Carl Alan Giles peed in an alley. Matthew Schuckmann, in 2008, in some bushes. Peeing in public is definitely no hanging crime, but it's one transgression that the Columbia Police Department deems grave enough to use force. Schuckmann was Tasered and arrested while attempting to flee. Giles, according to eyewitness accounts, was pepper sprayed and, when on the ground and restrained by a group of officers, Tasered two times. The 27-year-old was unable to move afterward. In total, at least 10 officers were present to subdue the man. Witnesses called it an overreaction, but such police behavior has become the norm in Columbia.
The image of Giles lying collapsed, unable to move, brings the death of Stanley Harlan to mind. After Moberly police killed Harlan — Randolph County Coroner Gerald Luntsford ruled the death a homicide on November 13, 2008 — a sensitivity to police use of force has grown among mid-Missourians. It has led us to call into question what use of force is acceptable and when such force is acceptable. A citizen review board is being created. For the most part, that debate has centered around Tasers, which are merely a new and unfamiliar means to the same end, but what I see in Columbia is a pattern of police aggression where officers systematically transform a non-violent situation into a violent spectacle.
I understand that there are times when use of force is necessary. Sometimes the police need to defend someone, such as during a domestic violence call, and in those cases the police are to be applauded. Sometimes, however, it's hard to say who was right. The case of Phillip Lee McDuffy, who was threatening to jump off of a freeway overpass, is one such borderline case.
And sometimes the use of force is downright absurd. Most of these cases involve a disobliging person to whom the police respond with physical measures. Willie Smith was in the wrong place at the wrong time, pepper sprayed and beaten by officers while he was working. Ricky Coleman, a high school student who "became agitated," according to the police report, was Tasered multiple times by an officer. And Giles suffered a similar fate. The list goes on. The disturbing reality is that there are certainly countless other cases when people weren't around to watch.
We'll never know because, according to the Police Department, they almost never make mistakes. Not long ago, the Missourian's Tram Whitehurst reported that out of 1,027 police uses of force, the police admitted they were wrong only twice. That's .19 percent of the time. And forgive me for being skeptical, but nobody is that perfect. Lt. John White, head of the Professional Standards Unit, gives a very clear and simple answer in the story: "The law gives us a lot of leeway on using force. We are allowed to be the aggressor, but we're not just randomly using force."
Being the aggressor is hardly a way to defuse a tense situation, and it's an invitation to physical confrontation. Aggression is usually met with aggression without a second thought. As a matter of instinct, if I'm in an alley at night and someone grabs my arm, police officer or not, I'm going to pull it away. I'm going to resist because that's human nature. That instinctual act criminalizes the individual, making them subject to beatings, pepper spray or Taser use.
Any reasonable person must reject the idea that everyone who pees in public should be shot with a Taser. It is fundamentally unjust that in a peaceful — albeit unsanitary — situation, the police actually create violence. It's totally unnecessary and calls for a citywide discussion.
The new chief should explain to the people who pay his salary why police officers systematically — without justification or penalty — abuse their authority as we have seen with the cases of Coleman, Schuckmann, Smith and Giles.
Paul Weber is a former Missourian reporter. He is currently working as a journalist