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When Police Punch


This past week, the police chief of Mesa, Ariz., announced a new rule against officers hitting people in the face, head or neck. That's after surveillance video came out that showed Mesa police raining down rapid-fire punches on an unarmed, noncombative suspect. Some people are shocked that such a rule didn't already exist, so NPR's law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste explains when police can use their fists and why the rules are changing.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: It's not just Mesa. In the last couple of weeks, we've seen controversial videos of police punching people in Oregon, Washington state, and, of course, everyone saw that video from the beach in New Jersey.


UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: Stop resisting. Stop resisting.

KASTE: An underage woman caught with booze resists arrest, and as officers wrestle her down, one of them socks her around the head and shoulders. Her reaction is pure outrage.




UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You're not allowed to beat me like that.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #2: Stop resisting. Stop. Stop.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I'm a woman. It doesn't matter.

KASTE: Actually, police are allowed to hit people. Generally speaking, punches are acceptable to stun someone who's fighting arrest or poses a threat. Trainers say a punch can be a very effective, non-lethal way to control a dangerous suspect. But the reality is American cops actually used to use their fists a lot more than they do now. Mike Stradley has more than three decades policing experience and now runs skills training at Oregon's Public Safety Academy.

MIKE STRADLEY: When I started in police work, there was no such thing as pepper spray or tasers or any of those things. You were armed with a revolver and an extra couple speed loaders and a pair of handcuffs and your fists.

KASTE: Nowadays, he says, cops are punching people less, but when they do, he admits it can look really bad, especially when caught on video. He thinks that's because overall attitudes have changed.

STRADLEY: The cultural shift has been not only with police. It's been across the board. You don't - people don't fistfight in high school anymore at all.

KASTE: And some police departments are adjusting. For example, the Denver Police Department - it's rewriting its whole use-of-force policy. Matthew Murray is the deputy chief, and he describes one of the incidents that inspired the changes.

MATTHEW MURRAY: We had a situation where an officer was trying to get drugs out of a person's mouth. That's not uncommon that people who are selling or buying drugs will swallow the drugs to try to avoid detection. He grabbed their throat and then was striking the person to get them to spit out the drugs.

KASTE: That would no longer fly, though he says officers may still punch someone who is actively resisting them.

MURRAY: So in other words, if you ball up your fists and you start to swing at me, that's active aggression. But if you lay down on the ground and you put your arms under you and you just won't give me your arms, that's not active aggression. That's passive resistance.

KASTE: So in Denver, at least, cops may no longer punch that passively resisting suspect into submission. That sounds reasonable to civilians, but police officers hate to lose the option. Maki Haberfeld is a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York where she specializes in police training and ethics.

MAKI HABERFELD: Policing is about use of force. You cannot achieve compliance just by mere verbalization.

KASTE: When people resist arrest, she says police want to be able to use forms of pain compliance, and new restrictions on things like punching may be coming at a delicate time for American police.

HABERFELD: People are more and more noncompliant towards law enforcement for a variety of reasons. And this is how they find themselves in the pain compliance state, which includes the punches.

KASTE: One solution, Haberfeld says, would be to train American cops better. She says police in other Western countries, such as Norway, get a lot more training in managing their stress and their tempers. And the problem for American police is not so much about the punching. It's their lack of training in how to avoid using force at all. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.