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Stories of Excessive Force
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Readers share their experiences with cops who went too far. (Though, as detailed in this report from ABC News, “There’s no concrete definition of excessive force.”) To join the series, email hello@theatlantic.com. If you’re a police officer who can help provide context for similar situations, please email as well. Likewise if you were saved by a cop from bodily harm; we’d like to post those stories.

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Pointing a Gun at a 7-Year-Old Girl

A reader flags an unsettling story out of Arizona:

Here’s a link to a WaPo article on an insane traffic stop that ended with an officer screaming that he would murder an innocent father and pointing a gun at a 7-year-old girl. The worst part was that the supervisor of this officer confirmed the account was true and said it was acceptable behavior. I thought it might make an interesting story, or at least a note for your series.

Here’s the father’s account in full. A portion:

I hadn’t been speeding, so I wondered if perhaps the car had a broken taillight or something. I rolled down my window and waited.

Suddenly, the officer rapped on the rear passenger side window with his pistol. My daughter, who was sitting inches from the barrel of his gun, jumped with fear as the officer yelled at me to roll down the front passenger window, his service weapon pointed directly at me.

Here’s a portion of our news brief this morning covering the latest flashpoint in U.S. police relations:

The crowds [that set fire to buildings, shattered bus shelters, and threw rocks at police in Milwaukee last night] were reacting to the death of a man [Sylville Smith] Saturday afternoon, who was fatally shot by police after fleeing a traffic stop. Police said the man was armed, but the details of the incident are not yet clear. The police have not identified the race of the man or the officer who shot him.

A reader, Tim, contends that last night’s violence was partly due to nationwide activism:

As bad as the police sometimes are, the citizens in some of these neighborhoods are infinitely more ignorant (though thankfully not empowered to commit state-sanctioned violence). It’s too simple to blame BLM for this, but I think it’s fair to say that they’ve contributed. Because BLM seeks a broad base of political support among African Americans rather than an intellectual discourse, its leaders have failed to draw any distinction between justified and unjustified violence by police. Combined with uncritical coverage by most media outlets, this has helped to spread and reinforce the idea that any shooting of a black person (and only a black person) by police is itself a moral crime. Therefore, you get hundreds or thousands of people rioting in the streets before any relevant facts are known.

Here are the latest facts known, published this evening by the AP and FoxNews.com (live updates from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel are here):

The man who was shot and killed by a Milwaukee police officer on Saturday … is seen on body camera footage with a loaded gun in his hand, officials said at a Sunday news conference. Sylville K. Smith, 23, was identified Sunday as the subject of a Saturday afternoon traffic stop that turned deadly when Smith allegedly ran from officers and then turned toward one with a gun in his hand. Both Smith and the unidentified officer who shot him are black, Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn said.

Flynn can be seen in this video (flagged today by another reader, Tom) that was recorded in 2014 following a public hearing held in response to the fatal shooting of Dontre Hamilton:

If you can’t play the video, below is the transcript of Flynn’s reply to a reporter who asked him, “What’s your response to some of the people who thought you were being disrespectful by being on your phone and not being attentive [during the public hearing]”:

Well, I was on my phone. And, yes, that’s true. I was following developments of the five-year-old little girl sitting on her Dad’s lap who just got shot in the head by a drive-by shooting. If some of the people here gave a good goddamn about the victimization of people in this community by crime, I’d take some of their invective more seriously.

The greatest racial disparity in the city of Milwaukee is getting shot and killed. Hello. Eighty percent of my homicide victims every year are African-American. Eighty percent of our aggravated assault victims are African-American. Eighty percent of our shooting victims who survive their shooting are African-American.

Now they know all about the last three people who have been killed by the Milwaukee Police Department over the course of the last several years. There’s not one of them who can name one of the last three homicide victims we’ve had in this city.

A long-time reader, Christopher Boehme, writes:

It is essential to an orderly society that government be the sole legitimate employer of force (except in cases of self-defense). The job of policing—protecting society by minimizing crime—is so very challenging not because it is excessively dangerous but because law enforcement officers need to be selfless in the performance of their duties.

However, as much as we would like them to always be empathetic, calm, and compassionate, we cannot expect them to be superhuman, immune to insult and ignoring threats to their selves. Finding the right balance, incident by incident, is challenging and taxing and fatiguing, and to some debilitating, especially at times like these.

There is an inherent conflict between police protecting themselves against every threat and overreacting to innocent actions that are perceived as threats. Overreaction out of fear is human. Personnel selection and effective training in proper policing techniques—both defense and de-escalation—will minimize the problem but it will not go away. The danger for minorities is that implicit bias in fearful police too often results in the instinctive and tragic use of deadly force.

Having police from the community—those with knowledge of and empathy for those that they police—is helpful in accurately assessing threat level and minimizing overreaction. The community also has an essential role in promoting comity and minimizing danger. Individually we must support police by being friendly and respectful, at the very least civil, in our encounters and interactions.

Likewise with our interactions between protesters and counter-protesters. If you think this scene in Dallas last week is too hokey, you don’t have a heart:

From a reader in the Southwest:

I live in a city that grabbed international headlines for police brutality a couple years ago. Several years prior to the outrage, a former friend/roommate of mine had just gone through the police academy and was going through the on-the-job training. One evening, he came home and wanted to brag about his day.

He and his training officer received a call about a domestic issue. They arrived at a house where they found a woman and a boy (about 5 years old) who both showed signs of being beaten. The woman's boyfriend clearly looked like the person who had caused the harm. They handcuffed the man to take him into custody.

Then they made a poor decision.

From a reader in Vancouver, British Columbia:

I’m a Canadian police officer, on a patrol and tac team (riot control and high-risk warrant service, etc.) I won’t get into a Big Thing about the issue because I’m tired, and angry, and we are on standby because of the situation in Nice, France.

I just want to say to the people who have written in about their horrible experiences with cops, on behalf of those of us who try to actually help people while conducting ourselves with decency and kindness, I am sorry for what you have experienced. I promise you there are more of us who are good—who would not and could not treat you that way—than there are bad ones. If I didn’t believe that myself, and could support that with logic and facts, I wouldn’t be a cop any more.

Please, please don’t lose faith in us. We are, truly, on your side.

In response to our callout for stories from readers who have been saved from bodily harm by a police officer, a reader in L.A. writes:

I’ve never been saved from bodily harm, but I have been both a victim of and witness to a violent crime that resulted in me having quite a bit of interaction with the police. When I was 16, a girl I was seeing at the time was raped by her mother’s boyfriend.

My colleague Adrienne wrote a post last week about the efforts of various online groups and publications—namely The Washington Post and The Guardian—to create a running tally of the number of Americans killed by police officers. Her post begins:

It wasn’t until recently that it became easy to find a number to go with the gruesome reality that black people—and black men in particular—live with every day: the ever-present threat of police violence. Police officers fatally shot nearly 1,000 people last year, according to The Washington Post’s ongoing count. Halfway through 2016, police have shot and killed 506 more. “Unarmed black men are seven times more likely than whites to die by police gunfire,” the Post wrote last year.

Below is a lengthy reader dissent from Nick Selby, a Texas police detective and lead author of the new book In Context: Understanding Police Killings of Unarmed Civilians. Adrienne gave the go-ahead to post Selby’s response:

With respect to Adrienne LaFrance’s “Death by Police,” there are some serious structural problems with the data on which she bases much of her analysis. I don’t for one second believe she is intentionally manipulative, but I do want to point out, as with most things in law enforcement (the one place where Occam’s Razor does not apply), these numbers are not as straightforward as they might appear.

Some of the contextual issues from the piece that should be clarified are around The Washington Post’s numbers, because in the way they are quoted by Ms. LaFrance, they only tell half the story. It is undoubtedly true that newspaper’s Fatal Force study showed that, by the end of 2015, U.S. police had fatally shot 986 people (it was later raised to a total of 990). That number sounds truly terrible given Ms. LaFrance’s apparent inference that the 990 people were innocently going about their day when the police killed them. That is, of course, not the case. Yet Ms. LaFrance implies that it is. “In one in five fatal shootings,” she writes, “the names of the police officer responsible is never disclosed. Even when they are, many officers face no consequences.”

As a police detective who has intensely studied this issue, the underlying datasets, and media efforts to count them, I must point out that the implication of that passage is based, at best, on a lack of understanding of the numbers. As my co-authors and I wrote in our book, that passage fails “to differentiate killings by police who are behaving badly from those in which cops were doing what we want them to do—that is, standing between civilians in danger of losing their lives and those who would take their lives from them.” I think that to tell readers of The Atlantic, who want to better understand the truly important questions about how Americans—especially non-white Americans—are being policed, it’s not helpful to imply (even unintentionally) that all police shootings are unjustified. We as citizens should not be as interested in police using appropriate force as we are in their inappropriate use of deadly force.

In an interview on this topic with David Krajicek of The Crime Report, I said:

Three more readers share their experiences with police that probably went too far. (We are also soliciting stories on the flip side: Has a cop ever saved you from bodily harm? If so, send us a note.) This reader had a moment of mistaken identity:

I’m now retired, but at a time when I worked for the court system at City Hall in [a large city in California], I was walking to my car late at night and saw a burglar climb into a second-floor window of a nearby law-office building. I called 911 and gave the police dispatcher both the address and a description of the burglar.

When the cops arrived, they went to the wrong address. When I tried to get their attention and tell them that they at the wrong address, several of them immediately drew their guns and pointed them at me. While I was saying “don't shoot, don’t shoot,” I could see the burglar climb down and run around a corner.

There was no reason for any of them to suspect that I was a burglar. I was the one who called in the crime. But not a single cop, nor any of the brass apologized for drawing down on me. Not one.

A reader in Vermont recalls a tense encounter almost 50 years ago:

This stuff is not new. It was about 1969, anti-war protests were in full bloom, draft centers were being bombed. On the one hand, I had some trappings of respectability; I was IT manager for an office supply wholesaler in Boston, I was married and had a young child, and I was a student at MIT. On the other hand, my car was completely covered with anti-war slogans and images I had painted.

I was driving to work in downtown Boston when a police car started to tailgate me.

Yes, according to conventional wisdom. But an Atlantic reader flags “surprising new evidence” via The New York Times that suggests otherwise. Money quote:

A new study confirms that black men and women are treated differently in the hands of law enforcement. They are more likely to be touched, handcuffed, pushed to the ground or pepper-sprayed by a police officer, even after accounting for how, where and when they encounter the police.

But when it comes to the most lethal form of force — police shootings — the study finds no racial bias. “It is the most surprising result of my career,” said Roland G. Fryer Jr., the author of the study and a professor of economics at Harvard.

Update from another reader, Eric:

This study has been getting a lot of play in the media, I think in part because it goes against conventional wisdom and seems to provide an argument against allegations of bias in policing. However, the reporting on the study has been pretty abysmal since it tends to focus on the top-line conclusion about officer involved shootings while ignoring all of the caveats about the data that the researchers include and downplaying the conclusions about racial bias in non-lethal force.

To directly quote the introduction of the article [PDF] about the data in officer-involved shootings:

You probably saw Yoni’s note from Sunday featuring the iconic image of a female African American protester approached by two cops in heavy armor. Yoni gave the go-ahead to include the following reader dissent for this Notes series on excessive force. Here’s Loretta:

What law abiding people see in that photo is a protestor who had been warned repeatedly not to go onto the streets and block traffic on a highway. This is what is wrong with our society today: when people feel they are above the law and do not have to listen to our men and women in blue. These police are the ones who are putting their own lives on the line to protect these people and their right to protest. But they still have to maintain civility and control in an environment where within a blink of an eye it could be lost.

And, your statement about their uniforms: After Dallas, what do you want them to wear? If it was your father, brother, sister or friend would you not want them to be protected? There are black, white, brown, and yellow policemen out there. One is my son-in-law.

But another reader, Simon, sees the extra police gear as doing more harm than good—even to the cops themselves, in the long run:

The gear in Baton Rouge on Sunday (Reuters)

I have to take issue with some people thinking that tactical units in Baton Rouge are prudent “after Dallas.” What is the problem and what are they solving?

While an average cop’s body armor is good only against pistols, and a tactical unit might be protected against rifles, that doesn’t entirely protect the police. A sniper can always use a bigger gun [or a bomb]. (It is legal, for instance, to own 50 cal sniper rifles, which can penetrate an engine block and will defeat pretty much any body armor.) More likely, a sniper or terrorist will attack a softer target. So a tactical unit is useful in a specific situation, but it’s counterproductive in lots of other situations.

This gets us to the bigger picture.

From Gary, a reader in northern Florida:

I’m a White male, retired State Police Investigator, Military Veteran and State Department Contractor … and I’ve had guns pointed at me by police, most recently while sitting on the couch in my pregnant daughter’s apartment. The previous day she had gotten into an argument with her boyfriend. He threatened her and kicked in the bedroom door where she had sought refuge. She called me and asked me to come over and stay with her because she was afraid to stay alone.

The next night I was on the couch in the living room wearing only shorts and watching TV when her boyfriend showed up with the police. He wanted back in the apartment and had told the cops I owned a gun (which I did and had a concealed carry permit for). The front door was locked and the boyfriend couldn’t get in. The police yelled that they demanded entry and someone had better open the door or it was going to be kicked in. I opened the window and told the police we were not opening the door, my daughter didn’t want the boyfriend to come in, and that I was staying.

The police said they wanted to talk to me outside, not through the window. They called my daughter on her cell phone and threatened to arrest her if she didn't open the door. She asked me what to do and I told her I wouldn’t open the door. She was afraid of being arrested while pregnant and decided to go outside to talk to the police.

As soon as she cracked the door, the police entered the apartment with guns drawn and pointed them at my daughter and me.

From Mike Harrington, a reader in a large Midwestern city:

One day I was walking to get a car-share vehicle a few blocks away from my office because I needed to go pick up some paperwork. Keep in mind, I’m about 6'3" and was wearing my office clothes (button-down shirt and slacks). As I’m walking across the street, I notice the light’s about to change so I jog to make it across the street before it turns red. Then a police car speeds towards me, almost hits me and an officer hops out, points his gun at me and starts yelling at me to get on the ground.

In the wake of the killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minnesota and the deadly ambush of cops in Dallas, several readers flagged another fatal shooting of a citizen by police that got relatively little attention last week, this time in Fresno, California. The killing of Dylan Noble actually happened a month ago but a bystander’s video of the shooting surfaced on Wednesday, raising serious questions about excessive force. Here’s the infamous footage, which only shows a fraction of what went down—but a disturbing one:

Reason’s Brian Doherty sums up the situation that day:

On June 25, Fresno police were investigating a call from a woman who insisted a man with a rifle and camo gear was at a certain corner. While in that area looking, a pickup driven by Noble drove up, tires squealing. The police gave chase to that pickup, and pulled it over. Noble apparently got out of the truck and walked toward the officers “rapidly,” according to Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer in interviews with The Fresno Bee, and allegedly refused to obey when told to show both his hands. Dyer says that Noble placed his right hand behind his back then pulled it out “very quickly.” Noble also, according to Dyer, shouted something about hating his life.

The officers began shooting at Noble, three from one officer’s handgun and one from an officer’s shotgun. At least the last two shots were fired after Noble was already shot and prone on the ground. Noble had no weapon on his person or his vehicle. No such rifle-wielding suspect was ever found.

The police chief indicates that the body camera footage will reveal a lot more of the situation that wasn’t captured in that short clip. The district attorney and the FBI have been brought in to investigate. For more on Noble’s death and how his vigil became politicized and racialized, see The Daily Beast’s Michael Daly.