Last month when speaking before a law enforcement group in New York, President Trump suggested that police engage in a more physical, brutal approach when making an arrest. It was a call for “police brutality”—an indiscriminate use of excessive force. Police departments across the country have since denounced the president’s statements saying it sends the wrong message, especially after they have spent decades trying to mend relations with the communities they serve.
But what happens when the police engage in the kind of arrest behavior suggested by the president—who, incidentally, understands little, if anything, about effective law enforcement or criminal justice policy?
Police Brutality Documented
A recent decision by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals answers this question.
On December 10, 2010, Kansas City police officers Shawn Todd and David Epperson responded to a dispatch call about two men kicking in a door of a vacant house. The Eighth Circuit said the officers arrived at the vacant house a few minutes later. Hearing noises inside the house, the officers assumed a burglary was in process. Officer Todd moved to the backyard of the house while Officer Epperson remained in front of the house. Officer Todd identified himself and instructed the people in the house to come out with their hands raised.
A few moments later two men, Kenny Gurley and Robert Bowlin, exited the house. Gurley was carrying a metal pipe. Officer Todd told the men to stop and put their hands up. The men complied. After holstering his weapon, Officer Todd walked up to Gurley and punched him in the face. The punch did not appear to faze Gurley. Officer Todd called out to Officer Epperson to bring a taser.
Officer Epperson came into the backyard at which time Gurley, with hands still raised and metal pipe still in one hand, turned to face the approaching officer.
Cop Shoots Compliant Suspect
For no apparent reason, Officer Epperson ran toward Gurley, yelling “stop” before he shot the suspect twice, killing him instantly.
Both suspects had been compliant throughout the arrest process. They stopped in the backyard as instructed. They raised their hands as instructed. Officer Todd obviously did not feel threatened by either man because he holstered his weapon as soon as the suspects stopped and raised their hands. For no reason at all, Officer Todd then walked up to Gurley and punched him in the face. Gurley had not threatened or expressed any defiance toward the officer.
Then Officer Epperson walked into the backyard. All he saw was Gurley turning around with a pipe in a raised hand. Gurley did not threaten or exhibit any aggression toward Epperson. He merely turned in the direction of the officer to see who was coming. Officer Epperson charged Gurley yelling stop before he killed the suspect without any provocation.
And, according to President Trump, that would be a “good arrest” approach: shoot and ask questions later. A burglary suspect was gunned down in cold-blood because he broke into a vacant house. Clearly, this type of behavior fits the don’t be “too nice” to criminal suspects approach the president advocates. Whether the president realizes it or not, his encouragement for law enforcement to engage in unlawful brutality filters down through the system to the street level and will infect policing for years.
Wrongful Death Case for Execution During Burglary
Gurley’s mother brought a wrongful death lawsuit against the two officers and the police department. She charged that her son had been killed during an unreasonable seizure involving excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Established case law in the Eighth Circuit permits the police to use force, even lethal force, during an arrest for a serious crime when the suspect poses a threat to the officer or others, and/or if the suspect actively resists arrest or attempts to evade arrest with flight.
The Eighth Circuit said that while Officers Todd and Epperson could have considered the burglary a serious crime, the suspects’ compliance completely overshadowed the severity of their offense. The appeals court said “the two suspects exited the house when instructed to do so and, once they were in the backyard, they followed all of Todd’s commands. For that reason, neither Gurley nor Bowlin posed an immediate threat to the officers and neither of them actively resisted arrest. So it was objectively unreasonable for the officers to punch and shoot a compliant suspect.”
The Eighth Circuit held that the mother’s wrongful death lawsuit can proceed against the officers and the police department. The case will never reach a trial. The police department will settle. The taxpayers will pay for the settlement.
Financial Cost of Police Brutality
As for Kenny Gurley, he became one of the 47 people killed by Kansas City police between 2005 and 2016. Between January 1, 2000 and June 29, 2017, Fatal Encounters reports that the police killed 20,790 people in the United States—roughly 1300 people each year. Last year the Huffington Post compiled of list of major police departments and how much they have paid out in civil damages for police misconduct:
- Boston: $36 million between 2005-2015
- Chicago: $521 million between 2004-2014
- Cleveland: $8.2 million between 2004-2014
- Dallas: $8.6 million between 2013-2016
- Denver: $12 million between 2011-2016
- Los Angeles: $101 million between 2002-2011
- Minneapolis: $9.3 million between 2011-2014
- New York City: $348 2006-2011
- Oakland: $74 million 1990-2014
- Philadelphia: $40 million 2009-2014
These 10 major U.S. police departments caused local taxpayers to shell out more than $1.1 billion because of a President Trump-style of policing. And that’s why police departments from Los Angeles to New York immediately denounced the president police brutality suggestion. They understand the costs of the Trump-type policing.