Last week, after a veteran Detroit police officer was caught on film brutally beating a naked, possibly mentally ill woman at the hospital, Police Chief James Craig said he found the incident “disturbing,” but cautioned that the officer might not be guilty of any wrongdoing.
Craig suspended the officer upon reviewing the video first obtained by Fox 2 News, but his follow-up statement gave us pause. How can punching an unarmed hospitalized person more than a dozen times possibly be construed as in line with department policy?
The answer appears to lie in whether or not the woman was a threat and something called the "force continuum."
In this case, Craig says the woman had become "agitated," aggressive," and "threatening," in the lead up to the video. To put it in more concrete terms — she is alleged to have spit on hospital staff and bitten a security guard. The witness video picks up after these events, as the woman tries to wrangle out of the arms of two other uniformed guards or officers trying to restrain her.
Then the Detroit police officer is seen punching her at least a dozen times. According to Craig, the beating left the woman with minor injuries including possible contusions.
DPD's use-of-force policy permits officers to use “less than lethal” techniques to protect themselves or another person from physical harm, among other things. The level of force they respond with is then guided by something called the "force continuum," which is "based on the concept that as the resistive individual(s) increases the level of resistance or threat to the officer, the officer may increase the level of force necessary to overcome the resistance and conversely de-escalate and/or disengage as compliance is attained."
There are two levels of force before punching (or "hard hands" techniques). The first level is a verbal directive to control "the actions of the subject." Then, the officer may use "compliance controls," or physical techniques like "escorting, touch pressure, joint locks, etc." After that, "physical controls" like "pain compliance" and "hard hands" may be used.
The levels of "resistance" by a subject include "physically evasive movements to defeat an officer’s attempt at control, including bracing, tensing, pulling away, or pushing," and "physical acts that are hostile, injurious, or destructive."
But, the manual says, "when applying the concept of force continuum, the totality of the circumstances involved in the incident must also be considered."
Those circumstances include the nature of the offense; the presence of weapons; "subject factors" like the person's age, size, and strength; the availability of alternative responses; and the availability of additional officers.
In this case, at least two experts say the force was clearly unwarranted because of those circumstances and because the woman ceased to pose a threat before the officer's violent outburst.
"There was no weapon involved, there were multiple officers there trying to restrain the person," says Detroit police commissioner and former officer Willie Bell. "It was reported that she was aggressive in terms of spitting and biting, but I don't think that merits the punching at all and I think that's why Chief Craig initiated the steps that he's taken."
Bell also noted there were other options available to restrain the woman.
"From my experience, in that situation, you grab that person and try to restrain their arms so you can cuff them."
According to Craig, the officers failed to cuff the woman as she entered the squad car, a step required by department policy.
A civil rights attorney who specializes in police brutality and was a former DPD officer for 13 years says the situation should have been handled differently, particularly because of the woman's mental state.
In this case, the woman had been picked up by officers in the Woodbridge area and taken to the hospital after Craig said officers determined she was suffering a "mental episode."
"Because she's a mental case, you can't deal with it the way you might normally deal with a person," says attorney David Robinson. "The force continuum is not necessarily designed for blanket application in every situation or circumstance; they don't make a force continuum specific to mental patients, so that leaves it up to the humanity of the officer and their ability to exercise good judgment."
The officer, Robinson says, "knew that she was a mental case and he had to get her to the hospital for help," but "it sort of seems when you're looking at the video, that he just lost it."
Also of importance is whether the woman ceased to be a threat at any point before or during the beating. In his remarks last week, Craig focused on the moment in the video that the woman turned away from the officer.
"As he was trying to calm her down, at some point the officer began to strike her because she wasn't responding, she was not compliant," Craig said. "Where it takes somewhat of a turn ... there were points where the suspect had turned her back, but the officer continued to punch, it was at that point that we had grave concerns about the officer's actions."
An investigation into the officer's actions is underway. The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office has been notified of the incident.
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