Part of a continuing series of FS successes
What started as a simple FI regarding a possible curfew violation ended up with a “massive” dent in the hood of a patrol car, caused by an officer slamming a suspect face-down into the metal.
The officer insisted he’d reacted to feeling “resistive tension” from an uncooperative suspect trying to pull away from him. Yet no such resistance seemed evident on a dash-cam recording of the incident. In fact, the action happens so fast on film that it looks as if the officer had decided to teach a young punk a lesson by smashing his head down without provocation.
“The video tells all here,” his supervisor concluded. IA investigators backed him up, judging the officer’s actions “unnecessary and improper.” Discipline for using excessive force was recommended.
Before signing off on punishment, however, the chief of the department decided to reach out for an independent evaluation from a lieutenant commander with a different agency nearby who he knew was a certified Force Science Analyst.
“As it turned out,” says the lieutenant, Paul Marik of the Pleasant Prairie (WI) PD, “the video did tell all.” But the story was quite different from what was initially assumed.
The incident occurred at about 2 o’clock one morning, moments after two patrolling officers noticed two young males and a female walking along a dimly lit section of a major thoroughfare after their city’s curfew. As soon as the trio spotted the squad car, they made an abrupt turn and “slunk off on a side street” as if to avoid contact. The officers decided to check out their ages and status.
One of the males, a tall, white kid with “baggy attire” and his hands in his pockets, blatantly ignored commands and had to be physically grabbed by one of the officers before he stopped walking away. He ignored multiple orders to show his hands, multiple other orders to walk to the front of the patrol car. Finally the officer steered him there with a grip on his left wrist.
Then, seemingly without hesitation, the officer grasped the suspect’s right forearm, lifted him slightly and, with a resounding bang, thrust him face down in a “horizontal stun” against the car’s hood.
“The first time I watched the video, I thought ‘This is not good,’ ” Marik told Force Science News. “Yes, the suspect hadn’t yet been patted down and could have had a weapon. Yes, he was looking around like he was thinking about escaping. But I couldn’t see anything specific that prompted the officer to use that level of force at that moment.”
And yet…the officer had moved the suspect to be in range of the dash-cam, Marik thought. Why would he have done that if he intended to use force maliciously?
Reviewing notes from his Force Science Analysis training, Marik was reminded among other things how fast physical actions can occur in a confrontation and also how camera footage, usually recorded at 30 frames per second, sometimes needs to be slowed down in order to see the micro-particulars of a captured image.
Painstakingly, he now moved through the dash-cam recording frame by frame, breaking it down into fractions of a second. “This allowed me to see the action as someone would feel it,” Marik explains. He then was able to observe what he and others had missed in their real-speed viewings.
In the frozen frames, Marik could see the suspect’s right elbow begin to rise up as if to wrench free immediately after the officer gripped his forearm. The officer could be seen at a slight backward angle, “either pulling back or attempting to hold himself in place,” Marik noted–a “highly unlikely position” unless the suspect was pulling away. With the suspect’s “body mechanics rigid and stiff with resistance,” the officer then dropped slightly to lower his center of gravity and initiated the subject’s “descent” on to the hood.
All this happened across just 15 frames–half a second–with some key elements occurring in just 7/10 of a second.
“It was impossible to see the critical nuances at full speed,” Marik says. “The officer reacted reflexively to the physical sensations he was feeling, responding so fast he couldn’t have consciously articulated exactly what happened.”
In a detailed report back to the chief, Marik concluded that the officer had, in fact, performed a justified “dynamic application of a trained decentralization technique,” not a maverick infliction of deliberate excessive force.
He added that he had recorded experiments of his own, duplicating the stun maneuver with a volunteer who offered no resistance in one version and resistive tension in another. In the version featuring resistive tension, the subject’s body mechanics, particularly the positioning of his shoulders, matched exactly the posturing of the suspect in the dash-cam video.
Marik was gratified to learn that not only the chief but those in the department who had urged discipline for the officer were “very receptive” to his analysis, exonerating the accused of wrongdoing.
“Cameras are clearly the wave of the future,” Marik says. “But investigators need to be trained on know how to look at what’s recorded to be sure that what seems evident in controversial situations is really the full story.”
The agency involved, incidentally, has since sent several of its detectives and supervisors to the Force Science certification course.