The videotapes seem to clearly tell the story — some say police brutality is alive and well in both Oklahoma City, Okla., and even in the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood, more than a decade after the Rodney King debacle.
But do the videotapes tell the same story or two different stories? The Inglewood amateur tape shows police officer Jeremy Morse, a three-year veteran of the force, hoisting and slamming a handcuffed 16-year-old, Donovan Jackson, onto the trunk of a police car and then punching him in the face before the other officers with him intervened.
The Oklahoma tape shows two officers kicking and striking an unarmed man with their tactical batons during an arrest. The officers, Greg Driskill and E.J. Dyer, were taped trying to subdue Donald Reed Pete, who appeared to resist various police orders — first to get on the ground and then once grounded, to put one of his arms behind his back.
Both officers, each four-year veterans of the force, used pepper spray and their batons, repeatedly striking Pete and stopping only after they had him handcuffed.
Pete's arrest was captured on video by Brian Bates, a local self-proclaimed "video vigilante," who said it appeared excessive force was used because Pete never threatened the officers but was just slow to respond to orders. The Oklahoma City police department said Pete was resisting but not "actively resisting" and that the officers appeared to have been following a procedure that allowed them to use non-lethal force against an unarmed suspect.
So when does police force become police brutality? Experts say it's when the force continues in excess after a suspect has been clearly subdued.
"A police officer can use as much force as he or she believes is necessary to bring a suspect under control, but no more than what is necessary," said Van Jones, National Executive Director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights (EBC) and head of Bay Area PoliceWatch, a police watchdog organization. "Once the suspect is under control, that's it. Using more force than is necessary is excessive force by law."
Reasonable Force, Brutality in the Eye of the Beholder
Still, depending on how they were trained and on the specific situation, officers may have different ideas on what is necessary force and what is excessive.
"Under the law, police are entitled to use reasonable, necessary force in order to gain control of a suspect and take him into custody," said Merrick Bobb, director of the Police Assessment Resource Center. "What is reasonable is a judgment call for an officer well-trained in what to do in those circumstances. It often involves what techniques the officer has been trained to use and how the officer has been trained."
Some police supporters, particularly in the arrest of Donovan Jackson, have warned that critics should not rush to judge Morse and the other officers involved because the tape does not tell the whole story. It does not show how Morse received a bloody gash over his left ear or reportedly received lacerations on his elbow and knee. It does not show how, police say, Jackson lunged at a sheriff's deputy as officers were investigating a car driven by Jackson's father that had an expired registration.
The tape also does not reveal whether Jackson provoked the beating captured on tape or whether he was "mouthing off" to the officers. However, experts say the circumstances that led up to the arrest become irrelevant after he's been placed in handcuffs and subdued.
"There is no punishment in this country that calls for someone to be punched in the mouth for talking," said Jones. "Once the suspect is under control, that does not give the officer the right to use excessive force for talking. … There are too many officers out there who want to issue their own brand of street justice and want to be the judge and jury. And once we let that happen, the whole system begins to go haywire."
Handcuffed — Mostly Under Control
Police may not consider a suspect subdued until he is promptly obeying all orders, has been disarmed and has been handcuffed. In Donald Pete's case, police were called to the scene by Bates after he saw Pete allegedly picking up a prostitute and engaging in sex.
Officer Driskill arrived alone and on foot. When Driskill ordered Pete out of his van, he saw him put what appeared to be marijuana in his mouth. Pete began to eat the marijuana and a police helicopter hovering above the scene requested backup for Driskill.
Officer Dyer arrived to help Driskill subdue the heavy-set Pete. Though Pete was not aggressively resisting them, he appeared on tape to be resisting nonetheless. Supporters of Dyer and Driskill have said they had to use their tactics to be sure the larger Pete would not overwhelm them or grab their weapons suddenly.
Experts say it is not guaranteed that suspects are entirely subdued even when handcuffed. But in most cases, they are.
"It depends on the situation," said Bobb. "For the most part, once the individual is handcuffed, the person is under control. Any use of force used after the suspect has been brought under control will be looked at carefully and with skepticism."
Questions Surrounding Video Vigilantism
Some skepticism has surrounded "video vigilante" Bates, who reportedly tapes illegal sexual activity and reports it to police and makes money from his video vigilante Web site and regular appearances on talk shows. Still, people should not be discouraged from videotaping and filing reports if they believe they are witnessing police brutality.
"If people were sending in edited versions of what happened, then I'd be concerned," said Jones. "Choosing what to report, what to show, that can be very dangerous. But if someone happens to see and tape something in plain view, that can be as bad for the suspect as it could be for the police officer. As long as the person presents unedited, raw tape, then they are doing a service."
"I'm not wary of tape nor do I believe they always present the full story," said Bobb. "They rarely present the entire story, but I do believe they present a highly accurate account of what was witnessed."
Morse has been relieved of duty and placed on administrative leave with pay pending an investigation. The three other officers who were with him on the Jackson arrest have not been relieved of their duties. Meanwhile, a civil rights lawsuit was filed in federal court on behalf of Jackson and his father Wednesday as prosecutors announced a grand jury probe into the arrest.
In Oklahoma, Driskill and Dyer,will remain on duty pending an official review. Pete faces numerous charges associated with the arrest, including alleged possession of drugs, engaging in an act of lewdness, as well as destroying evidence.