KENNETT SQUARE >> Some local police departments are reviewing policies on use of excessive force following nationwide media attention in Missouri and New York in which some have claimed officers were overzealous.
The shooting of Michael Brown in August in Ferguson, Missouri, and the recent “chokehold” death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., sparked civil unrest across the nation and debate about law enforcement’s relationship with minorities and police officers’ use of force.
Many local law enforcement officials said officers are taught to use only the force necessary to make an arrest, but they must keep control of the situation at all times.
“No one has the right to resist arrest,” said Gerry Simpson, chief of the New Garden Police Department. “The whole objective is to maintain control, but people don’t always comply with police (directives). If someone resists arrest, we have an obligation to make an arrest and to use only the amount of force necessary to affect that arrest.”
Pete Mango, former police chief at East Fallowfield Township, who now heads up Signal 88 Security, said complaints of excessive force on municipal departments is now handled by an outside party, usually a county detective.
“Michael Brown was not going to comply with police orders,” Mango said. “The only thing that could have been done in Ferguson – and this is armchair quarterbacking – is to request backup, but things escalate very fast.”
Brown, 18, was shot 10 times by Patrolman Darren Wilson, a white police officer. Mango said that is not unusual in some situations.
“(When the officer’s life is in jeopardy,) we train to shoot until the suspect stops,” Mango said. “The time to argue the legality of an arrest or police contact is not on the street, it’s with an attorney, post-arrest. You shouldn’t lip off to police.”
Simpson said his department has more than five policies that cover what officers should do when force is needed.
“We always have to justify our actions, and we should have to justify our actions,” Simpson said. “We are held to very high standards. We are entrusted with a tremendous amount of responsibility and authority.”
Kennett Square Police Chief Ed Zunino said in light of the Brown and Garner cases, police officers need to know they have the public’s support.
“You can’t put cops out there and tell them they don’t’ have the right to defend themselves,” Zunino said. “All of these protests we’re having, whatever happened to you can’t resist arrest. You have to comply with what police tell you. Resisting arrest is a crime.”
Zunino said the public’s trust in law enforcement must never be undermined. He related one example where he was following a car he deemed to be speeding. He clocked the speed with his own speedometer in his car as a gauge. When it came to court, it was his word against the word of the motorist. Zunino won that one.
Police departments constantly train and update procedures on how to subdue people when they need to. Though chokeholds in many cases are an illegal police tactic, Mango said Brown exhibited signs of “excited delirium,” a medical condition.
“We had a case just like that in Honey Brook several years ago,” Mango said. “Officers subdued someone who was out of control, and there here chokehold allegations because the officer’s arm was around the suspect’s neck. He died, and it had nothing to do with the chokehold, but it was found he suffered from excited delirium, which is fatal unless there is rapid medical intervention.”
People who refuse police directives need to know the officers won’t just go away, there will be consequences, Mango said.
More police officers in Chester County are beginning to be equipped with the newest taser gun, which has a mini camera to record the action. A taser fires two small dart-like electrodes, which stay connected to the main unit by conductors and deliver electrical currents to disrupt voluntary control of muscles causing “neuromuscular incapacitation.” It’s non-lethal, and police are taught what situations they can and cannot be used.
The Brown and Garner cases have renewed interest in police use of body cameras. Neighboring Haverford Township in Delaware County is testing the units.
“I never thought I would see the day we would have to wear a camera to prove we are telling the truth,” said Collingdale Police Chief Robert Adams, a 34-year veteran who also serves as president of the Delaware County Police Chiefs Association.
Delaware County District Attorney Jack Whelan said officers must be mindful of turning the device on and off at the appropriate times. He also raised questions regarding storage and oversight of video — issues that would have to be addressed beforehand in an established policy.
“In the long run, it will help police,” Whelan said. “People are so fast to criticize law enforcement officers on inaccurate information that occurs, it can only help document what occurs between an individual and the police.”
Zunino said he supported dash-mounted cameras in police cruisers, and he supports body cameras.
“’I’ve always liked the idea of cameras,” Zunino said. “Not just for these particular cases, but it’s a good idea. If an officer loses his life in the line of duty, that device can preserve the evidence.”
“I don’t think (body cameras) can hurt. It’s something each individual department must look at,” said Simpson. “I’m not setting aside dollars for it, but I’m not turning them away either. Technology today certainly can be used to address the public’s concerns and even capture those moments.”
Mango said he supports body cameras on police officers but he sees issues with keeping them running and making sure they have enough memory to store all the video on an officer’s shift.
Cost is a big issue. The cameras carry a price tag, starting at about $200 and increasing to more than $1,000.
Pennsylvania State Troopers, who patrol most of the western part of the county, are not considering body cameras at this time, according to Trooper Adam Reed. Cost is a big consideration.
“With 44,000 troopers, it wouldn’t come cheaply,” he said. “We’re very happy with our in-car cameras and put them to use quite a bit.”
Public trust (in police officers), Simpson said, must be earned.
“It’s so important to have a good relationship with your community,” he said. “If we have an unfortunate incident (of excessive police force claims) in New Garden Township, I would hope the public would trust we would do the type of inquiry needed to make sure we have done our best we can and don’t violate policy, state law or federal law.
“Having community trust and faith is so important,” he said. “It’s so hard to get, and so easily lost.”
Delaware County Daily Times contributed to this report.