Police in Georgia were right to electrocute an 87-year-old woman who didn’t understand that they wanted her to drop the knife she was using to cut dandelions, their boss says.
“In my opinion, it was the lowest use of force we could have used to simply stop that threat at the time,” Chatsworth Police Chief Josh Etheridge told the local Daily Citizen-News last week. Martha Al-Bishara, a grandmother who doesn’t speak English, “still [had] the ability to hurt an officer,” he said.
There were, of course, a number of other types of force officers might have used in the situation. Called to the scene by a local Boys & Girls Club employee who found Al-Bishara’s flower harvest disturbing, the Chatsworth officers could easily have used their hands to establish control over the woman’s arm and taken the knife from her. Anyone who has ever so much as tried to pet a shy cat is familiar with the patient, slow body language humans use to communicate that they intend to make physical contact with another creature without doing any harm.
The question Etheridge talks past — how much risk officers should be expected to undertake when seeking to resolve a situation like this one — is central to the conundrum of mistrust and suspicion in which the policing profession finds itself in 2018. It’s not out of the question that an elderly woman with a bunch of flowers in one hand and a knife in the other might end up leaving a scar on an officer who moves to gently disarm her. That’s the kind of modest risk many police critics want to see officers trained to accept as part of the profession they chose.
“If they would have approached her with an open hand rather than with their guns drawn, she would have handed it to them right away,” Al-Bishara’s grandson Timothy Douhne told the paper. “My grandmother is the most kind, generous-hearted woman.”
Tasers operate by disrupting the central nervous system with a jolt of electricity. Though generally speaking they only cause death when misused — repeat shocks and “overkill” thinking are a common culprit — the risk remains that someone in a frail state could simply shut down when stunned.
Al-Bishara’s experience recalls a variety of other stories of elderly people, miscommunication, and police violence. California sheriff’s deputies are being sued by a 76-year-old deaf woman named Hui Jie Jin who they threw to the ground after approaching her over jaywalking. Jin says the violent arrest left her with a brain injury. Sixty-five-year-old Rose Campbell was yanked out of her car and forcefully handcuffed on the side of the road by police in Alpharetta, Georgia, one of whom quit the force after outcry over his treatment of Campbell. An 84-year-old stroke survivor in Mesa, Arizona, was similarly wrestled to the ground and injured by police who had come to her home after learning that her grandson might be suicidal.
The episodes suggest that progress in altering police officers’ traditional, hardbodied approach to civilians isn’t moving very fast. Recent, tumultuous years in the profession have generated a renewed interest in de-escalation tactics for law enforcement, a wide category of skills that emphasize communication and peacekeeping over the physical dominance that has long taken up the bulk of law enforcement training. Often held up as an answer when a police official is forced to acknowledge problems in his or her department’s culture, de-escalation tactics seem not to have penetrated yet with the rank-and-file.
Police practices reflect society’s expectations. Law enforcement isn’t some perfect marketplace from an Econ 101 class. Policing supply responds only slowly and partially to policing demand. But it does respond, in time and in its own way, once a given set of public expectations and requirements reaches a tipping point of obviousness and credibility with members of the profession.
We’ve seen police agencies’ capacity to change their approach — both institutionally in terms of tactical training, and in the zeal and mentality that individual officers bring to a new demand — in the two decades since Columbine. Police forces accepted that society would demand faster, fiercer responses to active shooter situations after that massacre. They took concrete and iterative steps to deliver the desired change. Officers now take on far greater risk individually and show far greater alacrity as a unit when confronted with mass shootings.
Dick Fairburn, a columnist for PoliceOne magazine, called the post-Columbine shift “the biggest change in policing this decade” in 2010. Lieutenant Dan Marcou, a writer for the same site, noted that the mass-shooter policy changes asked officers to live out the action-movie heroism that’s long been culturally associated with the profession. Unlike “riding to the sound of the guns” in mass shootings, as Marcou put it, the types of changes sought by critics today require officers to accept new risks in service of a more deferential pattern of behavior.
One difference between Columbine’s rapid impact on society and the comparatively dead-eared response to longstanding complaints about abuse of force in individual police encounters is obvious. The kids killed there were white, their community reputedly quiet. The poorer, blacker faces of police abuse, and the then-handful of academics working on the question of how to deliver more sensible and constitutional outcomes for overpoliced communities of color, simply did not constitute the same prominent market demand for change as that captured by media coverage of grieving white parents.
Twenty years later, though, that’s begun to change. Online attention and street demonstrations connecting the killings of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and scores of other black people from 2012 to 2014, and forced traditionally mass media sources to take notice. Public attention finally, messily converged on the way officers used excessive force on individual citizens in neglected pockets of inner-city America. The Obama administration ramped up its use of the relatively few ways in which federal power can check local policing, the academics who’d studied police practices toward black and brown people for years were suddenly in demand for interviews, and funding began to flow.
But where police themselves bought into the new demands of the public after Columbine almost immediately, the contemporary calls for officers to accept slightly higher levels of personal risk when dealing with individuals on the street have met stiff resistance — from unions, from police chiefs, even from many in the academic corners of the profession. Even when the names and hashtags accumulate like a harsh winter’s snowdrifts, black faces somehow seem insufficiently sympathetic to drive change in the same monomaniacal way.
But as Campbell, Jin, and al-Bishara’s stories illustrate, the approach to street and traffic encounters that officers are currently treating as normal does not only affect people who look like Garner or Sandra Bland or Walter Scott. If black pain has been judged insufficiently meritorious a cause for change in cop habits, perhaps grandma pain will do the trick.