Disclosure: During my rookie days back in the sixties as a San Diego police officer I used excessive force, more than once. I remember most of the incidents, though I'm sure I've conveniently forgotten some. I'm ashamed, wish to hell I hadn't done it. But I did, and visceral memories of these incidents help shape an answer to the question of why certain cops engage in brutal behavior, and others don't.
As police brutality cases go, it may not be one for the annals.
In late February, King County, WA sheriff's deputy Paul Schene deposited a slender 15-year-old girl into a holding cell and ordered her to remove her shoes. The teen used her right toe to loosen the heel of her left sneaker, which she then cast off, the rubber-soled shoe apparently striking Schene in the shin.
As she began the mirror process with the other shoe, Schene stormed the holding cell, kicked the girl in (what appears to be) the groin, chased her across the cell, grabbed her by her hair, flung her to the concrete floor, burrowed his knees into her back, slugged her twice in (what appears to be) the head, and handcuffed her, all of this on camera. He then yanked her by her hair to her feet and "escorted" her out door, and out of our view.
The girl, who had offered no resistance, reported trouble breathing. Paramedics were called. Schene's report declared that the teenager had suffered a "panic attack."
Pretty bad. But does it stand up to the LAPD Rodney King beating? Or the NYPD torture of Abner Louima? Or the countless other videotaped police attacks we've seen in recent years?
The Schene attack didn't last nearly as long the King beating. It wasn't as sadistic as the broom-handled, sodomizing case of Louima in Brooklyn's 70th Pct. But it's just as painful to watch: a six-two, 195-pound man pummeling a frightened child.
Who cares whether the girl was "lippy," or that she may have referred to the officers as "fat pigs." Any excessive police force violates agency policy, not to mention state and/or federal laws. Not only does such "official" violence inflict pain, often causing lasting physical and emotional injury, it greatly undermines public confidence in the police (as evidenced by reader reactions to the original post).
Cops are allowed, in the language of Schene's own agency, to use physical or lethal force only as "necessary to effect an arrest, to defend themselves or others from violence, or to accomplish other police duties according to law."
Apart from the question of why in the world they'd do it with today's omnipresent cameras rolling, why do certain cops resort to excessive force?
Schene claims he was assaulted (the girl maintains that she was not aiming for the deputy when she flipped off the shoe). He claims the sneaker caused him "bruising, bleeding, and pain" as well as a "blood filled pocket," though it's hard to imagine that statement passing as truth. Schene's injury appears to have been caused by his self-propelled collision with the cell's shin-high stainless steel commode--caught clearly on the tape. The deputy will no doubt assert he used only that amount of force necessary to overcome the girl's physical aggression. It doesn't take a trained observer to see he's wrong.
So, how do we prevent this kind of behavior in the future?
Please don't say through (1) more thorough screening of law enforcement candidates, or (2) better training. They're both important, of course. Critical, in fact. But law enforcement, for the most part, doesn't pick bad apples. It makes them, and not through academy training.
Forty-three years ago I was an idealistic, vaguely liberal 21-year-old when the San Diego Police Department hired me. The last thing on my mind was taking to the streets to punish people. And lest there be any doubt about the department's policy, the police academy, even then, drove it home: excessive force was grounds for termination.
So, why did I abuse the very people I'd been hired to serve?
Not to get too psychological, I did it because the power of my position went straight to my head; because other cops I'd come to admire did it; and because I thought I could get away with it. Which I did--until a principled prosecutor slapped me upside the head and demanded to know whether the U.S. Constitution meant anything to me.
It comes down to this: real cops, those with a conscience, those who honor the law, must step up and take control of the cop culture.