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by Peter Moskos

November 18, 2007

He's dead... cuff him

The New York Times has an article by Al Baker, "Handcuffing the Wounded: Tactic Hits a Nerve."

I read that article with interest. Police don't have the option to not handcuff a suspect. I always thought that officers should have some (limited) discretion to not handcuff suspects. For instance, you're patrolling, minding your own business, and a person comes up to you and says “I'm wanted, I'm here to turn myself in.” OK. You run his info and indeed, he’s 10-30 (In Baltimore, that means wanted or in custody).

Let's also say this person is wanted for a failure to appear in court for a non-violent crime. Why handcuff this guy in public? He’s turning himself in. It only serves to discourage others from doing the same.

The part of the article that made the sense to me was the idea that after a shooting, there's a lot to deal with, and you don't even want to think about having a debate about whether or not to handcuff a suspect. Just do it and move on.

I think the rules will change only if some doctors can show that handcuffing a suspect could threaten the life of a wounded suspect.

There was one suspect I didn’t want to handcuff. I was just out of field training and Green, working the Artscape fair in Baltimore on three hours sleep. A young black man was playing the buckets. Buckets are easy to play poorly. But this guy was good. Loud and good.

Some of the Artscape people complained. The paying vendors didn’t want the noise and were maybe jealous that he drew more people than they were. He wasn’t allowed to play in this area. People paid good money to set up shop.

Two mounted cops said they weren't going to tell him shit. My friend and partner wasn’t going to play bad cop either. The drummer had attracted a big crowd, who were enjoying his performance.

I made the mistake of asking the sergeant what to do, hoping he would say leave him be. But he said to get him out of Artscape boundaries, so I had to do it. After his set, I approached him and, to the loud boos of the crowd, told him to pack up and leave the Artscape property. He couldn’t play in the area. I told him where to move and told him he didn’t have a choice. He agreed, I left.

A few hours later I was with the same sergeant and the guy was playing again. Sarge said he was 10-30. "There's the right way and the wrong way to handle these things," he said. He didn't put cuffs on him there, which was a smart move. Rather, buckets in hand, he was lead back to the police truck. I had to do the paperwork and write him a citation. I told him he was a good drummer. He was friendly and a little slow. Perhaps mildly retarded. He told me he was blessed. Maybe he was.

He said made over $500 the day before. He could bang those buckets good.

He was so compliant, even sweet, that I didn't think to cuff him until one of the people in the truck said, “Is he 10-30? Then why isn't he in h-a-n-d-c-u-f-f-s.” Oh yeah. It was a fair question. I was violating departmental regulation. I know there's no guarantee that a sweet and compliant young man can’t turn violent. But I just didn’t think this guy needed to be cuffed. And though I still thought it unnecessary, I cuffed him.

Things got worse. I couldn’t write him a citation because he had no ID. You can’t write a ticket if you don’t know how they are. So now he’s under arrest (technically detained to verify identity, but it’s the same thing). I thought he was 20, but it turned out he was only 17. So now there’s there extra hassle of juvenile paperwork.

I had to count his money for inventory. He had about $170 on him. It was quite a sight later. Laid on the table, you’d think he was a big time drug dealer, except they were all one-dollar bills.

I should have just let him go. It’s the only arrest I’ve ever regretted.

November 15, 2007

Don't Taze me, bro!

I know my classes are topical, but I wish people didn’t have to die to make it so. Yesterday I class I talked a police-involved shooting in Brooklyn and the overuse of Tasers. Today a bunch of students sent me these links about a man’s death in Vancouver after being Tasered. Proving exactly what I said in class:

Since Tasers can kill people (though very very rarely), Tasers (and other less-lethal weaponry) should only be used in situations where you're willing to use lethal force (or where there's no clearly less lethal force practical).

The CNN report.

And one from Breitbart TV (Canadian).

This man should not have died. Nor should he have been Tasered. There were four cops. Why the hell can't they take the guy down with muscle? Is the Taser emasculating police officers? Tackle the S.O.B.! You know the guy isn't armed (it was a secure area of the airport).

Andrew Meyers shouldn’t have been Tasered either.

Also worrisome is that the Mounties lied and said the guy was fighting. That didn’t pan out when the video went public.

I don't like the idea of people, police included, being able to cause pain at the press of a button. It makes it too easy to torture. I’ve said it many times: policing is a hands-on job. If you need to hurt somebody, it is best to do it with hands (or stick). Hurting somebody with your hands is a natural check and balance to excessive force. Physical force takes effort, reminding you of the consequences. And being close to somebody means you might get hurt, which also is good to keep in mind. It’s just too easy to press a button.

I also don’t like that Taser is a private for-profit company. That’s not inherently a bad thing. But for makers of less-lethal munitions and prisons, it may be. They shouldn’t have P.R. and lobbyers. Or studies saying how great and safe their product is. At least for other forms of munitions, there’s healthy competition and generic products. It’s just a red flag. Plus, their slick website looks like something out of the movie Starship Troopers.

What does a Taser do? Here’s an amusing video of cops getting Tasered. Always good for a laugh.

November 14, 2007

The untimely death of Khiel Coppin

An unarmed man was killed by police Monday in Brooklyn. Here's the New York Times account. This isn’t going to start any riots. Trust me. By all reasonable accounts, this was a “good” shooting.

It always sounds bad to describe the shooting of an unarmed man as “good,” but in police parlance, “good” and “bad” shootings aren’t a moral judgment as much as a way of saying that the shooting was justified by regulation and law.

A man comes at police saying he's armed and going to shoot while holding something under his shirt? He gets shot.

When a man says he has a gun, police have every right to believe him.

Maybe this was suicide by cops. Maybe the man just needed to take his meds. I don't blame the cops. But there is another problem. An one of my students said, "they got another one."

The greater problem is that another unarmed black man was killed by police. It’s not just this one case. It does keep happening. That’s why people get upset. Maybe this one was justified, maybe the last one, too. And the one before that. But can they really *all* be justified? That’s the greater question.

Police occasionally kill innocent unarmed white people as well. But you probably never hear about it. It never becomes national news. There’s no Al Sharpton for white folk. Maybe there should be.

It usually goes without saying, but cops don’t put on their uniform hoping they’ll shoot somebody that day. No cop wants to be involved in a shooting. Sometimes it just happens (luckily it never happened to me).

The problem with individual police-involved shootings is that any criminal trial becomes symbolic of greater issues of history, race, and justice in America. That’s not fair to those on trial. But we, as a society, don’t have any better of discussing and dealing with these issues. That’s the greater problem.

November 1, 2007

Gang Member Is Convicted Under Terror Law

Today’s New York Times has an article about a gang member being convicted under anti-terrorism laws. The only thing that surprises me is the surprise. The article states: “Other states have used their terrorism statutes, which were seen as largely ceremonial when they were introduced because major terrorism cases were likely to be prosecuted by the federal government.”

There’s a simple rule here: police and prosecutors will use any tool they can. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Police and prosecutors wouldn’t be doing their job if they didn’t use all the tools at their disposal.

But law-makers need to consider that when they pass ceremonial feel-good anti-terrorism laws, these laws have real-world implications. When certain acts or motivations are criminalized, the effects of laws will always extend beyond the specific target group intended.

Maybe terror laws should be used against gang members. Most Americans have much more to fear from local criminals than from international terrorism. As one Baltimorean said a while back, “Osama Bin Laden don’t live on Caroline Street!”

But something about using laws in ways they weren’t intended bothers me. Especially because so much of this always comes down to the War on Drugs. RICO laws, intended for large-scale organized crime, are now used against low-level drug laws. Terrorism laws will be, too. Assault and violence have always been illegal. I don’t think the answer to our nation’s problems is simply incarcerating more people for even longer terms.