Anatomy of a bungled police arrest
TO BORROW an expression from law enforcement, Boston police didn’t “put the boots’’ to a 16-year-old suspect during a controversial arrest last year at Roxbury Community College. Instead they used their training to deliver “distraction techniques’’ with the “soft and fleshy portion of the fist,’’ according to the official investigation. It sounds more like massage therapy than what it really was - a bungled police action.
This case provides a glimpse into how hard it is to hold police officers accountable for their mistakes. Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley took almost a year to complete the review of cellphone footage, witness statements, radio transmissions, and medical records. The Sept. 16 report determined that none of the nine officers or security personnel involved in the arrest - including a Boston police officer who hit and kneed the suspect 17 times - used excessive force or engaged in criminal conduct. An internal police investigation also concluded that the arrest was done by the book.
But there are a couple of missing pages in this book.
The misadventure started when two Boston police officers and a youth services officer spotted a juvenile male who had escaped from detention. They tried, unsuccessfully, to place handcuffs on him. That led to a struggle on the ground. More officers arrived. Still, they couldn’t gain control of the suspect’s arms for about two minutes (a long time in a fight) even as Officer Michael McManus delivered numerous punches and knee strikes to the suspect’s back and ribs.
Passers-by were agitated by the arrest on the largely minority campus where suspicion of police tactics runs higher than it might on a suburban campus. A sergeant who should have taken control of the scene was instead foolishly hassling an eyewitness for recording the event. After the incident, the police officers did what they often do: hang around for no apparent reason. To borrow another slang phrase from law enforcement, it’s called “taking the class picture.’’
Gregory Connor, an independent expert on the use of force by law enforcement, examined the video evidence in minute detail on the request of the district attorney. Connor said there is nothing in the recordings that suggests criminal conduct on the part of officers. But to view the case through frame-by-frame technicalities, he added, would be to miss the larger point.
“They didn’t know what they were doing,’’ said Connor, a former police officer in Michigan.
Had the officers simply walked up and taken control of the suspect’s arms instead of shouting out his name, said Connor, they likely could have made the arrest without the ensuing struggle on the floor - and without the terror of not being able to see the suspect’s hands during much of the fight.
The officers, according to Connor, compounded their error by trying to handcuff the suspect before gaining physical control of him. Even choosing to initiate the arrest in a small vestibule where the officers had little room to maneuver was a mistake.
But what really had Connor scratching his head were the 17 blows delivered by Officer McManus. Technically, each one was delivered in accordance with officer training on distracting a suspect or using pain to gain compliance. But the strikes, in this particular case, weren’t effective at doing anything other than provoking onlookers. The blows were delivered, said Connor, “in a senseless manner.’’
There is a common pattern in investigations of police conduct. Attention gets narrowly focused on the technical permissibility of an action, not the judgment of the officer who employs it or what led up to it. Officer McManus, for example, was trained in how and where on the body to strike a suspect. He didn’t strike an illegal blow. But that doesn’t make him right. And Bostonians should expect that nine officers can gain control of a prone suspect in a more efficient and civilized way.
Boston Police Superintendent Paul Joyce, who heads the department’s training academy, said he disagrees with much of Connor’s analysis. But Joyce acknowledged that the case raises legitimate training issues, enough of them perhaps to make it a “case study’’ in the police academy.
That would be a good idea. But the case would be a lot more instructive for future officers had the outcome included internal discipline and mandatory retraining for some of the officers involved.
Lawrence Harmon can be reached at email@example.com.