Social media exploded on Sunday with footage of a security officer wrenching a screaming man out of his airplane seat and dragging him down the aisle like a rag doll, blood seeping from the side of his mouth.
People around the world directed their ire at United Airlines, which offered a corporately manicured response apologizing for having to “re-accomodate” 69-year-old doctor David Dao and three other customers to make space for company employees that needed seats. United maintains that it followed proper procedure, but something isn’t right about watching Dao get battered and publicly humiliated simply for insisting on sitting in a seat he paid for.
Let’s not ignore what we’re seeing. Yet again, an uncomfortable and repulsive outburst of state-sanctioned violence ― this time at the behest of a massive corporation ― is captivating the nation’s attention. The Chicago Aviation officer was unquestionably brutal in this instance, and his actions follow a disturbing trend of U.S. police resorting to force, even when it seems to most observers like they’d be better off avoiding it at all costs.
As with most controversial use-of-force incidents, officials will now examine whether the officer acted lawfully in this scenario. The Chicago Department of Aviation has reportedly placed the officer on administrative leave pending an investigation, and said in a statement that it does not condone his actions. But legal or not, the confrontation could have larger consequences.
Subsequent videos show Dao return to the plane after the altercation, saying he needs to go home. In one, he appears disoriented and mutters repeatedly to himself.
The scene is chilling, in part because Dao appears to not have received medical attention, said Monnica T. Williams, a clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut who has studied the effects of police brutality.
“I can’t imagine seeing a white woman treated in this way, just left to bleed with possibly some sort of severe head injury,” she said.
Dao was later taken away on a stretcher, according to the Associated Press.
United CEO Oscar Munoz blamed Dao for the officer’s reaction, calling the doctor “disruptive and belligerent” and suggesting airline personnel and police had no choice but to physically extract him from the plane.
But if the officer’s actions were necessary to ensure the plane’s timely departure, they certainly failed to achieve that goal. The flight was grounded for hours after the disruption, in order to allow staff to clean Dao’s blood from the cabin. And in the end, this approach will likely cost United far more money than if staff had simply offered passengers additional money to deplane voluntarily.
Munoz’s statement also reflects a tendency of those in positions of power to excuse law enforcement for using violence to force compliance. Authority figures consistently argue that it’s the responsibility of civilians to act in a way that could not invite officers to use force, and never the responsibility of the officers to consider ways to de-escalate and avoid it.
The incident also highlights broader concerns about the culture of U.S. law enforcement, which many have criticized for embracing a role as “warriors” rather than “guardians.” Multiple bystander videos in recent years have captured officers showing little hesitation to use force, even in seemingly sensitive situations. In many of these cases, a cop’s use of force leads to a precipitous escalation of the situation.
Trust in law enforcement has suffered at times as a result. A 2015 survey showed confidence in police had fallen to its lowest level in 22 years, though a similar poll taken the next year found that respect for law enforcement had rebounded.
Opinions on law enforcement’s use of force are consistently divided along racial lines, with white and black Americans showing drastically differing views of the issue. Although 75 percent of white respondents said police use the right amount of force, only 33 percent of black respondents agreed, according to a 2016 survey.
Victims of violence often suffer from trauma beyond their physical wounds. Many report feeling psychological symptoms like anxiety or post-traumatic stress, and those issues can be compounded when the aggressor is in law enforcement, Williams said.
“Part of the whole syndrome of PTSD is that you feel like the world is not a safe place, so you’re constantly vigilant, constantly on guard,” she said. “And what better way for them to learn that the world isn’t safe when the people who are supposed to protect you are harming you or brutalizing you and not taking any steps to keep you safe.”
The debate over police tactics typically revolves around law enforcement activity in communities ― often communities of color, which tend to experience policing differently. But the fact that we’re seeing this happen on an airplane should open people’s eyes, Williams said.
“It reminds us all that the police can do whatever they want to us, even if you’re a doctor on a plane,” she said. “They can harm you if you don’t obey.”