Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Excessive Force?

By Heidi Hiatt

From today’s Seattle Times:

A $10 million settlement has been reached between King County and the family of Christopher Sean Harris, the Edmonds man who suffered a catastrophic brain injury in May 2009 when he was shoved into a wall by a sheriff’s deputy.

The settlement — the largest individual award in the county’s history — comes as a civil trial was under way in Tacoma on a personal-injury lawsuit filed against King County by Harris’ wife, accusing Deputy Matthew Paul of acting negligently and using excessive force. Paul was scheduled to testify on Tuesday.

If you have not seen the video of the 2009 incident that led to this settlement, it’s at

When I first saw the video of Christopher Harris’ head slamming into the wall, my gut reaction was, “that’s not a takedown; that’s rage. That’s a cop ****ed off that a citizen didn’t obey him.”

My stomach turned as I watched the deputy immediately flip an unconscious, limp Harris over and move him around. That could guarantee paralysis given a spinal cord injury. That maneuver may have been instinctive, but what happened next really caught my attention.

Even though Harris was obviously out cold when he slumped to the ground, Deputy Matthew Paul appears to try to pull him to an upright sitting position. Seconds later, however, when he sees patrons exit the movie theater, he flips Harris around and rolls him over as if to cuff him.

A second deputy seems to realize that something is wrong as Paul is still touching Harris and gets on his radio. A female witness reported that one deputy looked at the other and said, “she saw”, meaning that witness.

A longer video clip was available on news sites when this first happened, and I noted other unsettling aspects in the original video. No one is holding Harris’ head and neck, which is standard first aid training. There appears to have been no immediate action to directly aid Harris’ medical condition.

Theater customers kept exiting the theaters via the doors right next to Harris’ body, which was unsafe. No one blocked the area off. And it doesn’t look like many people, if anyone, offered to help. Thankfully there were witnesses, probably out of frame.

Despite this record-setting settlement and questionable actions, Deputy Paul is still employed by the King County Sheriff’s Office. He has not been criminally charged and it sounds like this has been considered an unfortunate accident, which it may be.

I’m skeptical though. Very skeptical. Christopher Harris should have stopped instead of running from the police– that is a given. That statement needs a caveat, though, which is that Harris might not have known, given how the officers were attired and their words, that they were the police. The officers admitted that they didn’t identify themselves initially.

Even if he knew, Harris did not deserve this. Even if Harris threw drugs aside while he was running, which some have alleged, he did not deserve this. I see no good reason to shove a man with such force when there is obviously a building mere feet behind him. It seems that tackling him on the spot– taking him to the ground while getting his arms behind him– would be more standard, effective, and professional.

A shoved man, if armed, could stand right back up and harm an officer. The officer could have probably had his baton/taser/weapon drawn and ordered Harris down under threat of a weapon as well. Wouldn’t that be more logical considering that the suspect in the crime they were investigating was said to have a knife? Also note that Harris was facing the officer with his hands up.

I am not a cop. I study cops. I’ve been involved with the law enforcement profession most of my adult life on a personal, professional, and educational level. The focus of my nearly completed master’s degree in forensic psychology is police-officer involved domestic violence, of which I am very familiar. I also have a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, which involves the study of law enforcement ethics and policy.

On that note, I can say with confidence that there are police officers out there who are full of rage and brimming with control issues. They do not process the high degree of stress that comes with the job correctly, and their employers may do little to help them cope. They may self-medicate with alcohol and drugs. Some may also take copious amounts of physical fitness supplements.

When such officers are given an opportunity to unleash that pent-up angst on a victim who is perceived as deserving of it, it floods out like fire. A “deserving” victim may be someone who defies the officer’s wishes, demands, or authority, in their professional or personal life.

Domestic violence victims of officers know this behavior intimately; an estimated 40 percent of police families experience domestic violence. Some estimates put that number much higher. Blogs like Behind the Blue Wall track this epidemic of violence,

So is the behavior exhibited in this video a similar “coming unglued at the defiant”? Or is it an honest mistake in tactics and/or a lapse in judgment excusable by the officer’s survival instincts and adrenalin?

It should be noted that these officers allegedly told paramedics that Harris ran into the wall as if it were his fault. The local media has claimed that officers changed their reports after the paramedics brought that detail to light, and that they were joking about the incident even before Harris was taken to the hospital.

Ask the Seattle area, and you’ll hear an outcry over this. Most local news blogs allow comments on their sites, and there is very strong sentiment on some of those sites about what could have been done differently. Some citizens are expressing downright outrage that this deputy still has a job.

Cases like this are a big reason that some members of the public have little faith in law enforcement. When citizens repeatedly see officers get away with domestic violence, civil rights violations, and questionable conduct, they become distrustful of the authorities. This creates safety issues for officers in general. It endangers their lives.

In my opinion, this incident should be reviewed by a higher power. This is exactly why I believe that every such incident should be reviewed by an independent state-level panel comprised of both public officials and private parties. This should include crime victim and domestic violence advocates and forensic psychologists.

While some departments do conduct honest, impartial reviews of their employees, some do not. I have firsthand experience with the downplaying and cover-up that goes on in the profession. It may well go on in all professions, but police officers at any level are public servants, and police departments should not be allowed to be closed-off, secretive fortresses.

There is a related topic that I would like to address here, the use of force in general. I am very protective of my friends and family members in law enforcement, and bristle when I hear people make comments like, “why didn’t the officer just shoot the gun out of his hand?” in regard to legitimate use of force incidents.

Shooting a gun out of someone’s hand or severing a specific ligament in their knee is something only Clint Eastwood and Holly Hunter can do– in the movies. Officers are trained to shoot to stop, which means aiming for center mass (the chest).

Cops are usually trained to use a level of force one step higher (or, in some cases, equal to– I know who will call me on that) than the threat they or the public are facing. They are trained to use their pepper spray, baton, taser, and pistol in specific situations. So when you see a particular method of self-defense being used, it’s probably due to hours of training and for a very good reason.

One of the most common criticisms of cops is that they use a gun when a knife is pulled. That is actually an appropriate level of force because it’s been shown that a knife-wielding person 20 or more feet away can stab an officer before he can draw his gun and fire. This is commonly called the 21-foot rule.

This does not mean that a person holding a knife within 25 feet of an officer should automatically be shot if they’re stationary. It does mean that an officer is probably going to be pulling his or her firearm in a hurry in case of attack.

Additionally, a bulletproof vest isn’t necessarily going to stop a knife, and much of the officer’s body is exposed. There may also be people in the vicinity who need to be protected. There can be a lot of reasons for using force at the drop of a hat.

Potentially fatal threats can manifest out of nowhere and in under a second, so officers literally have to make split-second decisions about what they’re going to do to stop the threat. Fear, stress, adrenalin, anger, stimulants, and other factors can heighten or inhibit the response.

Because of what they’re faced with, I do not expect police officers to be perfect. Even in this case, I have tried to allow for error, for something that would make this tragedy more understandable. I want to have empathy for those officers. But I can’t find a way out of that horrible gut feeling I still have.

This man, Christopher Harris, will be lying in a vegetative state for the rest of his life, because of a “shove” that sent him flying into a concrete wall. His wife– who is a strong woman to stay by his side and fight for justice– is caring for him at great personal cost. And it was all preventable, on several levels. It’s so sad. And so wrong.

People should not be spewing hate about cops in general or making threats against public officials over this. They need to realize that there are good and honest cops out there who risk their lives for strangers every day. It takes a special kind of man or woman to do this job well.

What we should be asking for is increased accountability and independent review of use of force and officer-involved domestic violence incidents. If there is nothing to hide, then there is no good reason to object to scrutiny at a different level, outside the law enforcement agency.

Do I know Deputy Paul? No. Can I make an informed judgment based on this video alone? No. I am on the outside looking in, and my theories as to what happened to Christopher Harris are speculation. The video is just one piece of a larger picture.

That window, though, that view into the last fully conscious moments of a man’s life, is an ugly one. Even fellow officers are questioning if that vicious shove and what followed was just too much.

I think it was. And this shouldn’t be the end of the story.

He who fights monsters must take care lest he become a monster. If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you. -Friedrich Nietzsche

1 comment:

  1. What you may not know or just learned Heidi is that Officer Paul had 19 excessive use of force cases and 7 citizen complaints.

    There also this:
    But the KING 5 Investigators uncovered more than a pattern of questionable force. We found evidence the sheriff's office was warned years earlier that Paul was too aggressive.

    In 2007, while working at the Basic Law Enforcement Academy he was too rough. The academy commander waved a red flag.

    In an internal e-mail obtained by the KING 5 Investigators, Commander Ron Griffin wrote to Paul's bosses at the sheriff's office warning Paul “exhibited behaviors that were a concern and we no longer wished to use him”.

    The concerns included using force ”far above the norm” and showing a “macho type demeanor not acceptable to our goals.” Paul's chief flagged it an early warning indicator that the deputy should be monitored.


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