Citizen videotaping adds to force debate
Jan 13, 2013 (Austin American-Statesman - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Few would disagree that police occasionally must use force in the course of their work, but when, and with how much physical coercion, has been hotly debated in recent years. The proliferation of cell phones with cameras has led to even closer public scrutiny over the use of force -- including, in some cases, whether it was necessary at all.
Early on New Year's 2012, Austin police pulled over two women in a car for driving without lights on North Lamar Boulevard. When the passenger, Norma Pizana, refused to stop using her cell phone, officers Patrick Oborski and Robert Snider yanked her out of the car and handcuffed her as she kneeled on the sidewalk.
"Should they have pulled her out of the car No, absolutely not," said Mindy Montford, Pizana's attorney. Police "escalated what was going on, rather than de-escalated it." Pizana's charges of public intoxication, failing to obey a police officer and resisting arrest are pending.
As Pizana was being arrested, Antonio Buehler began snapping photos of the incident. When police approached him and demanded he stop, another bystander shot video of the officers throwing Buehler to the ground. In it, he can be seen holding his arms up, apparently offering no resistance. Oborski reported Buehler spit in his face, which Buehler denies.
An internal police investigation cleared Oborski and Snider of any wrongdoing. Buehler, whose charges of harassment of a public official and resisting arrest are pending, said were it not for the officers' behavior there would be no use of force or criminal cases stemming from the encounters: "They created victims that night."
In response to the incident, the Austin Police Department last fall clarified its citizen videotaping rules, affirming that members of the public may film police doing their jobs in public spaces so long as they don't interfere with police work.
Bystander video of another incident, in August 2010, raises a question about whether an electronic stun gun incident could have been avoided. According to police reports, it began when officers Gilbert Caraballo and Eric Mason responded to a call on Eighth Street downtown.
While arresting a man, Caraballo instructed the man's brother, Matthew Flores, to leave the area. As the officers were preparing to clear the scene, according to the video and the reports, Flores uttered an expletive that caused Caraballo, who was about to enter the cruiser, to turn around and walk over to Flores.
He "grabbed Matthew by the left arm to place Matthew in handcuffs," Caraballo's report reads. "Matthew became irate and began to forcefully and actively resist ... then began to push Officer Caraballo off of him. Officer Caraballo pushed Matthew away to get some distance due to Matthew's continuous resistance. Officer Caraballo was forced to deploy his Taser to gain control of Matthew."
The video tells a slightly different story. In it, Caraballo -- who according to a Statesman analysis used his stun gun 16 times between 2009 and May 2012, more than any other officer -- can be seen grabbing Flores' arm and neck and banging him into the cruiser's hood in a single motion. Flores resists handcuffing, and three seconds later, the officer throws Flores to the ground and quickly shoots him with his Taser.
Flores' charge of resisting arrest was later dismissed. Both Flores and his attorney declined comment. Caraballo received no public discipline from the incident.
The police department declined to make Oborski, Snider or Caraballo available for comment.
Police administrators say they have a rigorous use of force oversight process -- implemented about five years ago in response to a Department of Justice investigation -- in which every incident is reviewed by a supervisor who goes to the scene to interview officers and witnesses. More serious incidents are scrutinized by the department's special investigations unit.
Findings are submitted to supervisors, including Chief Art Acevedo, who determine whether the officer should be disciplined. The department also has a force review committee that meets monthly and a program to identify officers who use force more than six times in a 12-month period. In 2011, 165 officers -- about a fifth of those who filed force reports that year -- reached that number.
Last February, such a review led to the firings of officers Michelle Gish and Jose Robledo. An internal investigation determined that an official report of an incident in which Gish slapped a woman strapped to a gurney after the woman spit on her wasn't truthful. Robledo's appeal of his firing was upheld; Gish's is pending.
"Officers are subject to the full range of human emotions that any other person would have," Assistant Police Chief Sean Mannix said then, "but are held to a higher standard."
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