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Not the love-fest they're cracked up to be

In the early morning of Nov. 25, plainclothes New York City police officers fired 50 shots at a car on the suspicion that the occupants of the car had a gun. The suspicion proved false. The car’s occupants were black. Two of them were wounded. A third, Sean Bell, was killed. He was to be married that day.

Joseph McNamara who, with his father, older brother and countless relatives “had collectively served the New York Police Department for more than a century and a half,” was stunned by the shooting and wrote in The Wall Street Journal that had he or his relatives been involved in the incident, “none of us” would have fired at the car. He could see why the cops involved did fire: “Simply put, the police culture in our country has changed. An emphasis on ‘officer safety’ and paramilitary training pervades today’s policing, in contrast to the older culture, which held that cops didn’t shoot until they were about to be shot or stabbed.” The prevailing emphasis had once been public safety, not cop safety. He concluded: “When all is said and done, those with official responsibility to ensure that the innocent are protected, not harmed, by the police must constantly evaluate all police training, tactics, arms and attitudes.”

On Feb. 1, a 16-year-old special education student at Flagler Palm Coast High School was having difficulties doing his work. After his teacher, Robert Ripley, corrected him, the student refused to continue, “shoved his stuff to the floor and broke his pencil and threw it across the room,” according to Ripley. Ripley asked the student to leave the room with him. The student refused with an insult. Within minutes, Paul Peacock, an assistant principal (whose office is a few steps away), was in the room, which he cleared of the other seven students. Mark Monteith, a counselor, also walked in, then Scott Vedder, a “school resource deputy.” The student is black. All the adults in the room were white. Moments after Vedder arrived, the counselor and the assistant principal surrendered the situation to Vedder, who briefly attempted to coax the student to leave with him. When the student refused, Vedder “attempted to gain control by grabbing his wrist,” according to Peacock.

The student became more defiant. Even though the student had yet to be violent, other than to resist being forced out of his chair, Vedder threatened to pull out his Taser and persisted in wrestling with the student. The student then allegedly hit the deputy “with the palm of his left hand,” according to the deputy. Vedder retreated, took out his Taser and ordered the student to sprawl on the floor. The student refused. Vedder fired the Taser, sending 50,000 volts of electricity through the student’s body for five seconds. After that, Vedder said in his incident report, “I was able to secure him without further incident.” The student got slapped with a felony charge (battery on an officer) and jailed at Volusia County ’s juvenile detention center, where he remained as of last Friday. The entire incident unfolded in no more than half an hour. Obviously, the school had a schedule to keep.

There are many sides to this scandalous incident — and make no mistake, it’s a scandal, beginning with the unnecessary escalation of the situation and ending with the firing of a weapon that the School Board and Sheriff Don Fleming agreed two years ago would not be in schools. Somewhere along the way, Fleming changed his mind. The Taser wasn’t in Veddder’s hand by mistake because Vedder had just been transferred from a traffic unit (and had little training with students, but had had run-ins with that particular student in the community previously). The Taser was in his hand because Fleming wanted it there.

The greater outrage is the school district’s and the Sheriff’s Office’s response to the incident. Bill Delbrugge, the school superintendent, and Zane Kelly, Vedder’s supervisor, say all protocols were followed properly, including the so-called “force matrix” that the Sheriff’s Office proudly relies on when force is used, apparently on children as indiscriminately as on adults. The force matrix was once explained to me in detail. Joseph McNamara would be familiar with it. It’s focused on officer safety, and a rapid, escalating trigger of various levels of force that have this in common: If the individual at the receiving end of the “matrix” doesn’t immediately and unquestionably submit, he’ll rapidly be at the receiving end of officer muscle, Taser shots, handcuffs, and the old standby: a resisting-arrest charge, or worse, if the “suspect”’s limbs at any point make the kind of contact which arresting officers invariably interpret as battery. As a relatively reasonable adult who knows his rights, even I would have trouble complying with that “matrix,” which provokes an individual’s self-protective (and constitutional) instincts as it attempts to subdue them. I can only imagine the effect on a scared, surrounded, possibly emotionally disabled teen.

Other issues: The school district’s investigation of the incident was conducted by Paul Peacock, the assistant principal at the high school, even though Peacock was closely involved in the incident. Delbrugge found nothing wrong with the conflict. Peacock reported his findings to Delbrugge, with whom I had long conversations about the incident. I asked him repeatedly if the student had at any point been violent to anyone before the deputy grabbed his wrist in the attempt to subdue him. He had not been. It was only his verbal and body language that indicated to the adults in the room that he mightbecome violent. Had he even moved or bounded from his chair? He had not. Had he been doing violence to himself? He had not.

I had long conversations about the incident with local principals, too, in schools where Tasers aren’t carried by deputies. The situation wasn’t unusual to them. There was no question that when a student becomes violent, to himself or to others, various means of subduing him must be used. There was no question, either, that a student refusing to do his work, as long as he wasn’t being disruptive, would normally be left to himself rather than forced to do his work. Failing that, if the situation were to escalate, the principals noted a series of approaches that were not used at Flagler Palm Coast High. At no point was an attempt made to bring in other teachers who may have had a trusting relationship with the student. At no point, in this age of pervasive cell phones, was an attempt made to contact the student’s mother. This is not to say that at some point the student shouldn’t have been physically removed and order restored. Students and school staff have every right to feel safe and secure in their school, and free of disruptions. But means matter. Restoring order for the sake of order, violently, at the expense of a student’s physical safety and the school’s purpose — as a sanctuary for learning and conflict resolution — is not the way.

Meanwhile, district and sheriff’s officials were quick to define the incident by its perceptions — by pointing out that the student weighed 275 pounds and was over 6 feet tall, which is irrelevant (individual rights are not calibrated by size anymore than they are by color), that the adults in the room felt threatened, and that the student struck the deputy “with a closed fist,” as Zane Kelly told the School Board. No one corrected him, even though the deputy’s incident report nowhere notes a closed fist, but “the palm” of the student’s left hand — a significant difference.

There’s no doubt that what school district officials say publicly and what they think privately vary. Delbrugge, clearly conflicted by the Taser incident, must represent and legally protect the School Board, although he also allows that personally, he reviles the use of force (he has a picture of Mohandas Gandhi prominently displayed in his office) and hopes Tasers will be banned in future: His personal feelings on the matter will be among his recommendations to the board. For now, however, the Taser remains on Vedder’s belt as he patrols the high school, and Fleming made it clear he wants all his deputies so armed. The School Board is holding a workshop later this month to decide what to do about Tasers.

The more significant issue seems to me the one James McNamara raised in his Journal article: “Those with official responsibility to ensure that the innocent are protected, not harmed, by the police must constantly evaluate all police training, tactics, arms and attitudes.” What is the message being sent students when the ultimate solution to conflict in school, and not a life-threatening conflict at all, is force? What’s the message being sent when the ultimate authority figure called in to “resolve” conflict is the one with a uniform and a shield? What’s the message being sent when a school district agonizes more over the litigation that may ensue from the use (or absence) of weaponry on campus, like Tasers, rather than take an uncompromising stand against such weaponry? Districts have no trouble imposing zero-tolerance rules on students when it comes to violence and weaponry. Why not on adults, school resource deputies included?

Finally, this one note, because the point is automatically made in defense of Tasers, and was made again this time around: “Better a Taser than a gun.” Yes, if those are the only two choices. But they’re not, or ought not be, just as the emphasis on ‘officer safety’ and paramilitary training ought not pervade today’s policing at the expense of public safety. And the notion that Tasers are either non-lethal (upwards of 160 Taser-related deaths says otherwise) or more humane than, say, a clubbing, is also false. A Taser shot is a massive, paralyzing electrocution that shocks the entire body. It only appears less violent than the use of a night-stick or a beating because it’s not as directly invasive, because it appears “clean,” controlled, quiet. But all a Taser does is sanitize the old clubbing, rendering it acceptable. It employs the same means as the electric chair, only less lethally, and more portably. The weapon’s and the chair’s genesis are equally barbaric. Couple a Taser with the “force matrix” mentality, and what we have is an open invitation to police force under the guise of safety.

Whose safety? Ask at your own risk. At Palm Coast high school earlier this month, a special education student didn’t have the means to ask. He found out anyway.

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