Amid national outrage over brutal behavior by police officers, a university police officer in California received notice of termination last week because he refused to use his stun gun on a suicidal student, despite demands by other officers for him to do so. The incident, the officer's supporters say, sheds light on how police are encouraged to escalate situations by turning too quickly to the use of excessive force.
According to local news reports, an unnamed officer with the California State University, Monterey Bay Police Department responded to a call in February about a troubled student at a university dormitory. Jeff Solomon, president of the Statewide University Police Association (SUPA), the union representing the officer, told The Huffington Post that the call came from a student’s father who was worried his son might hurt himself or attempt to commit suicide.
The student was black, according to information the officer’s lawyer shared with the Monterey County Weekly.
The officer was working alone, so he called the municipal Marina Police Department for assistance in calming the student down, according to accounts given to local news outlets by both Solomon and Marina Police Chief Edmundo Rodriguez.
The situation escalated when the CSUMB officer stepped away to get the student a glass of water, Solomon told HuffPost. The student became agitated again, stood up and raised his voice, prompting the three Marina officers to restrain him on the bed and use two stun guns on him. They reportedly asked the CSUMB officer to use his stun gun to control the student’s legs, but Solomon says the officer refused, saying it was neither justified nor in the student's best interests.
Rodriguez declined to comment to HuffPost about the episode, but gave a very different account of events to other outlets. The police chief said the student got up and tried to walk away despite commands from Marina officers to stay put, and when they tried to control him he "resisted very strongly," requiring stun guns to subdue the student enough for medical personnel to enter. He says that when one of the Marina officers asked the CSUMB officer for his stun gun, the university officer simply handed it over.
"He froze. He just didn’t know what to do," Rodriguez told the Monterey County Weekly.
Solomon doesn’t buy that, noting that the officer is a 20-year veteran of the force with no disciplinary history on his record and that at 150 pounds, the student likely did not pose a threat warranting use of stun guns.
“It doesn’t pass the smell test,” he told HuffPost.
Stun guns have been responsible for 540 deaths between 2001 and 2013, an Amnesty International report found.
Solomon applauded the CSUMB officer’s actions, citing the ongoing nationwide scrutiny of brutal police actions.
“Just look at the national landscape right now,” he told HuffPost, pointing specifically to outrage over the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of police. “Here we have somebody that showed incredible restraint. It can be really easy to jump in the fray and join in … but here’s this guy standing up to something that so many people in our society are complaining about. It speaks volumes. And it’s not a popular stance with police officers.”
In a statement in a SUPA press release, the student's father, who also remained unnamed, expressed gratitude for the CSUMB officer’s actions.
“It defies logic and is extremely disappointing that, at a time when law enforcement is under fire for using more force than necessary, an officer is being terminated for attempting to use civilized methods to resolve a situation.”
But the Marina Police Department viewed the officer's actions differently. The department filed a “failure to act” complaint with the university, leading to an investigation and ultimately a notice of termination.
The officer is now suing the university for building a case against him, arguing that the university added allegations of misconduct to his file after the incident to bolster its move to terminate him, the Monterey Herald reported.
Reached for comment, the CSUMB Police Department directed HuffPost to the university, which declined to comment on the events but said the case is “much more complex” than SUPA has conveyed.