[The disclaimer is on my sidebar, but for this post it probably bears repeating: on this blog I don't speak for my office. I speak as a purely private citizen, under the First Amendment. I have no idea whether the use of force discussed in this post is lawful or not. I have no inside knowledge of the matter. I know only what I read in the papers -- and (as you'll see) I have plenty of reason to doubt that.]
It is always amusing to read print journalists’ sanctimonious pontifications about how newspapers provide “substance” and “serious discussion of issues.”
Judging from the L.A. Times treatment of the latest LAPD “scandal,” this claim is nonsense. The paper isn’t interested in discussing the parameters of the proper use of force by police. Nor does the paper have any interest in placing police actions in context.
The paper is interested in sensationalizing the story, pure and simple. And I can prove it.
Before we get to the discussion, watch this 19-second video:
Don’t read any further until you have already watched the video.
Now, answer the following questions, in the comments, without looking at the video a second time. Make sure you have watched the video before you even look at the questions. I want to get your first reaction:
1) How many times did the officer strike the man?
2) Does the man appear to be cooperating, or resisting?
After you have answered the questions in the comments, you can watch the video again.
On Friday, the L.A. Times had an article about the video titled Video, arrest report at odds. The deck headline reads: “An LAPD officer says he punched William Cardenas twice. A tape that aired on YouTube shows at least six blows.” The article begins:
The LAPD officers under investigation for allegedly using excessive force while arresting a suspect in Hollywood this summer appeared to have downplayed in their arrest report how many times they hit the man.
The report, obtained by The Times on Friday, says that Officer Patrick Farrell punched William Cardenas twice because he resisted arrest. The video of the Aug. 11 arrest shows Farrell striking him at least six times in the face.
First of all, no, it doesn’t. It shows Farrell striking him five times in the face.
I have watched it literally dozens of times now, and to me, it looks like the officer punches the suspect only five times.
The first time you try to count, it looks like six. There is an initial group of punches where the officer’s fist comes down four times. With two subsequent single punches, that appears to make six.
But look at that first group of “four” punches again. Yes, the officer’s arm comes down four times in rapid succession. But pay close attention to the officer’s right hand when his fist comes down for the fourth time. The hand doesn’t hit the suspect’s face; rather, it grabs the suspect’s wrist.
From my repeated viewings of the video, it appears that there are only three punches in the initial set — which, added to the two that come later, make a total of five.
So I can’t agree with the L.A. Times that it’s a hugely damning detail that the officer who wrote the report — who is, by the way, not the same officer who administered the blows — got the number of punches wrong. After all, the folks at the L.A. Times also got the number of punches wrong, and they had the benefit of having the video available to watch as many times as they liked. To reinforce the point, let’s go to the first question I asked above. Did you all answer “five”? Any of you who didn’t — you’re all liars. After all, it’s on video.
OK, but five punches is still pretty different from two. Isn’t it damning that the police report says there were only two punches?
Let’s put this in context. These officers were not sitting around drinking iced tea and watching a video on their computers. They were in a street fight with the suspect. Here, buried at the end of the story, is the Times summary of the police account of what led up to the punches:
According to the police account, the officers were on a patrol just before 6 p.m. when they spotted Cardenas drinking beer with two friends at the corner of Fountain Avenue and Gordon Street. Schlegel recalled that Cardenas, an alleged member of a Hollywood street gang, had an outstanding felony warrant on a charge of receiving stolen property.
After pulling up in their patrol car, Farrell ordered the men to put their hands above their heads, but Cardenas ran. Schlegel caught up to him a quarter of a block away and tripped him. The officers said Cardenas then took several swings at them and resisted their efforts to control and handcuff him. According to the police report, several witnesses confirmed that Cardenas swung at the officers.
Finally, after the suspect takes several swings at them, they have him on the ground. He continues to resist.
Under these circumstances, is it unusual for the officers to misremember the number of times one of them punched the suspect? I asked David Klinger, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Missouri, a former LAPD officer, and an expert on use of force issues. He is the author of Into the Kill Zone: A Cop’s Eye View of Deadly Force, and has done a study about officer-involved shootings. He is also quoted in yesterday’s L.A. Times article — meaning the L.A. Times had every opportunity to ask him the same questions I asked him.
Prof. Klinger told me that there is nothing unusual about an officer misremembering the number of times he struck a suspect. Any time you’re in a fight, he said, it’s a tense and rapidly evolving situation. Prof. Klinger told me that, in his study on officer-involved shootings, about 1/3 of the time officers had no idea how many times they had fired their guns. For example, they might say that they had fired eight shots when in fact they had fired twelve.
Interesting, I said. I asked him: did you mention this to the L.A. Times reporter who contacted you about this incident? After all, the headline and lede of the story indicate that the main focus of the story is the discrepancy between the report and the video. What did you tell them about that? I asked.
They didn’t ask me about that, he said. I had no idea that there was a discrepancy, he told me. If they had asked me, he said, I would have told them that it is not surprising.
Prof. Klinger told me that it is clear that the suspect is resisting, and that the officer is administering the strikes to control the suspect, and not to administer street justice. For example, at the beginning of the video you hear an officer say: “Let him put your handcuffs on.” The suspect remains noncompliant throughout all 19 seconds, grabbing at the officers’ legs and arms. You hear an officer saying: “Let go of me! Let go!” Watch the video again. You’ll hear it — and it’s not the suspect saying that.
As to whether the level of force was appropriate, Prof. Klinger did not have a firm opinion. His preliminary feeling was that it was probably just fine, but to reach a definitive conclusion, he would have to know more. For example, he said, he would want to see the entire video.
As an aside, the reporters who authored the L.A. Times article have no such scruples about drawing conclusions based on 19 seconds of video. In the article, they say:
The video also seems to contradict the justification that Farrell and Officer Alexander Schlegel gave in the report for striking Cardenas. According to the arrest report, Schlegel said Farrell struck Cardenas after “the suspect continued to grab at my [Schlegel's] belt and waist.”
But the 19-second video shows that Cardenas’ hands are not near Schlegel’s waist or belt either before or after Farrell strikes him.
No, it doesn’t. The 19-second video shows only that Cardenas’s hands were not grabbing at Schlegel’s belt or waist during the five seconds immediately preceding when the officer punched the suspect. It is entirely possible that Cardenas grabbed at Schlegel’s belt and waist before the clip begins, which would mean that Officer Schlegel’s statement is entirely accurate. But for some reason, the folks who put this video on YouTube decided that they were going to let us see only 19 seconds of this incident.
Yet the authors of the L.A. Times article apparently feel completely comfortable insinuating that Schlegel is lying, based upon this one short clip. The reporters seem remarkably incurious about what is shown on the rest of the footage. What is the relationship of the person who took the video to the suspect? Do they have any reason for showing only 19 seconds of the confrontation? We aren’t told. Prof. Klinger told me that he thought a curious and unbiased reporter would want to know more about such things.
Prof. Klinger emphasized that police get disarmed in similar situations all the time. You can see from the video that the suspect has a handcuff on only one hand. Prof. Klinger said: put me down on the ground with one handcuff on and put two L.A. Times reporters on me, and let me get in a wrestling match with them. You can bet I’d be able to hurt them pretty bad.
I read Klinger a quote from the article, from attorney Connie Rice, who said: “Just looking at the tape, the first reaction is you shouldn’t have to punch someone in the face to get handcuffs on.” Prof. Klinger said that he’d like to ask any reporters or civil rights attorneys who question the officer’s conduct: What would you do to get this noncompliant felony suspect under control?
Officers are taught that a suspect with only one handcuff on can pose a real danger, Prof. Klinger said, so it may well be appropriate for an officer to strike someone in the face to get the suspect to comply. If you look at the officer, he’s not rearing back above his head to administer the punches, as you might do if you’re trying to use as much force as possible, to punish the suspect.
Prof. Klinger said that he spent about 20 minutes on the phone with the reporter who contacted him for a quote. Prof. Klinger said that he tried to emphasize that the main Supreme Court case for determining whether an officer’s actions are excessive is the U.S. Supreme Court case of Graham v. Connor. That case says that an officer’s actions must be “judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight” — with a special focus on the following factors: “the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.”
Going down the list, Prof. Klinger said, most of them favor a strong use of force. In this case, you have a felony suspect, who took swings at police officers and therefore poses some threat, who is actively resisting arrest and (according to the police reports) attempted to evade arrest by flight. Under these circumstances, administering several distraction strikes to the face would appear to be well within the range of force that would be appropriate to get a noncompliant suspect into compliance.
But what about the fact that the police officer appears to be on top of the suspect’s neck, and the suspect repeatedly says that he can’t breathe? Prof. Klinger replied that the very fact that the suspect could say that repeatedly in a clear voice is prima facie evidence that he was indeed able to breathe to some degree.
But the story says that the officer’s knee was “pressed hard against [the suspect's] neck,” I said. I don’t know how they can tell how they can tell from the video that he’s pressing it “hard,” Prof. Klinger told me. To the contrary, if the officer were trying to put maximum weight on the suspect’s neck, Prof. Klinger said that he would expect to see the officer sitting up more, with a straight line from his head to his knee. But if you look at the officer’s position, he is bent over, which is consistent with wanting to hold the noncompliant suspect still. All the suspect had to do was comply, he said, and it would have been over.
You can just hear the editors at the L.A. Times: BO-RING! I don’t want to hear about cases and factors and use of force! Get me some inflammatory quotes from civil rights attorneys!
And so we see no discussion whatsoever of 1) what principles govern the amount of force that police officers are actually allowed to use; 2) why police officers might misremember the exact number of blows administered to a suspect; or 3) any aspects of the video that tend to support rather than contradict the officers’ version.
I have to say: the very first time you look at the video, it does look bad. But I have run a post before about the dangers of making conclusive judgments about police tactics based on a single video, which may not tell the entire story. If you haven’t seen that post, it’s worth looking at. Click here to read it.
I’ll also note that a magistrate who viewed the video (did he see the whole video? we aren’t told) has found that the officers’ actions were appropriate:
Los Angeles County Superior Court Commissioner Ronald Rose found there was sufficient evidence to try Cardenas on two counts of resisting arrest. After viewing the video, Rose found “the response of officers was more than reasonable under the circumstances.”
If you’re the type who likes to make conclusive judgments about cases based on short videos, then you’ve probably convicted these officers of brutality, and nothing will change your mind. You also probably didn’t care about the context of John Kerry’s remarks.
But I think that, with the context that Prof. Klinger provides, you see that it is possible that this was an entirely proper use of force. Do I know that’s the case? Of course not. It’s impossible to know for sure without more facts. But I do insist that, unlike the L.A. Times, we get some more context before branding cops as thugs and liars.
P.S. I’ve asked Jack Dunphy whether he wants to give us his take on this use of force and this article. He said he may be able to. No promises . . . but stay tuned, just in case.
UPDATE: Ack. Dunphy writes to say that I already covered most of what he would have said. On the bright side, he will write about it for NRO.
Note that at least one commenter has said that she remembered two punches after watching the video once. Real life is not like video; you can’t replay events over and over. You often remember the important things (I punched the guy) and forget the details (I did it five times).
I’ll be writing the Readers’ Representative about the paper’s claim that there were at least six punches.
UPDATE x2: Something I just noticed: the URL for the article has the word “beating” in it.