Jewish World Review Dec. 9, 2003 / 14 Kislev 5764
When is force excessive?
Things in life that you should not do:
1. Eat too much fattening food.
2. Do dangerous drugs recreationally, especially PCP,
also known as "angel dust," "hog," "crystal," "horse
tranquilizer," "tic," "zoot" and other aliases.
3. Cause a commotion in a White Castle or any other
restaurant or public place after other people tell you to
4. When a police officer tells you to "back up, back up,"
rush at the officer, swing at him and tackle him, shouting
"My momma taught me this."
5. Fall to the ground with the officer and, when his
partner joins the fray, flail at both of them as they strike
you on the legs, arms and torso with their batons.
6. Ignore them as they shout at you repeatedly to "Put your hands behind your back."
Then rise up and grab one officer's baton before you are pushed down again.
7. As four other officers arrive and one uses pepper spray on you, continue to strike out
and wrestle with them until they put three sets of handcuffs on you.
We don't know everything yet about Nathaniel Jones and his violent and ultimately fatal
confrontation with Cincinnati police in the early morning hours of Nov. 30. The matter
is under investigation, as it should be.
But judging by what much of the nation has seen on security tapes inside the
restaurant and a police tape made by police of his struggles with them, we can see
that the late Mr. Jones made a number of bad choices in life.
Besides plumping himself up to a reported 342 pounds, a weight that dangerously
enlarged his heart, according to a coroner's report, he also apparently ingested PCP,
which was found along with cocaine and methanol in his bloodstream. These factors,
the apparent result of Jones' bad choices, probably contributed to his death while
handcuffed at the scene, the coroner concluded.
"There was nothing on those tapes to suggest that the police did anything wrong,"
said Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken. Trouble is, a lot of people don't even need to look
at the tapes to take it as a given that the police did something wrong. They pick up the
telephone and sound off on radio call-in shows to say what they choose to believe.
Don't trouble them with the facts--each side has too many long-simmering
resentments to spill out, either against police brutality on one side or against "coddled
criminals" on the other.
But neither hard-line position addresses the principal question of how much force is
acceptable in subduing a suspect who appears to be violently wacked out on
Anyone familiar with angel dust should not be surprised to hear it associated with
Jones' erratic behavior. Originally produced as an animal anesthetic, the narcotic can
trigger acute anxiety, violent hostility and "in some it may produce a psychoses
indistinguishable from schizophrenia," according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement
That does not necessarily put the police in the clear. Even people who make terrible
choices have rights. Among them are the right to be protected from excessive force by
police, should they feel the need to arrest you.
But the realities of what the police were up against in this situation weakens the case
against them. Split-second decisions had to be made based on very little information,
other than the large, strong man lunging at them and their billy clubs and presumably
their guns in a parking lot at 6 a.m.
In fact, police misconduct is a very serious problem. Most urban riots since the
mid-1960s have been triggered by such alleged episodes, including Cincinnati. The
fatal shooting of an unarmed black man by a white officer there in April 2001 touched
off three nights of rioting, which led to 837 arrests and the beatings of several
unarmed whites by black gangs.
But when I hear critics say that the police should have found a way to subdue Jones
less violently, I wonder what they have in mind. Tasers? At least two of them were
used in Rodney King's infamous videotaped beating in Los Angeles in 1991, but they
failed to subdue him. Not enough voltage? Maybe. But a bigger shock might also
hasten heart failure in someone like Jones.
Perhaps, to suit the armchair critics, police should be outfitted like big-game hunters
with large nets and tranquilizer guns? I am not being facetious. It is easy to
second-guess the police after a tragedy like Jones' death in Cincinnati. It is much
more difficult to draw a hard line as to how much peacekeeping force is enough.
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