Police Taser Deaf, Retarded Man

Before turning in last night, we watched Monday’s “Colbert Report” which featured this segment on the increasing use of tasers by police forces, including on helpless old women:

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Current Events – Tasers
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Tasers

This morning, I see that several people are commenting on a story about Mobile, Alabama police tasering a deaf, retarded man on the grounds he had locked himself in a public bathroom and was carrying a dangerous weapon — an umbrella.

Officers who used pepper spray and a Taser to remove a man from a store bathroom found out only later he was deaf and mentally disabled and didn’t understand they wanted him to open the door, police said Tuesday. A spokesman for the Mobile Police Department said the officers’ actions were justified because the man was armed with a potential weapon — an umbrella.

But relatives of Antonio Love, 37, have asked for a formal investigation and said they plan to sue both the police and the store. “I want justice,” Love’s mother, Phyllis Love, said Tuesday.

The woman said her son hears only faintly, has the mental capacity of a 10-year-old and didn’t realize that it was the police who were trying enter the bathroom. “He thought the devil was out there trying to get in to get him,” she said.

Antonio Love, in a written statement and in a television interview given in sign language about the confrontation, said he had a badly upset stomach last Friday and went into a Dollar General store to use the restroom.

Police spokesman Christopher Levy said Tuesday store workers called officers complaining that a man had been in the bathroom for more than an hour with the door locked. Officers knocked on the door and identified themselves, but the person didn’t respond. Officers used a tire iron to open the door, but the man pushed back to keep it shut. Officers saw the umbrella and sprayed pepper spray through a crack trying to subdue the man, Levy said. They shot the man with a Taser when they finally got inside, he said.

Officers didn’t realize Love was deaf or had mental problems until he showed them a card he carries in his wallet, Levy said. He was arrested on a charge of disorderly conduct, but officers released him and took him home after a magistrate refused to issue a warrant.

Levy said officers were justified in using force against Love since he had an umbrella. “The officers really worked within the limits of our level-of-force policy,” he said. “We had no information about who this guy was.”

Now, I’m less apoplectic about the particular case than Paleo Pat, digby, or William Grigg because I actually buy the police explanation that they had no idea who this guy was or that he was disabled. All they knew is that a large man was locked in the bathroom for an inordinately long time and had refused the demands of store management to leave — necessitating calling the police to begin with — and that he was then refusing police orders and pushing back on the door as police were trying to enter.

That’s suspicious activity.

It’s not the police department’s responsibility to know that an unidentified person they’re called out to respond to is disabled.  And the fact that Love thinks the devil is attacking him in bathrooms and that he is unable to cope with his surroundings is perhaps an indication that he shouldn’t be out unsupervised.

The officers in question undoubtedly acted as they were trained to do.

No, the problem, as in the Henry Louis Gates case, is a police culture that sees all non-police as potentially dangerous perps and that demands instant respect and obedience from the public.  Watch any random episode of “Cops” and you’ll see outrageous police conduct by officers who know that they’re being filmed for television.   Police increasingly see themselves as soldiers in a war zone and behave with an arrogant, bullying attitude toward the citizenry even in clearly non-dangerous situations.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. just me says:

    And the fact that Love thinks the devil is attacking him in bathrooms and that he is unable to cope with his surroundings is perhaps an indication that he shouldn’t be out unsupervised.

    This is pretty much what I was thinking as I read about the incident. If a person is this disabled, having a family member or care provider by the door to explain why the man was in there probably would have prevented the whole thing.

    But I also think the police seem to be quick to go for the tasers-it is almost like because they know they aren’t deadly in the sense that a gun is, that they are okay to use in situations where a police officer might be frustrated with a person, but the officer would never consider shooting them.

  2. Ben says:

    Except that Tasers are NOT non-lethal. They are supposed to be considered LESS-lethal. There have been hundreds upon hundreds of documented deaths resulting from using a taser.

    The fact that he was mentally disabled, and whether he really thought it was the devil coming in for him is irrelevant. If I were a deaf man, and I’m sitting in a bathroom stall, and all of a sudden, someone starts opening the door, I’m gonna slam it and hold it shut, too. I’d be freaking out completely wondering who the hell is barging in on me sitting on the can.

  3. The officers in question undoubtedly acted as they were trained to do.

    You mean the Mbbile police are trained to use force against a man carrying an umbrella? The police spokesman I will quote ‘said officers were justified in using force against Love since he had an umbrella.’ They got guns, the man has an umbrella. If multiple policemen feel threatened in such a situation, I think they should find another line of work.

    These same policemen tried unsuccessfully to make Love into a criminal by taking him to jail AFTER THEY Learned he was deaf. A magistrate threw the charges out. What does that tell us?

  4. steve says:

    In this particular case, the police actions are ok, IMHO, until they arrested him. Even the Tasering I am loathe to question as I was not there. If the guy was really fighting, they had to make a choice in real time. That is the kind of second guessing I oppose.

    However, once they knew he was deaf and retarded, what did they gain by arresting him? This does seem to be within their purview according to the 1997 Atwater decision, but I think it worth revisiting. (See Ristrop, Arrest as Punishment)

    http://balkin.blogspot.com/2009/07/arrest-as-punishment.html

  5. anjin-san says:

    That’s suspicious activity.

    So a “suspicious activity” justifies the use of force? Thats a big leap you have just taken…

  6. James Joyner says:

    So a “suspicious activity” justifies the use of force? Thats a big leap you have just taken…

    Nope, it merely justifies heightened alertness. But police in that situation are quite likely to escalate to the use of tasers to get the situation under control.

  7. As an aside, remember how we were supposed to believe women couldn’t be cops because they lacked the strength to wrestle suspects to the ground? Turns out there’s not really much wrestling. More just electrocuting, which women can do as well as anyone.

    When a six foot tall officer tazes a 70-something great grandmother, that’s just thuggish behavior. And if they’ll do it to an old lady, imagine how quick that cop would be to shock a black guy in baggy pants.

    Cops are not above the law. Throw a few of these uniformed thugs in jail and see just how quickly this behavior stops.

  8. anjin-san says:

    Hmmmm. Well not to long ago we had an incident in my area in which an mentally ill Asian man in his 50s was shot to death when he “struck a martial arts stance” while surrounded by three police officers. I am not clear how an unarmed middle aged man was a threat to three men with guns.

    Force should be a last resort. Always.

  9. Furhead says:

    Police increasingly see themselves as soldiers in a war zone and behave with an arrogant, bullying attitude toward the citizenry even in clearly non-dangerous situations.

    I wonder how much things have really changed, perhaps these cases are getting more media attention. A few decades ago, this same situation could very well have ended up with a dead black man, and the police could just say he was attacking them or whatever. Nobody but his family would have blinked.

    Otherwise, I think I basically agree with steve above.

  10. just me says:

    Well not to long ago we had an incident in my area in which an mentally ill Asian man in his 50s was shot to death when he “struck a martial arts stance” while surrounded by three police officers. I am not clear how an unarmed middle aged man was a threat to three men with guns.

    One of my friends in college lost her fiance, when he was sent out to take into custody a mentally ill man on an involuntary commitment order (the man was a paranoid schitzophrenic in his late 40’s) and the mentally ill man attacked, and managed to get the officer’s gun and shoot him before the other officer at the scene could do anything.

    Age and the lack of a gun don’t necessarily make anyone less dangerous, and officer are killed in the line of duty all the time. I think we assume much, when we say the police are always wrong when they use any kind of force-the police have a duty to keep the peace, but they also have the duty to protect themselves-I don’t think cops should be expected to go on suicide missions every time they are called into a questionable situation.

    That is one reason though I don’t mind the use of tasers-they are dangerous, and I think the cops are often too quick to use them, but they are at least less deadly than a gun.

    But just because somebody is old and lacks a weapon that doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous, or can’t be dangerous.

  11. Herb says:

    I wonder how these cops would have handled the situation in a pre-taser era…

    Would they have shot him? Or just beat him up?

  12. just me says:

    Would they have shot him? Or just beat him up?

    Probably a beating with an “assault a police officer” charge thrown in somewhere.

    I will say that mentally ill people (and in this case there doesn’t appear to be a mental illness-just a couple of disabilities that make communication difficult) are some of the most dangerous people in police work, because their responses aren’t predictable or rational and are often bizarre or ramp up the danger. When cops respond to a call, they don’t want unpredictability or irrational responses.

    In the store bathroom situation there wasn’t anyone around to tell them who they were dealing with-and for all they know there may have been a hyped up druggie in the bathroom instead of a deaf retarded man. Either way I am willing to bet the man in the bathroom in the above story wouldn’t have escaped unscathed from the situation, because the police couldn’t figure out what they were dealing with.

    Which is a very good reason to have an adult nearby who can explain the presence of the man in the bathroom. No excuse in my opinion for the arrest, but given the fact that this was a retail store, I know from when my husband worked retail while in college that people often commit their crimes in the bathroom (they had somebody take a six pack of beer into the bathroom and proceed to drink it in addition to using other store products without actually leaving the building and exposing themselves to arrest-people would also do illegal drugs in the bathroom and one time they discovered a couple engaging in some pretty explicit sexual acts).

    But I think the story makes it pretty apparent that the man in this case was motivated by fear and didn’t have an advocate close at hand to sort things out.

  13. Jim Henley says:

    . . . officer are killed in the line of duty all the time . . .

    Define “line of duty” and “all the time.”

  14. anjin-san says:

    I think we assume much, when we say the police are always wrong

    Well, you seem to be assuming that I think cops are always wrong, which is not correct.

    And, while the death of your friends fiance is tragic, if events were as you describe them, there were mistakes in the police work. Or do you just thinks cops should start shooting every time they feel they could be in danger? Sorry, but the work is inherently dangerous.

    Of course everyone can be dangerous. I am a well dressed middle aged guy in a nice car, but I am also 6′ 3″ 215, in halfway decent shape, and I have a martial arts background. I worked in night clubs for a long time, one of the things you learn is how to hurt someone very badly with your bare hands (and feet & elbows & knees) if you have to.

    Does this mean that a cop should just put a few rounds into me if he feels “I might be a threat”? One thing I really notice know is how young most patrol cops are. Most of them have not been around long enough to have enough experience to be a really good judge of threat levels, especially if you are in the suburbs where there is not as much violent crime.