Every picture tells a story, don’t it? –Rod Stewart
Sometimes being a cop is a bad gig, and not just when you’re in mortal peril. One of the most difficult choices a police officer may be forced to make is when to use force, and how much.
Taking cumulative stock of the two separate video clips that have come out thus far documenting Porfirio Santos-Lopez’s Labor Day run-in with Long Beach Police Department officers, along with the clip of his aggressing against two men prior to the 911 calls that brought officers to the scene, it’s clear that Santos-Lopez was not only uncooperative but combative, and so there is no doubt that the responding officers had justification to use force. The question, then, becomes how much force was appropriate.
The third video begins with the unarmed Santos-Lopez lying on his back while surrounded by four officers. That none of the officers has drawn a firearm would seem to indicate that none regarded Santos-Lopez as a potential mortal threat. Nonetheless, evidently Santos-Lopez is still resisting arrest, though his resistance at this juncture can best be described as noncompliance: he is not complying with officers’ commands that he roll over on his stomach (so they can handcuff him).
In fact, at this point he is not moving much at all, even as at least one of the officers tases him. It is only the baton strikes by a different officer that further agitates Santos-Lopez. That officer delivers a total six such strikes, three of which sickeningly resonate with the sound of wood against bone.
Santos-Lopez is tased a few more times before the officers—now having been joined by two others—move in closer and put their hands on him. Santos-Lopez continues to resist and is tased again, and eventually officers succeed in handcuffing him simply by forcing his arms behind his body.
“Many ask, ‘Why don’t you just jump on top of him?'” LBPD Sgt. Aaron Eaton told the Long Beach Post, anticipating one of the obvious questions posed by the video. “Well, here we have an individual who was asking to be killed, punching at officers and asphalt, and even attempting to kick an officer in the face at one point.”
Eaton expanded on this point to LBReport: “Officers used their batons and their tasers to get the subject to roll over onto his stomach so they could safely handcuff him.”
While these statements address the decision/need to use force, they sidestep the question of extent. How, for example, were repeated baton strikes to Santos-Lopez’s legs supposed to contribute to his rolling over?
As is standard practice regarding such incidents, the LBPD is conducting an investigation into whether the use of force was justified. Whether there is irony in the fact that within 48 hours of the incident Eaton is at least partly justifying the use of force in this case, even though the police often decline to comment on cases on the grounds that “the investigation is ongoing,” is for the reader to decide.
KCAL-TV reports that Santos-Lopez’s wife says her husband is an alcoholic who has been battling mental-health issues. Some are bound to use this information to foist more blame upon the police. However, Santos-Lopez’s mental capacity should be a non-issue in evaluating the officers’ actions. Police responding to a 911 call and encountering a combative suspect cannot be expected to divine his internal world, any more than they can be asked to defend themselves or the general public less vigorously because of what demons may therein reside. What they can—and are—asked to do is to stay the suspect’s aggression and apprehend him, using whatever force is necessary.
That last clause is incomplete. It should read: “using whatever force is necessary, but no more.” And while the videos don’t necessarily reveal everything that should be considered in this case, every picture tells a story, don’t it?