Sunday, January 07, 2001

Police use force less than in past

Local officers rely more on spray

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Cincinnati police officers spent last week in a swirl of controversy over excessive force:

        • Two were indicted in the death of a man who was asphyxiated during his arrest Nov. 7 in a Roselawn gas station parking lot.

        • Three others were cleared of wrongdoing in the March killing of an accused robber, hit with 10 of their 26 bullets.

        • Another got his job back after being fired for aggressively taking an elderly Alzheimer's patient to the floor.

        It was the kind of week that prompted radio call-in shows about aggressive officers and water-cooler conversations recalling infamous excessive force cases elsewhere. The sodomy of Abner Louima in Brooklyn and spray of bullets at Amadou Diallo in New York City. And the one everybody still remembers — the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles.

        But the truth about use of physical force in Cincinnati is this: Statistics show officers are using it less. At the same time, assaults on officers and charges of resisting arrest are down while arrests are on the rise.

        “Unfortunately, what occurs is that some high-profile incidents cause people to believe that we're using force in a lot more incidents than we are,” said Lt. Col. Richard Janke, an assistant chief. “It's a very, very small percentage.”

        Chief Tom Streicher put it this way: Cincinnati officers are involved in more than 1 million contacts with citizens every year. Force complaints result from less than 1 percent of those.

        As of the end of November, Cincinnati officers had used physical force 48 times last year, according to police figures. That's anything from hitting a suspect with a baton to using a firearm. That compares with 54 times in all of 1999 and 77 in 1998.

        During the same three-year period, arrests jumped by more than 8,000 to 56,833. Yet officers were assaulted less (146 times in 1998 compared with about 90 in 2000) and filed fewer charges against people for trying to resist (1,120 times in 1998; an estimated 850 last year).

        “I think the police critics need to realize that maybe things aren't all that bad here in Cincinnati,” said Keith Fangman, president of the Fraternal Order of Police.

        One category of force continues to rise — the use of chemical irritant. Officers sprayed people with it 752 times in 1988, 845 in 1999 and more than 1,000 last year. But supervisors say that increase is actually a good thing — spraying somebody usually stops the situation from escalating and doesn't have any lasting effects.

        “It's the least intrusive of anything we can use,” Lt. Col. Janke said. The increase means “it's working. It's causing us not to use physical force.”

Training crucial

               John Doherty, a criminal justice professor at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., who has studied use of force, explained the history of the public's force perceptions. The ideas began taking shape as far back as the 1920s when police openly gunned down gangsters and vice versa.

        In the 1960s, when so many war veterans were becoming police, they publicly battled war protesters, civil-rights proponents and increasing drug use. The 1980s saw a huge rise in crack cocaine and the accompanying jumps in violent crime.

        So, Professor Doherty said, even though murder rates are down all across the country now and cops are more educated and better trained, American society still breeds anti-police sentiment.

        “I think a lot of society would rather err on the side of caution,” he said, “and just say, "Let's indict them and let the court sort it out.'”

        In the wake of the indictments, which Mr. Fangman says leave street officers confused about what constitutes assault, Chief Tom Streicher said relying on use-of-force training is crucial.

        “This is a pivotal point in the police division,” he said.

        Officers are trained to consider their presence in a situation the first step in diffusing it. Step 2: Verbal warnings. Third, chemical irritant. The gas dries on a suspect's face in a powder and subdues them more than 90 percent of the time, Lt. Col. Janke said.

        From there, officers have a variety of choices, depending on things like their location, severity of the alleged crime and proximity to the suspect:

        • Restraining force. Includes things like bending an arm behind a suspect's back, but no hitting.

        • Strikes with hands or feet.

        • Hits with their baton.

        If the suspect has a weapon, an officer is trained to stay farther away and fire either a Taser or guns that shoot beanbags or sponges. If the suspect has a knife or a firearm, the officer can re spond with his regular gun.

        “We don't want to have to use a (baton) on a person with a knife,” Lt. Col. Janke said. “That's very dangerous for the officer.”

        A group of local religious representatives, through the Metropolitan Area Religious Coalition of Cincinnati, is trying to learn about use of force by studying officers' choices in volatile situations. They've acted out arrest scenarios, said the Rev. Duane Holm, MARCC director, and hope to figure out a way to take their new knowledge to their parishioners.

        Chief Streicher said he welcomes the community input and hopes the clergy leaders might help spread what he considers the truth about officers and force.

        Unfortunately for the division, he said, all the uneventful calls don't make the news while the use-of-force videos play again and again on television and “are not forgotten quickly.”

        A new police training class starts Monday. Last week's indictments, he said, likely will be talked about until those recruits retire.

Police brutality difficult to prove

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