Judging the Cops: When Excessive Force Trumps Resisting Arrest

A black teen who was illegally stopped, punched, kneed, and tased by Portland police officers is acquitted despite struggling against their attempts to handcuff him.

On an autumn night last year a 16-year-old high school student, Thai Gurule, was crossing a street in Portland, Oregon, accompanied by his older brother and a few friends. No one was breaking the law, being disruptive, or acting suspiciously. Yet the black teenager would soon be stopped by police officers without probable cause, illegally detained, shoved off his feet onto the ground, punched multiple times in the torso, kneed in the stomach, grabbed by the hair, and tased.

He would later be charged with assaulting a public safety officer, resisting arrest, and attempted strangulation, per the narrative of the cops who wrote the police report.

Here's how the police saw it, or at least how they claimed to see it after the fact: They approached a group that fit the description of people reported to be creating a disturbance. A 16-year-old started walking away from their attempts to question him. He also talked back. They grabbed him and wanted to cuff him, but he struggled, threw punches, and put one of them in a headlock. So he got tased.

In most cases like this the teen would be convicted handily based solely on police testimony, even though the initial stop was found to violate his rights. An innocent cannot raise the illegality of an arrest as a defense against the charge of resisting it. Thus the cases in which people with no intention of breaking any laws wind up with serious criminal records due to their reaction to unjust police aggression.

But thanks in part to bystanders who captured video of this teen's encounter with police, Judge Diana Stuart acquitted him last week. After being illegally stopped, her ruling acknowledged, the youth did tense his arms, struggle to stay on his feet, and flail around with his limbs. But he did so to protect himself from "senseless and aggressive" violence that "a reasonable person would have felt was excessive force," she found, adding that police misrepresented parts of the encounter in their report, which she did not find credible after reviewing the video evidence.

Cases like this are thorny.

In the course of their jobs police will sometimes make understandable mistakes that cause them to detain or arrest an innocent person, and it is untenable to grant everyone a right to fight back against the cops at the moment of an arrest. At the same time, when police descend upon an innocent who is doing nothing wrong, roughly grab him, and react to his understandable confusion, alarm, and tensing of arms by punching, pummeling, and even tasing him, it's easy to see how that individual might start to feel like he's not "resisting" so much as protecting himself from bodily harm being meted out by corrupt brutes. Judges must decide what was reasonable for all involved to have thought in the moment as one or both parties were escalating the encounter in ways that can be hard to parse.

The judge found that there was reasonable doubt that this teen was resisting arrest. And that's noteworthy for two reasons:

1) The ubiquity of mobile-phone videos is changing the justice system. In the past, police were almost always thought credible when giving testimony about a struggle. Now, ambiguities and outright falsehoods in their narratives are exposed and judges are reacting by openly impugning the credibility of officers. As the teen's lawyer put it, "Were it not for the surveillance footage captured by the bank camera and the videos of two bystanders, the truth of what happened to Thai Gurule that September evening might never have been revealed in a courtroom." It was no longer possible to just accept the version voiced by the authorities.

2) Police unions are hugely threatened by this and their reactions highlight the staggering degrees of deference that they were accustomed to enjoying. For example, consider how Portland police union President Daryl Turner responded to the judge's ruling.

Here's an Oregonian article with his statement:

Portland police union president Daryl Turner on Monday decried a Multnomah County judge's findings last week that officers used excessive force in the arrest of a 16-year-old boy. Turner called the ruling "unfair'' and "discouraging,'' and questioned the judge's authority to second-guess the officers. He also said the judge shouldn't have relied on what he characterized as "shaky cell phone video footage.'' "What is most discouraging is that when police officers respond to a call, those officers must now be concerned that someone sitting in hindsight, from the safety of a courtroom, will not only question their actions, but their credibility,'' Turner wrote in a lengthy statement to members of the Portland Police Association.

He doesn't just complain that the case was wrongly decided. As he sees it, judges never have any business evaluating police actions or assessing the credibility of their testimony. What does he think trials are for if not to understand what happened with the benefit of hindsight? Why does he imagine that police officers are cross-examined if there is no need to determine if they are credible? His are the words of a police representative whose civic knowledge has atrophied due to years of enjoying excessive deference. Basic safeguards strike him as "discouraging."

Ken White's sardonic response is about right:

Something unnatural is happening in Portland, and Police Union President Daryl Turner isn't going to put up with it. The proper order of things is upended. Black is white and white is black, cats and dogs cohabit. Madness! A judge has disbelieved a cop.

Last week Circuit Judge Diana Stuart acquitted teenager Thai Gurule on juvenile charges of assaulting a police officer, resisting arrest, and attempted assault on a cop. She acquitted him even though the cops said he did it. Is Judge Stuart some sort of pro-criminal agitator? Apparently. In an extensive written order she weighed the testimony of sworn police officers against irrelevant trifles like actual videorecordings of their encounter with Gurule. Even though the cops swore that Gurule threw punches at them, Judge Stuart disbelieved them simply because she could not see any punches on the cell phone videos. Is she some sort of video-fisticuffs expert? Worse than that, she specifically stated that she didn't find some of their testimony credible.

As if they weren't cops.

There's a final aspect of this case that warrants a mention. In the video of this 16-year-old being stopped illegally, his older brother, who knew he was doing nothing wrong, can be heard shouting at police that the youngster played football for his high school, didn't drink, and didn't do marijuana. He was pleading with them and increasingly distraught as they punched the kid, threw him to the ground, and tased him. What he's doing off camera isn't evident in the videos, though it is apparent that an increasingly hostile crowd was gathering. The end of the Oregonian story notes, "Gurule's brother went to trial in adult court in January. Judge Cheryl Albrecht found him guilty of misdemeanor interfering with a police officer and resisting arrest, but acquitted him of disorderly conduct. Albrecht sentenced him to 64 hours of community service and two years of probation." I don't know if the brother got a bogus conviction or if he really did criminally interfere with police by doing something stupid off camera.

Either way, he is a young black man who wouldn't have this criminal conviction, two years probation, and 64 hours of community service but for the fact that Portland police illegally stopped his brother, needlessly escalated the encounter, and meted out what has now been judged excessive force in the course of taking him into custody.