In the running battle between authorities and individuals over excessive use of force, the eyes suddenly now have it: The advance of smart phone technology to ubiquity and with quality video recording is giving claimants powerful new evidence. It is not pretty for law enforcement excesses — and even potentially extra-legal escapades.
Not one, not two, but three news organizations — the Washington Post, the New York Times, and ProPublica — report that they have scoured nationwide to find abundant cell phone videos of official responses to protests over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd and other African Americans in custody. Here is a sampling of their disturbing articles:
The Washington Post
“Protests erupted in cities across the country on May 30, the Saturday after George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis. As law enforcement officers moved to clear the streets, some fired what are called ‘less lethal’ munitions. The Washington Post found that eight people lost vision in one eye after being struck by police projectiles, including lead pellets packed in cloth pouches that were fired from shotguns. They were among 12 people who were partially blinded by police during a week of national unrest. Of the eight who lost sight that day, six were protesters, one was a photojournalist, and another was a passerby.
The New York Times
“[T]he New York Times found more than 60 videos that show the police using force on protesters during the first 10 days of demonstrations in the city after the death of George Floyd. A review of the videos, shot by protesters and journalists, suggests that many of the police attacks, often led by high-ranking officers, were not warranted. A video of five or 10 or 30 seconds does not tell the whole story, of course. It does not depict what happened before the camera started rolling. It is unclear from the videos, for instance, what the officers’ intentions were or why protesters were being arrested or told to move.
“But the Police Department’s patrol guide says officers may use ‘only the reasonable force necessary to gain control or custody of a subject.’ Force, policing experts say, must be proportionate to the threat or resistance at hand at the moment it is applied. In instance after instance, the police are seen using force on people who do not appear to be resisting arrest or posing an immediate threat to anyone.”
“As protests denouncing police brutality against unarmed Black people spread to thousands of cities, it was videos of police violence — this time, directed at protesters — that went viral. Clips showed officers launching tear gas canisters at protesters’ heads, shooting pepper spray from moving vehicles and firing foam bullets into crowds. ProPublica looked at nearly 400 social media posts showing police responses to protesters and found troubling conduct by officers in at least 184 of them. In 59 videos, pepper spray and tear gas were used improperly; in a dozen others, officers used batons to strike noncombative demonstrators; and in 87 videos, officers punched, pushed and kicked retreating protesters, including a few instances in which they used an arm or knee to exert pressure on a protester’s neck.
“While the weapons, tactics and circumstances varied from city to city, what we saw in one instance after another was a willingness by police to escalate confrontations. Experts said weapons that aren’t designed to be lethal, from beanbag rounds to grenades filled with pepper spray, can make officers more willing to respond to protesters with force and less disposed to de-escalate tense situations. Not only can some of these weapons cause considerable injury to protesters, particularly if misused, but experts say the mere presence of the weapons often incites panic, intensifies confrontations and puts people on all sides at risk. And of course, unlike a mass demonstration urging action on an issue like climate change, the protests over police brutality are directed squarely at the officers standing watch. Any use of force can remind protesters what brought them into the streets in the first place and redouble their outrage. To better understand the dynamics at play, ProPublica spoke to several experts on policing and enlisted two of them to review a selection of eight representative videos in which ProPublica could clearly identify problematic conduct by the police.”
These articles, and the continued reporting of authorities’ excesses, are troubling, especially since law enforcement officials must know that, like it or not, they and their work are under intense public scrutiny. If individuals acting under the force of law cannot behave appropriately now in the glare of widespread attention, how do they conduct themselves in more normal times when less watched?
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the serious injury and death that can occur for innocent people due to authorities’ excessive use of force. Crime fighting is serious and dangerous work, and those who do it well and properly deserve credit and public support.
At the same time, in a constitutional democracy, wise authorities understand and know that their role is, as the motto goes, to serve and protect — not to command and control. With tensions high already over police killings and abuse of African Americans, why inflame public opinion further, including with recent social media posts with yet more video of police hauling a seemingly peaceful black driver from his car with angry and threatening actions or of officers restraining a partially paralyzed and athletic black man by yanking him from his wheelchair — then damaging it, as onlookers protest.
The Trump Administration, by the way, does the nation no service by not only taking a hard-line stance on policing and communities of color but also by attacking Americans’ exercise of their First Amendment rights to express their view of their government and its performance.
It is chilling to see helmeted, masked, camouflage-wearing individuals — without badges or identifying nameplates or logos — driving around a major American city in unmarked vehicles, pulling up to individuals walking on the street, and pulling them away to detention. Journalists for Oregon Public Broadcasting deserve credit for reporting on scary “disappearing” tactics, more familiar for autocratic despots, apparently employed by the federal Homeland Security agency.
Chad Wolf, the department’s acting leader, has asserted that long-running anti-police protests in Portland have resulted in what he concedes are minor graffiti and vandalism of federal buildings. This justifies deployment of U.S. marshals and agents from his agency, including from U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, to crack down on a situation he says local authorities no longer can control.
But as the Washington Post reported:
“Nightly protests have seized Portland’s downtown streets since George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis in late May. For more than six weeks, Portland police have clashed with left-leaning protesters speaking out against racism and police brutality. Tear gas has choked hundreds in the city, both protesters and other residents caught in the crossfire. Protesters have spray-painted anti-police messages on the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse and Multnomah County Justice Center, which serves as the local jail and a police headquarters.
“After Trump sent federal officers to the city, allegedly to quell violence, tensions escalated. The feds have repeatedly deployed tear gas to scuttle protests, despite a newly passed state law that bans local police from using the chemical irritant except to quash riots … federal agents [also] shot a man in the face with a less-than-lethal munition, fracturing his skull. Local officials, from the mayor to the governor, have asked the president to pull the federal officers out of the city.”
Residents of Washington, D.C., saw and expressed their extreme displeasure at federal overreach in responding to what were peaceful and appropriate protests. The District, however, has a different constitutional status because it lacks statehood.
This is not the case in Portland or Oregon. Homeland Security’s federal intervention, unrequested and unwelcome, is problematic on many, many grounds, practical and legal. That may not stop administration officials, as the acting Homeland Security deputy has suggested the feds may step in other places, too, if they choose. If black Americans warned about authoritarian excesses before, who could ignore their rightful complaints when the president and his men seem to think they can storm into the policing and governance of a notable spot like Portland?