Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Police Procedures

The video of a police officer at a California university casually spraying non-violent student protesters with noxious chemicals, the photo of an 84-year-old woman who was pepper-sprayed by police, the video of a marine whose skull was fractured by a projectile the police shot at him, the video of police firing point-blank at a reporter, and the photo of a protester's face which was bloodied by a police baton have all become emblematic of police repression of the Occupy movement.

We have learned from recent events that, to a disturbing degree, some police all over the country are better equipped with weapons than with judgment, and they have been acting with uncalled-for brutality. The civilian authorities have not done a very good job of controlling these police. Or perhaps, in some instances, the municipalities have been pleased with the police actions.

Some people think that the police are justified in using whatever force they want, and that the protesters could have avoided injury simply by not protesting. The point that they miss is that unless police officers are constrained by well-thought-out policies that are strictly enforced, the police will become a menace to the public at large.

That is exactly what happened the other day when police pursued a man who drove off in a minivan that he had stolen from a shopping center parking lot in suburban Northbrook, Illinois. Seven police cars chased him on the expressway, where he was apprehended after crashing into four vehicles, injuring himself and two other people.

The police could have simply written a report and told the car's owner to file a claim with her insurance company, like they do with countless other auto thefts. Instead, the police created a situation which resulted in damage to five vehicles, injuries to three people, and which could have caused even greater mayhem. The police were willing to risk that innocent motorists would be killed, just to apprehend someone who stole a car.

It is hard to imagine what policy the police were following. What rational person would risk so many lives in order to recover a car? But that is what police do every day. A couple of weeks ago, eight people were injured, four critically, when a car that was being chased by Chicago police crashed into another car.

After four students were shot by National Guardsmen at Kent State University forty-one years ago, President Nixon established a commission which investigated the killings. It concluded that the guardsmen had acted improperly and should not have been carrying lethal weapons when they confronted the protesters. In 1997, a study published by the U.S. Department of Justice said that because of the risk of injury to the public, high-speed police pursuits should only be undertaken if necessary to apprehend violent felons, and then only after weighing the risks.

Police like to think they are protecting the public. The public likes to think so, too. But unless the public insists that police follow reasonable procedures, the police can end up being more of a danger to society than the people they are supposed to be protecting us from.

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