Police Officer shares candid perspective on Taser incident

Robert Pickett
(Photo © J. Maus)

The article below was written by Portland Police Officer Robert Pickett. Pickett — who regular readers know by his user name “PoPo” (he’s a regular commenter and member of the Portland Bike Forums) — is a former member of the SE Precinct Bicycle Patrol Unit and now works in the Bureau’s Neighborhood Response Team division. Pickett is also a former BTA Alice Awards nominee for his dedication to community policing.

Pickett was recently selected by Police Chief Sizer to be an official communications liaison to the community on bicycle issues. On he previously shared his thoughts on humility and wrote about why cops ride on sidewalks.

I was racking my brain last night, trying to figure out if there was anything constructive I could provide to this commentary in the face of the knowledge that whatever I write will certainly be ripped to pieces by upset, anonymous critics. (I am now anticipating many comments opening “here’s what would be constructive, PoPo…”)

I also wanted to be constructive and not simply defensive, since of course, a part of me feels that way.

Policing is a complicated, difficult, sometimes dangerous job. Cops are also under close scrutiny from many angles, and are quickly judged. Information generated from official investigations is also usually slow to come, as it takes time to collect and write, and sometimes can’t be released immediately for fear of jeopardizing successful prosecution of a case.

At the same time the public and the media is screaming for information now! Sometimes the best the police can do immediately after a controversial incident is release a brief overall statement, leaving out the smaller, but perhaps pertinent details. This can leave the police open to somewhat one-sided criticism for awhile, based on incomplete or possibly biased information, but that is part of the deal. Cops know it and decide to do the work anyway.

“Generally when officers end up having to use force, it is in response to their perception of the subject’s resistance, and not a result of the particular infraction observed.”

And indeed, sometimes cops make bad calls and that comes out too. We appropriately have high standards for our officers, but they are human.

So there I go, being defensive anyway. Sorry about that. Anyway, it seemed that while I can’t talk about the incident in particular, for reasons stated above, perhaps I could try to provide perspective on numbers and how police usually work.

First of all, I asked for some statistics regarding use of force in the Traffic Division. They have about 32 officers and sergeants who actively work the street (others are investigators, command staff, etc). These street officers (mostly motorcycle-mounted) are distributed across seven days of the week and two different shifts, and their primary job is enforcement of traffic laws.

From 6/1/2007 to 6/1/2008, the Traffic Division issued 53,895 citations and made 1,647 arrests. (These numbers do not include other citizen contacts and traffic stops that resulted in warnings.) Many of those arrests are certainly for DUII and hit and run, but some come as a result of other criminal activity discovered during the stops. During this period, Traffic Division officers used force in only 31 cases — using force means something more than handcuffing or specific control holds-using a Taser, pointing or shooting a firearm, punches, tackles, pushing down, pepper spray and utilizing a baton are all examples of “use of force.”

All the above numbers means that force was used in about .05% of the cases.

Situations where officers are trying to arrest someone generally provoke more force incidents than simple traffic stops. Traffic officers used force in 1.9% of the 1,647 arrest situations during that time period, which is actually lower than the Bureau average. The entire Operations Branch, which also includes all precinct officers—the ones who patrol neighborhoods and respond to 911 calls–used force 6.65% of the time when making an arrest.

Officers are allowed to use force if they perceive that citizens are refusing to stop when lawfully ordered.

Generally when officers end up having to use force, it is in response to their perception of the subject’s resistance, and not a result of the particular infraction observed. Does that make sense? For example, usually police use force not because someone ran a red light, but because the person resisted when an officer was trying to stop them for running a red light.

The general idea behind Tasers is that while painful (I can attest to that personally) they actually reduce injuries to all parties involved, as they can take the place of protracted physical struggles, which might involve tackling or punching or strikes with a metal baton, or the danger of a suspect grabbing one of an officer’s weapons while fighting in close quarters with an officer. And on the other end, sometimes, based on the specific situation, it is feasible to attempt to use a Taser in a situation where using deadly force (usually in the form of shooting a gun) would be justified.

This is not to say, however, that anybody likes to be Tasered.

The dark uniforms Traffic officers wear, with reflective police patches, were specifically designed to stand out more sharply during the daytime, and to be more visible at night, than the traditional blue uniforms. It doesn’t mean they are perfectly recognizable in every case, but the intent was to make them as recognizable as possible. The Traffic Division is actually considering the uniforms for it’s non-motorcycle mounted officers as well, because they are more visible, and therefore safer for officers who spend a lot of their time stopped on the side of the road in traffic.

I’m sure there will be many frustrated, irritated comments replying to this one. Completely understandable. But Jonathan has created an excellent forum that traditionally has quite thoughtful commentary from all different perspectives. I wanted to help continue in that tradition if I could, knowing that not everyone would agree. I am always happy to attempt to explain.

The southeast Precinct Bicycle Patrol will be hosting a family-friendly rodeo, as part of Pedalpalooza, Friday afternoon from 5pm until 8pm at Sunnyside Park. If you are interested in how police bicycle officers are trained or want to try our slow-speed cone course, please come by with your bike.

We will also do our best to answer how cops do and why we do things.

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