confrontation between every commercial break. It causes one to wonder how Hollywood cops ever get caught up on their paperwork.
The fact is, police rarely use force. Statistics show that nationwide, police officers use force at a rate of 3.61 times per 10,000 calls for service to the public. Put another way, police officers do not use force 99.9639% of the time. Further, in only a fraction of all force cases—about 0.2%—do officers use deadly force. And it is still true that the vast majority of officers (even in major cities) never fire their weapons on duty. Yet if Hollywood, the nightly news and some vocal activists are to be believed, one would think the police shoot and beat people as often as they start up their black and whites.
This misconception is important to note. The fact that law enforcement uses force so sparingly should be highlighted as a sign of success. It is clear this is a reality in the United States for a number of reasons, including our higher standards of hiring and training, conscientious force incident evaluation and self-regulation, a high level of scrutiny and even peer pressure within our own agencies, greater levels of diversity within our ranks, as well as our increasing openness to outside examination, e.g., community policing, citizen review boards, advisory panels, public forums, etc.
THE HEART OF THE PROBLEM
Due to the above factors and possibly others as well, it would appear there has arisen a distinct disconnect between how police and the public view reasonable force. Can police managers afford to continue a hands-off approach and allow the untrained, often misinformed public to be the final judge of what constitutes reasonable police force, particularly in high profile incidents, without insisting on even a rudimentary understanding of force dynamics? Further, dare they continue to allow the community to maintain unreasonable and conflicting expectations of its law enforcement officers? No one is suggesting that police agencies take a step backward and exclude or discourage the opportunity for community involvement and input. However, much of the community is quite frankly unprepared to judge police force without being educated as to its underlying principles. Simple fair-mindedness coupled with the experience of watching a lot of cop shows does not qualify a civilian to analyze force incidents.
Part of the problem may be that since Rodney King, law enforcement agencies that have experienced high profile force incidents have been so intensely scrutinized and brow-beaten by activists and others in the community, they are fearful to assert their expertise, as if in doing so police managers will appear less objective and risk their own political survival. This issue should not be trivialized. It is not simply an issue of police chiefs being more assertive. In fact, that is often the exact wrong response.
BRIDGING THE GAP
First, there needs to be a collective recognition that law enforcement is often on a different page than the average citizen when it comes to how we view police force incidents. There is no shame in this, because there are valid reasons for it. Second, the police must not be shy or apologetic about the fact that the real force evaluation experts come from within its ranks. Just as an experienced surgeon is the best person to judge another surgeon’s incision and technique where there is an allegation of malpractice, so an experienced police officer and force expert is most qualified to judge—or at least offer a forensic analysis of—a force incident. This is no great insight, but there is reason to believe that in recent years law enforcement professionals and managers have come to doubt this fact, or at least have been reluctant to assert it.
Next, police managers must take active steps to educate the community, and more importantly, those specific community members who sit behind the desks, on the review boards and the commissions that review police force incidents and decide what is reasonable. The necessary education does not need to include extensive weaponless defense technique training, practical firearms instruction, endless scenarios, case law and statutory law review. They do not need to know how to use force, but it is critical they understand what reasonable force should look like. This can be accomplished in a much shorter time frame, often in one eight-hour course of instruction or less. Critical elements of this training should include a force options explanation (i.e., force continuum or paradigm), basic laws of arrest, role-playing, Hollywood factor misconceptions, review of police force statistics and data, and a question-answer session. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to include components like firearms tactical simulation training or police ride-alongs to supplement their understanding.
Another component includes educating the general public. Venues such as community academies, town hall meetings, community forums, neighborhood group meetings and other community and faith-based gatherings provide possible opportunities to train and involve larger numbers of citizens in the process. The training can be limited to one or two-hour blocks, containing little more information than is included in this article. This can pay added dividends in the event of high profile force incidents, by cultivating a cadre of informed, nonaligned advocates that can counter the often shrill voices of those who may be quick to criticize the police, or come with an agenda.
Finally, police officers must also be educated. As stated earlier, they are not immune from the effects of the Hollywood Factor. A failure to fully appreciate these misconceptions can result in serious injury. They must not only be aware of the laws and mechanics of force, but also the practical results of their actions. For example, do you think it is important for an officer to appreciate that when he shoots a suspect, the reaction will likely be very different than what he has seen all his or her life on television? Such training is currently not provided in most academies or advanced officer training. Officers need this understanding, and also need to be able to convey it to the community they contact on a daily basis.
Police managers have made great strides over the last several years involving the community in public safety dialog. They have garnered great support within the communities they serve. Unfortunately, sometimes one high-profile force incident has set back this progress by years. This simply does not have to be. In the vast majority of cases our officers either use no force, or use reasonable force to get their jobs done. But even when they are acting reasonably, the visual spectacle of police force is ugly. It never looks good on tape, and rarely enhances the police image at the visceral level. It is in fact sometimes a dirty business, however cliché that phrase may sound. Progressive, professional and community-centered police agencies need to be proactive in educating the community about police force, not only for the sake of the community, but also for their officers.
Jeffry L. Johnson has 25 years experience as a police officer. He is presently a Commander with the Long Beach Police Department, California, assigned as the commanding officer of the Detective Division. He has been a use of force instructor of both police recruits and advanced officers for 15 years. He has served as a legal expert for the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), and has participated as a writer for the POST Use of Force Curriculum. He is qualified and has testified as a force expert. He is an FBI National Academy graduate, holds a Masters Degree in Public Administration, a Juris Doctor Degree, and has been a member of the California Bar for 17 years. He also serves as a private consultant and trainer on use of force issues.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Do you have this in audio form?
I've read this before and it's a worthy read i assure you...
Do you have a link to this pls? I want to print this out... and need it to be the original article.
Here's a PDF of it with all pertinent info, should be ok?
As always, a great read. :perfect10:
You are under arrest.
Everything after that is the fault of the bad guy, including death.
Certainly, and thanks to TBO for posting this in the first place. People could always use to see this.
Holy crap! I just got a bad case of deja vu...
Excellent read. Now if only all LE administrators thought like that... :)
That is a quote to remember. I have had my kids ask me, after watching the news, about how it seems the police are always fighting and shooting. I actually don't like my kids (pre-teen) watching too much news anyways...
After finally making it through the entire article, I have to agree. Very well put by the writer. I just wish people who don't see it from our side would understand it as easily as we do.
Thanks TBO, I always did like this one.
Much needed boost
In a Brooklyn Parking Lot, the End of a Quiet Life
In a Brooklyn Parking Lot, the End of a Quiet Life
The church custodian saw him first: a man alone in a parking lot, swinging a folding chair like an ax, bringing it down toward the windshield of a parked van and stopping, an inch from the glass. Then backing up and dancing around with the chair, a strange ballet. Then swinging again, over and over.
The custodian yelled for the man to stop, and turned and ran for help inside the Coney Island church, where police officers chaperoned the truants of Brooklyn and Queens.
A minute later, Officer Dawn Ortiz, gun in hand, was in front of the man with the folding chair. He swung, brushing the chair against her, and in a second she had fired her gun for the first time in her career. The single bullet grazed the man’s wrist and pierced his heart, killing him. He lay on the ground atop the chair.
The shooting did not provoke much attention. The dead man, a 5-foot-8, 153-pound day laborer, had no identification; the police used his cellphone to track down his brother and give him a name: Gilberto Blanco. Still, his body lay unclaimed in the medical examiner’s office for most of a week.
A few hours after the shooting, at 12:45 p.m. on Nov. 13, the police said that the shooting appeared to be within the department’s guidelines. While the man did not have a gun or knife, the department said the officer was at risk of being killed or seriously hurt with the chair, the key criterion justifying the use of lethal force.
“Basically, was there an imminent threat to life or serious injury?” Paul J. Browne, the department’s chief spokesman, said the day after the shooting. “That is the defining statement.”
Mr. Browne has dismissed additional inquiries, refusing to divulge many details of the officer’s career — her distinctions or awards, promotions or punishments.
The Brooklyn district attorney’s office made no announcement about any findings it might have made. When asked, a week after the shooting, the office said it had interviewed a handful of witnesses and concluded there was nothing left to investigate.
The Police Department has a manual of guidelines for all sorts of confrontations. There are several pages on E.D.P.’s: emotionally disturbed persons. There are directions on the use of lethal force. In all, there is a balance sought: First, if possible, make things end peacefully, with no one hurt, but also be prepared to take extreme steps, like firing a weapon.
The Police Department will conduct an internal inquiry into this shooting, as it does in all shootings — accidental, deadly, seemingly justified or not. Their findings will not be made public automatically, and perhaps will never be known.
And so the details and echoes of a shooting are set to fade from the city’s memory. A man with no known criminal record and an otherwise invisible life as an immigrant worker is dead, at 46. The officer was treated briefly at a hospital and for the moment has been sidelined with administrative duties.
What was left to show for the last two years of Mr. Blanco’s life fit in a corner of a Bensonhurst apartment’s back room: two laundry bags, a duffel and a cardboard box of DVDs, magazines, a bottle of Old Spice and a toothbrush. He shared the tiny bedroom with a laborer from Guatemala, above a Chinese bakery on 18th Avenue. There was no room on the floor to walk when both of their twin mattresses were laid out. Mr. Blanco paid $225 a month. The people who owned the apartment said they had never learned his name.
He lived in the country for two years, all of it in Brooklyn and most likely illegally, and was in this apartment for about two months, and yet several people who knew him said they did not remember ever seeing, taking or posing for a picture with him. Posthumously, in the city where he died, he is literally invisible.
Gilberto had a brother in Bensonhurst, Ricardo Blanco, who is 11 years younger and yet the more settled of the two, a legal resident with a full-time job and an apartment.
The Blanco brothers were from the small city of Santa María Jalapa del Marqués in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, where their family — their mother, father, another brother and three sisters — still live, farming a small patch of corn. Gilberto was the oldest child. The brothers both struck out for work, with Ricardo coming to New York about six years ago and Gilberto staying around Tijuana before arriving here four years later.
Gilberto Blanco never married and had no children. He lived in different apartments over the last two years, but always in Bensonhurst. “He was always here on the corner,” a fellow day laborer, named Daniel, said.
Standing outside a Starbucks at 65th Street and 18th Avenue every morning of the week, the men struck up friendships. When Gilberto Blanco turned 46 on Oct. 21, he celebrated with two of the corner guys. One of them was Antonio Bailon, 33, who remembered the night well. Three men, three six-packs of Budweiser. They drank in the narrow stairwell to Mr. Blanco’s apartment, playing Mexican music videos on a portable DVD player.
They said that they did not know Mr. Blanco to have a drinking problem, and that he did not act aggressively or violently at work or while waiting for work outside the Starbucks. There is no record that he was arrested during his time in New York.
But as winter approached, Mr. Blanco was tiring of his Brooklyn life.
“He was going to return to Mexico at the end of this year because he said things hadn’t gone well for him in this country,” Daniel said.
What would be the last week of his life started with an announcement that he was moving out of the 18th Avenue apartment, said one of the owners, Francisca Zapeta, 35. “On Monday, he told me, ‘I’m going to leave,’ ” she said. This did not surprise her, as he had spoken of leaving about a month earlier, and was a month behind on his rent.
His roommate, a man named Feliciano, from Guatemala, said in a brief interview that Mr. Blanco told him he was moving to an apartment in Brighton Beach with a new roommate from Peru, and that was all he knew.
The guys at the corner noticed his absence right away.
“We looked for him, because he didn’t come,” said Armando Cortes, 32, another worker. “We asked each other where the Oaxaca guy was, because we hadn’t seen him.”
The Coney Island Gospel Assembly Church is a brick bunker, featureless but for a cross on the roof and a hand-painted sign out front, its letters faded from years of sun and rain and wind. It reads: “To all who are weary and neediest, to all who are sick and need healing, to all who mourn and want comfort, to all who sin and need a saviour, and to whoever will come this church opens wide its doors.”
Inside, the church’s regular activities include a food pantry and services for a variety of faiths, but the basement has served a different, daily function over the last seven or eight years as a holding area for truant students. Police vans regularly pull up to the back of the church, with officers letting out sullen teenagers in puffy coats and walking them inside.
One day last week, the teenagers sat slumped in rows of chairs in one corner, with police officers and school safety agents, who are members of the Police Department but not armed, sitting at tables nearby. Neither side seemed particularly interested by the other.
Most mornings it was the same: the pastor, Constance SanFilippo-Hulla, would arrive at 8 and find Officer Ortiz waiting there in a car or police scooter for an education official to open the truancy office. The officer wore her uniform neatly. She kept her hair pinned back. She looked the pastor in the eye, but said few words.
“Do you know the military look?” the pastor said. “They command authority. She had that.”
Nicole R. Barron, the truancy program’s executive director, said Officer Ortiz worked there for “at least two or three years,” calling the parents of the truant students. “She does a good job there,” she said.
In releasing a few details about her, the police said Officer Ortiz was 33, was assigned to the Housing Bureau, had been an officer for nine years and had never fired her gun at a suspect before. Inspector Robert Johnsen, the commander of the 60th Precinct, where the shooting occurred, said “her record is fine,” and said he believed she must have requested the assignment at the truancy center.
The police would not provide more details of Officer Ortiz’s career or her assignments or her accomplishments. A few national studies have suggested that female officers are less likely to draw their weapons than their male counterparts, but Mr. Browne declined to provide statistics on how often women in the New York Police Department use deadly force.
No one answered the door at Officer Ortiz’s home in Dyker Heights, and she did not respond to a request for an interview. A union official said, “There will be no statement.”
‘The Eyes Are Crazy’
On the day of the shooting, the custodian at the church at 2828 Neptune Avenue, Eduardo Alvarado, 40, said he heard “a big noise” coming from the alley in back. He peered out from a corner window and saw a man walking into the parking lot, holding a wooden and metal folding chair over his head like a canoe.
Mr. Alvarado, a recovering crack-cocaine addict from El Salvador who found refuge in the church in the late 1990s, went out to confront Mr. Blanco. The chair, one of a pair, had been donated to the church, and Mr. Alvarado kept it outside because he liked to sit on it to smoke cigarettes.
“I say, like two times, ‘Why do you do this to the property of the church?’ ” Mr. Alvarado said. “He says, ‘Mister, you not speaking good English. Why don’t you speak to me in Spanish?’ ” Mr. Alvarado asked him in Spanish why he was acting this way. “He said, ‘I don’t care. I don’t care,’ ” he said. “He’s waving the chair at me.”
The custodian ran to the basement of the church, where the police officers and school safety agents were working.
“I said, ‘I need help, I need help, someone very crazy is outside,’ ” Mr. Alvarado said.
Officer Ortiz jumped up along with Officer India Archie, 38, from the 60th Precinct. Two school safety agents also stood up, and the four uniformed workers went with Mr. Alvarado back upstairs. As they ran, through a back doorway, Mr. Alvarado explained what had occurred outside. Inspector Johnsen said Officer Ortiz called for backup over a central radio channel.
“They were in the process of responding,” the inspector said of the backup.
It is not clear, and officials would not say, when or how Officer Ortiz came to have her service weapon drawn. But as the officers reached the corner of the parking lot, Mr. Blanco was swinging the chair about 40 feet away, Mr. Alvarado said. In Spanish and English, Officer Ortiz ordered Mr. Blanco to drop the chair. But he did not, and charged her, the police said. Mr. Alvarado said he tried to head him off, but Officer Ortiz held him back by his wrist. “The guy is not listening,” Mr. Alvarado said. “The eyes are crazy.”
The police said Mr. Blanco — three inches taller than Officer Ortiz, according to the autopsy — was swinging the chair in a threatening manner as he closed the distance to within an arm’s length of her.
Mr. Alvarado said the man got close enough to hit Officer Ortiz with the chair, a grazing blow to her stomach, and that as he cocked and swung the chair again the officer stepped back, off balance, and fired her gun. Only one bullet was fired, but the round struck Mr. Blanco in the heart and in his left lung, the medical examiner’s office said.
Mr. Blanco fell mortally wounded near a walkway leading to the church. Mr. Alvarado said, “He fell down at the feet of the girl.”
The department would not discuss what would have been the applicable standards and tactics for the four members of the force who responded to Mr. Blanco in a parking lot otherwise empty of people. For instance, it is not clear if they believed they were responding to an incident involving an emotionally disturbed person.
In such incidents, the department’s Patrol Guide instructs officers that, whenever possible, a suspect should not be allowed to get that close.
“A minimum distance of twenty (20) feet is recommended. An attempt will be made to maintain the ‘zone of safety,’ if the E.D.P. does not remain stationary,” the guide states in a section titled “Mentally Ill or Emotionally Disturbed Persons.”
The encounter between Mr. Blanco and Officer Ortiz appears to have escalated quickly — a fact police commanders in other cities and independent analysts cited in considering the shooting.
“If the threat was imminent, then she would surely be justified,” said Jerome H. Skolnick, co-director of the Center for Research on Crime and Justice at New York University Law School. “The primary police obligation is to protect life. But they are also entitled to protect their own life.”
“Was it necessary? And, could it have been avoided?” said John F. Timoney, the Miami police chief and former first deputy commissioner in New York. “You get into situations that you can’t isolate and contain, and the guy is charging you. What are you going to do? You have no choice. You discharge your weapon, not to kill, but to stop the aggression.”
News of Gilberto Blanco’s death did not travel quickly. Five days after the shooting, both the men on the corner and the owners of the apartment reacted with shock and said they had had no idea he was dead. They said they did not know what could have driven the man they knew to act like the man described in the parking lot on Coney Island.
“We feel sad,” Daniel said.
The next day Ms. Zapeta lighted a candle in honor of the man whose name she did not know, placed it in his bedroom, empty but for his few belongings, and left for work.
By then, Ricardo Blanco had called the medical examiner’s office to claim his brother’s body. Ricardo’s boss, Mike Rizza, arranged for a three-hour wake at Coney Island Memorial Chapel.
Mr. Blanco was laid in a room that stayed empty as the wake began. His hair, graying slightly, was combed back and cut neatly. He wore a dark suit and tie and his hands clutched a rosary. After 25 minutes, Ricardo Blanco and Mr. Rizza and members of Mr. Rizza’s family arrived. A few friends of Ricardo Blanco followed, though only one said he had ever met the man in the coffin. A priest read from the Bible in Spanish.
Ricardo Blanco stepped out of the room for a break. Asked why his brother had come to New York, he said, “To work, to work. To eat. To make money to send the family.” He and Mr. Rizza were making final arrangements to ship Gilberto Blanco’s body back to Mexico.
The wake ended an hour early.
Your post has too much information based on facts, laws, and sound reasoning. I didn't think that was allowed around here?
I thought it had to have emotion, internet lawyering, arm chair commando, and unverified "facts.":supergrin:
Hell of a story. Sad all the way around.
You know, looking over 34 years, I have to ask. When did "reasonable" force replace "necessary" force?
1989. Graham vs. Connor. You are familiar with that, and receive regular update training on use of force, including the latest legalities, right?
Please don't insult my intelligence or work ethic. I have live and work in this era. I think I do a pretty good job of it.
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