Police behavior on the lovely Gulf Coast: May, 2015
While Americans were cursing the grand jury’s announcement not to prosecute police officers from Ferguson, Missouri after Michael Brown’s police-caused death – and then exploding in Baltimore after Freddie Gray’s police-caused death, I was, I thought, basking in the sunshine of the Gulf coast. I was also working, but in any case, I felt removed from the violence, despite the strong notion that the neighborhood I was in was distinctly white because of the many condominium projects in the area, whose private rules control entry to ownership.
I dutifully picked up my neighbor’s paper every morning since they were out of town, enjoying the local “Gulf” news, police blotter hilarities, and the Florida governor’s shell game excuses for not permitting the state to expand Medicaid.
So it was a soft surprise to read that police in Sarasota County to the south had managed to land someone they were picking up in the hospital where he quite promptly died. Let’s not say he was black, but he wasn’t white either. Off the radar, they probably thought. Let’s say he appeared disturbed when stopped in a car by police, along with another relative deadbeat. Drugs were found. Good reason to die today? He was handcuffed and put into the police cruiser. End of story? He was really upset and emotionally distraught – word was that he was afraid of losing custody of his children – or visitation, something like this. They lived in the area. He was a local - with a history of minor problems on his chart. Good reason to die? He claimed he couldn’t breathe and felt sick, police say, so they called for medical support. When he looked like he felt more stable, they cancelled the call. Is that a police ‘call’ to make? He managed somehow to climb out the window of the police car when it was stopped somewhere en route, while also being handcuffed, and police ‘apprehended him’ again taking him into custody within a half minute or so. Reason to then taser him three times? What is a taser doing out when he is already apprehended? Time to teach him not to climb out the window of the police car when he actually wants to get away? Even if he is mentally challenged, a good reason he should die? Over a traffic stop with drugs in the car? Reason to taser someone? He was also beaten on the head with the officer’s large flashlight. Reason to be beaten on the head with a virtual club? While in custody with hands bound? Reason to die today? Or tomorrow, as he generously lived longer than that day, I think. And his kids are where? How old? Reason to leave them fatherless? When he loved them? Reason a taser is to be used? When? Only when? The police flashlight? When? Only when you need to see something you can’t see – right? And the paper is acting like this is all just ho-hum news. The next day the same – more details, more ho hum news? Then a glimmer of the word, investigation – by whom? By when? A review of police procedures not mentioned. But, as the paper notes, “Just four minutes after he was stopped by Sarasota Police, John Paul Kaafi was Tasered three times and beaten with a flashlight.”
A couple days pass, and news arrives on the neighbor’s doorstep that a young man has died of police gunshots near a pier in St. Petersburg, just a hop skip jump north. He was apparently distressed, was on medication that he felt was not addressing his needs, was brandishing a gun. He managed to shoot a man in the arm, then shoot a police officer in the leg. When challenged by police to drop the gun, he acted like well, hey, shouldn’t he use it? Weren’t they scared? He reportedly said, “Go ahead and kill me.” So they shot him: dead. Reason to die? Fear of police and highly reactionary mental instability? When asked, a friend tellingly told radio reporters, to the effect, ‘I really hope he will not be remembered as someone who wanted to hurt police: that wasn’t who he was at all. He was just confused and afraid.’ Fear and confusion apparently is a real good reason in police circles for police to kill an unstable and beautiful young man. Story over – end of story – end of history.
What is the reason to kill an unstable and unattractive man whose car is not perfect and has drugs in the car? What is the reason?
What is the reason to kill an unstable and attractive young man who was brandishing a gun and was said to say, “Go ahead and kill me” before police shot him? Are police allowed to kill a young man who is obviously deranged and distressed if he gives them permission to do so, supposedly? Isn’t there a way to take down a person in this circumstance without killing them? Have we forgotten how to disable danger? Yes apparently. Have we forgotten how to prioritize the preservation of human life? Yes, absolutely.
Now the demilitarization of the police in the US is already called for – decades after it should have begun. What is also needed is a complete overhaul of how police intercept public persons at all levels of incident. What must happen is that life must be respected and preserved, despite a man – or woman’s – criminal behavior, stupidity, meanness, filmic brandishing, or the usual subterfuges. And as for those who are mentally unstable, ill and fear police, they are certainly more sane these days than those that club them, taser them and shoot them.
The level of disgust these stories generate should be multiplied a thousand-fold if even one life would be saved. A flashlight is for seeing things. A Taser is for stopping ongoing criminal misconduct that cannot be otherwise controlled, not punishing those caught in today’s terrible stranglehold of a police ‘pull-over’ and detention. A man’s call for medical assistant should be respected. And a young man with a gun is to be disarmed - not killed, then helped to find stability in his health and life.
-June Edvenson is an American attorney who lives and works in Norway, where police do not generally carry guns but are considering distribution of Tasers. She writes for publication, consults on international legal issues and teaches part-time.