I just watched a fuzzy video of two policemen beating an unarmed man with batons while he lay on the ground. One cop hit him at least 20 times, the other at least 15 times. They kept on hitting him after other policemen arrived. The most appropriate word in my vocabulary for this scene is sadistic.
This happened on November 12 in San Francisco. The man is a criminal, who had apparently stolen a car, led police on a chase at high speeds, and injured another policeman in attempting to flee. But the beating had nothing to do with arresting him. It was about inflicting pain.
I had seen this video before, but forgotten the particulars. When I searched for it by Googling “police beat man”, I found many similar videos of police brutalizing people they had caught.
In Inkster, MI, in January, Floyd Dent was pulled over on a traffic stop, yanked from his car and punched at least 16 times while being held in a chokehold. He was shocked three times with a taser. At the police station, he was stripped and made fun of, with no attempt to treat his injuries.
In Philadelphia in April, two officers beat an unarmed man who had been riding his bike on the wrong side of the street. Eventually 11 police cars and 26 officers gathered to deal with this one man.
In Salinas, CA, in June, a man who had been fighting with his mother was whacked many times with a billy club by a policeman. He was on the ground, and the policeman was standing over him, waiting for him to move, swinging the club with both hands like a baseball bat, then waiting and whacking again. Another policeman stood by and watched. There was no attempt to handcuff him. This was simply a beat-down. After three other police arrived, he was beaten further with a billy club, still lying on the ground.
In Brooklyn in July, two policemen punched a man suspected of stealing a piece of pizza and hit him with a baton, when he had his hands up in a gesture of surrender. In Chester, PA, that same month, a man who was driving the wrong way on a one-way street was repeatedly punched and shocked with a taser by four policemen while he was lying on the ground. That’s a selection among a longer list of incidents of violence by police this year, that happened to be recorded on video, in San Bernardino, CA, for example, and in a Target store in New York.
In most cases, the victim was doing something illegal. In each case, multiple policemen beat up the victim with weapons or fists while he was unarmed and defenseless. Although one of Floyd Dent’s police assailants was charged with assault, in most cases nothing happened to the violent officers.
None of these victims was killed. Media attention to violent police tactics has become much more intense recently because of a number of deadly incidents in 2014, such as the choking of Eric Garner in New York in July, and the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, in August. The Guardian has tried to list every person killed by police during 2015, tallying 202 unarmed victims.
In May, a 39-year-old woman led police on a high-speed chase in Wyoming. Her tires were deflated by spikes, and she emerged from her car with a knife, confronting five police. She was shot with a taser, but still did not drop the knife. Then she was shot twice and killed. Ten women armed only with knives were shot and killed by police in 2015.
I wonder about shooting to kill in those circumstances. As in the Wyoming case, often more than one officer was involved. How dangerous is a woman with a knife versus several police with batons? What about shooting in the leg?
The violence in these cases appears grossly excessive. It was not necessary to beat Floyd Dent, or any of the other victims mentioned above, before handcuffing them. It was not necessary to kill Michael Brown or Eric Garner. It was not necessary to kill all 10 women or the 125 men armed with knives who were killed in 2015.
Racism means that in all of these situations, African Americans are more likely to be victims of excessive police violence, more than twice as likely to be killed as whites. But twice as many whites were killed as blacks in 2015. The problem is larger than racism. When a group of heavily armed and highly trained police confront a suspect, even one armed with a knife, death should not be the result. Police should never hit someone multiple times with a club when they are down.
Policing is a dangerous business, every day and every night. Excessive police violence, now caught increasingly on camera, does not make it less dangerous. These incidents reduce the trust between police and the people they are paid to protect. The reluctance of police administrators and courts to get rid of violent cops makes policing less effective.
There are about one million police in the US. These incidents do not reflect normal interactions between citizens and police. But if we can watch a new video every month of groups of police brutalizing unarmed citizens, then we have a police problem.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 24, 2015