Police in beating ignored tenets, analysts say

Monday, July 17th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Pace of chases often leads to breakdowns in discipline

Even before 10 Philadelphia police officers stamped their violent coda on a harrowing police chase, the cops involved ignored a central tenet of police pursuits.

Instead of talking suspect Thomas Jones out of a stolen patrol car, officers blitzed the vehicle and pulled him out, police and criminologists noted. In doing so, they put themselves in more danger and set the stage for a public melee.The videotaped beating shows that questions about police brutality can stem not only from the type of methodical beating unleashed on Rodney King nine years ago in Los Angeles, but from a daytime donnybrook after a fairly routine police chase.

"It was the police version of the bench-clearing brawl," said James Fyfe, a Temple University in Philadelphia criminologist who has written extensively about use-of-force issues. "Since 1980, we've had three major riots [two in Miami and one in Los Angeles], and they were all precipitated by what cops did at the end of vehicle pursuits."

The frenzied pace and unsupervised nature of a chase invite police violence perhaps more than any other tactic, police and criminologists say. In the minutes that it takes to overcome a suspect, intense training can be displaced by simple survival instincts.

"The normal pursuit is going to have an enormous adrenaline dump and raise the heart rate and expectations of the officers," said Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminologist. "Excessive force certainly is not the order of the day, but you'll find it at the end of a pursuit more than any other type of police activity."

Mr. Alpert and others have suggested removing officers from a call after a chase but before an arrest. The practice could prevent the primary officer, who has an emotional investment in seeing the suspect subdued, from losing his or her temper.

Two controversial pursuits were videotaped last week. The Philadelphia case drew particular attention because the Republican National Convention is scheduled to begin there in two weeks. The second case was in Lawrenceville, Ga., where police were seen punching and kicking a drunken-driving suspect.

In that case, television stations taped the arrest of Marshall Dwight Studdard after police chased him for 20 minutes through heavy traffic near Atlanta. The suspect's actions were not visible on video, police said, making it difficult to immediately assess whether he had provoked the officers' blows. An internal investigation will determine if the force used was justified.

Mr. Studdard was charged with driving under the influence, attempting to flee and several other violations.

In the Philadelphia case, police began chasing Mr. Jones on Wednesday after spotting him in a car taken in a July 1 carjacking. After ditching that car, Mr. Jones stole a police cruiser and exchanged gunfire with the pursuing officers.

Police think Mr. Jones fired at least two shots at officers but have not confirmed whether he fired the shot that hit an officer in the hand. He was shot in the stomach and arm. Officers cornered the police cruiser and pulled Mr. Jones from the vehicle, then kicked and hit him before leading him away.

An analysis of the videotape by The Philadelphia Inquirer showed that most of the 59 blows he sustained were delivered by three officers.

Police last week had not recovered the gun they said he used.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner John Timoney has asked people to allow the department to conclude criminal and internal investigations. And he has hastened to dissuade people from comparing his officers' behavior to the 1991 videotaped beating of Mr. King.

The Los Angeles officers administered a methodical beating to an unarmed and faltering man, said criminologists who agreed with Mr. Timoney. The Philadelphia tape, they say, shows officers who reacted with a visceral attack on a suspect who assaulted their own.

"I look at L.A., and it was 'We're cops and we're going to thump the hell out of this guy, period,'" said Sgt. Rodney Hill, a fellow at the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank. "In Philadelphia, I don't even think they were thinking like police at that point. It was one of their buddies who was shot at."

That psychology is not only instinctive but ingrained through police codes of conduct that stress loyalty and eschew cowardice. And it can turn pathological, criminologists said.

"All of a sudden you have umpteen cars responding, and you get this kind of mob psychology," said Hans Toch, a professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Albany who has written about police abuse of force. "It becomes a collective thing. If everybody else is excited, then there must be something to be excited about. ... This was blue rage."

Other police advocates defended the officers' actions, saying Mr. Jones was a threat to the safety of officers and bystanders.

"When a man has fired shots at an officer, and he's being apprehended by an officer, all the other officers should stand aside otherwise it wouldn't be a fair fight?" said Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police. "The days of Lone Ranger are over. It's done that way on purpose to keep innocent people from being hurt."

Officers are taught to escalate their use of force, as long as a suspect mounts his offensive, law enforcement trainers said. And a videotape that only shows the end of a police chase does not always present a clear picture of a suspect's actions.

"Nowhere in law enforcement ethics is it written that we fight fair as far as what we are doing," said Major Steve Ijames, who teaches public order management for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "If a person is trying to assault an officer by punching him, the officer has no obligation to only punch back."

But civil-rights advocates and criminologists said the Philadelphia case shows officers who exercised little restraint.

"This is such an extreme case it raises some enormous questions about the whole department," Mr. Alpert said.

There is a general consensus that police departments must devise ways to address the stress from chases and other police work.

When officers do use high levels of force, there is often uneasiness afterward. Many departments require a visit to a counselor after an incident involving deadly force, partly to address the risks of post-traumatic stress syndrome, police psychologists said.

"It is specific to the personality of the officer, their life experience and their own psychological make-up," said Dr. Al Somodevilla, who has counseled Dallas police officers since 1973. "But I have never seen an officer who said, 'I really enjoyed this and I want to go through it again.'"