Mad at the police? Wise to confine your fighting to the courtroom

By Jayson Jacoby November 27, 2009 11:20 am

Some people seem to think police officers should be capable of feats that would amaze David Copperfield and Doug Henning.

I just want cops to arrest, as quickly and painlessly as possible, anybody who poses a threat to innocent people.

People like me, for instance.

Not everyone is satisfied with that simple standard, though.

They expect police to not merely apprehend suspected lawbreakers, but to always do so in a way that doesn’t look, you know, violent when you see it on a grainy black-and-white videotape.

That is a pleasant thought.

What it’s not is realistic.

The truth is, not everyone submits to police with the meekness of a five-year-old caught by his mom before dinner with half a cookie in his hand and chocolate smeared on his lips.

Some people punch cops.

And kick.

And stab, shoot or bludgeon, if they can get hold of a weapon.

These people don’t as a rule respond to voice commands like a well-trained bird dog.

And not all of these people are men who look like they ought to be on a wanted poster.

Some are 12-year-old girls.

I’m thinking here of a particular 12-year-old girl.

She was the object of the most heavily publicized arrest in Portland this year.

Earlier this month two Portland police officers were watching several dozen young people who boarded a light-rail MAX train after attending a party.

The officers recognized the 12-year-old girl, and a teenage boy who was with her, as a pair who had both been banned from riding MAX trains.

Police handcuffed the boy.

But the girl, as she was getting off the train, punched one officer in the face and then continued, as police put in their uniquely stilted prose, to actively resist arrest.

The girl, by the way, is rather bigger than an average 12-year-old — 5-foot-7 and an estimated 160 pounds.

Officer Christopher Humphreys and his partner ordered the girl to stop struggling.

When she didn’t, Humphreys used his 12-gauge shotgun to fire a beanbag into the girl’s thigh. The fabric bag holds 1.4 ounces of lead shot.

After she was hit by the beanbag, the girl stopped resisting, and the officers handcuffed her.

She had a bruise on her thigh but did not need medical treatment.

The entire episode was videotaped by a TriMet security camera.

It should surprise no one that this incident has revived the always simmering debate about police tactics; and specifically, the question of whether Humphreys could have subdued the girl without firing the beanbag.

According to one newspaper story, “observers have asked why the officer (Humphreys) didn’t use his hands or a baton to help his partner who was on the ground struggling with the girl.”

That’s an interesting question.

However, it’s a question better suited for a training seminar than for a situation involving a person who has already punched a cop.

And it seems to me the question is irrelevant as regards Humphreys’ handling of the 12-year-old.

His job was to control the girl as quickly as possible, and with the least risk of injury to her, to himself and his partner, and to any bystanders.

Humphreys accomplished this at the cost of a thigh bruise.

(I’m referring only to the physical cost; Humphreys might lose his job over the matter.)

Which leaves me to ponder what, precisely, the “observers” would have had Humphreys do with his hands or his baton that would have left the girl with a lesser injury.

Or, more to the point, that would have looked nicer on that all-important video.

Would Humphreys’ critics have applauded him for his cool demeanor if he had busted the girl’s jaw with a right cross?

Or cracked her femur with a blow from his baton?

This situation epitomizes our tendency, as a society, to substitute symbols for reality.

Consider the symbols in the Portland arrest.

The girl is only 12.

How could a 12-year-old girl deserve to be shot with a beanbag?

The vast majority of 12-year-old girls don’t deserve that, of course.

Neither do the vast majority of people, regardless of their age or gender.

But some people do.

People who, for instance, punch police officers.

And what of the shotgun?

Well it sounds pretty nasty, all right — a cop using a shotgun to arrest somebody for the relatively innocuous offense of riding on a train without permission.

But the salient fact in this case is not that Humphreys fired a shotgun, but what he fired from it.

It wasn’t buckshot or even birdshot.

He wasn’t trying to kill the girl or even to seriously hurt her.

He fired a beanbag.

And it did what it was supposed to do: convince a person to quit fighting.

A reporter for The Oregonian quoted professor Geoff Alpert of the University of South Carolina, who’s apparently an expert in how police use force in making arrests, as saying that the Portland incident “just looks bad.”

Well I don’t care about looks, and I hope police officials don’t either.

I care about results.

And if firing a beanbag at the 12-year-old girl was the safest option, and the one least likely to severely injure the girl, then it was the right choice no matter how it looks on a TV screen.

Humphreys did have another option, of course.

He could have let the girl go.

He could have realized that security cameras are focused on MAX platforms, and that corralling a person who had already punched a police officer would look pretty rough on video no matter which tactic he employed.

He could have avoided a lot of hassle.

He wouldn’t have done his job, though.

Ultimately, I don’t know if Humphreys acted wisely.

I wasn’t on the MAX platform that night.

It might well be that, even though this incident ended benignly, firing beanbags in such cases is inherently more dangerous than teaching police to rely, as those “observers” suggested, on their hands or batons.

That’s an issue for police officials to ponder.

The lesson for everybody else, it seems to me, is one for which hardly any of us needs a remedial course:

Fighting with police is stupid and dangerous.

Complying with police is smart — even when you think you’re being railroaded.

When you capitulate to the cops you’re neither surrendering some inalienable right, nor empowering a corrupt government.

Very few people are detained by police for no legitimate reason.

But if you become a member of that minuscule minority, I suggest you go along, and trust that the situation will get sorted out in the end.

This is, after all, America.

We have lots of skilled lawyers who would salivate over a juicy unlawful arrest lawsuit.

Handle things right and you might be able to retire early.

And no bruises.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.