Sunday, August 24, 2008

Tazers and Teaching

A few months ago I read an article that is spiritually revitalizing. The onslaught of police tazering citizens who are already shackled, or drunk, or medicated, or caught performing misdemeanors and so on is terrifying.

It is as if police departments have been turned into barbarians with a right to kill with impunity and without fear of redress.

The Austin-American Statesman wrote an editorial called Apologies help boost police credibility.
The willingness of various officers of the Austin Police Department, including several members of the Austin Police Union, to offer a personal apology to a driver who was attacked during a traffic stop by an officer with a Taser is heartening. It’s an indication that the department’s rank-and-file will not turn a blind eye to unprofessional conduct by one of its own, and that, in turn, will inspire greater public trust in Austin officers and the department.

“If one person spreads the word that this is how he was treated and got no apology, it’s like an infection that would spread,” Matt Greer told the American-Statesman’s Tony Plohetski. Greer represents the detective rank on the police union board. By now, the facts are fairly well-known: Eugene Snelling, 32, was driving on MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) last Thanksgiving when Cpl. Thomas O’Connor stopped him for going 5 mph over the speed limit.

The video camera on O’Connor’s cruiser recorded what happened next: O’Connor walks up to Snelling’s car window and demands a driver’s license and registration. Snelling’s voice rises, saying, “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” O’Connor shouts back, “No, not ‘whoa, whoa, whoa.’รข€‰” He orders Snelling out of the car. Snelling complies, but O’Connor shocks him anyway with the Taser — all within 45 seconds of being stopped.

After an investigation, the department’s Internal Affairs office saw no need for disciplinary action. But then-Acting Chief Cathy Ellison reviewed it and ordered a three-day suspension for O’Connor, who served it and then returned to duty.

When Art Acevedo, the new chief from California, saw the video, he strongly disapproved of O’Connor’s action but saw in the footage what some would call “a teaching moment.” He released the video, told officers to watch it, and made it clear that any officer who did the same as O’Connor would be in serious trouble. The chief’s warning was appropriate and welcome.

But what’s genuinely encouraging is the reaction of officers who watched the video and not only disapproved — we think most officers would — but spoke up about the need for an apology, a personal apology. As professional law enforcement officers, they don’t want to be associated with the kind of behavior on display in the video.

The public wants to believe in and trust its police officers. Even law-abiding citizens, like Snelling, might get pulled over occasionally for minor traffic offenses.
I encourage everyone to read the entire editorial and send it to their own police departments as a teaching moment that may save someone's life.

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