In the past week, two instances of police brutality in Broward County have garnered national attention. More importantly, these acts of violence by the men and women sworn to uphold and defend the law showcase a much bigger problem: the level of aggression used by police to deescalate minor situations.
It’s no secret that our police departments are becoming more and more militarized. Special units, such as SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics) and SRT (Special Response Team) routinely use military grade weapons (AR-15s, M-16s); military-style armored transports; and military equipment such as TacElite helmets and full-body armor. While some instances may call for this type of police response - such as a full-scale riot or a hostage standoff or a terrorist attack - police departments nationwide are relying on aggression, military firepower, and excessive force to execute tasks that were once performed by ordinary patrol officers.
For example, you’ve probably heard the story of the 75-year old Wisconsin man who woke up to 24 SWAT officers and armored vehicles surrounding his home, all for the purpose of collecting an $86,000 civil judgment. Justifying their actions, a rep for that police department stated that there was a concern that the old man might become “hostile.”
There was an incident in Virginia where a SWAT team moved in on the home of a man whose crime was collecting the $2,000 he had won by participating in a football betting pool. The man was shot dead by police.
There are countless stories of paramilitary-style raids on the homes of suspects accused of possessing no more than small amounts of drugs for personal use.
The point is, as police departments become more heavily armed and more empowered to exercise the tactics of war in their everyday practices, the mentality of policing has changed.
No longer is it about protecting and serving the public.
Policing is tough business. Low pay, dangerous situations. I understand that police are walking around scared. However, caution and restraint must be exercised by those permitted by law to use force, even lethal force.
The two instances in Broward County that occurred this week highlight how the use of non-violent deescalation tactics has been replaced by swift and violence response.
Just yesterday, a woman who had been deemed mentally incompetent by a county court judge in a misdemeanor case was forcibly removed from the courtroom and dragged across the courthouse floor by a length of chain securing her ankles. The woman, who suffered from such severe mental illness that she could not proceed to trial, was arguing with officers as they tried to get her to leave. When she refused to leave she was handcuffed, shackled around her ankles, and dragged like a dead animal across the courthouse floor.
The deputy involved is on suspension pending the investigation, although it is a paid suspension.
In a second incident yesterday, a homeless man who was loitering at a Broward County bus station was pushed to the ground and slapped hard in the face by a police officer. The homeless man - who was obviously intoxicated - refused to leave the bus station because he claimed that he needed to use the bathroom.
When he exhibited what appeared to minor resistance, he was met with a slap to the face that knocked him to the ground.
These are two examples of how minor misdemeanor conduct led to the use of serious force when non-violent deescalation tactics could have been employed. A drunk man who has not shown any signs of violence can be escorted off of a property with little more than a firm hand on his shoulder. A mentally ill woman - who is already in custody on a felony probation violation - can be removed from a courtroom without the dehumanizing practice of dragging her across a floor.
There are times and places where officers must use the lawful force that we as citizens permit our officers to use. However, force cannot be an officer’s first line of defense. An officer’s approach to a situation must be proportional to the threat. If no threat is presented - a bumbling homeless man, a mentally ill woman - the action taken by the police must be appropriate.
Eric Matheny is a criminal defense attorney serving Miami-Dade County, Florida, and Broward County, Florida.