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Supreme Court to Shape Ferguson Probe

Use-of-force case 30 years ago to have impact today

August 22, 2014
The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

WASHINGTON- It started with a bottle of orange juice 30 years ago.

The national legal standards that govern when police officers are justified in using force against people trace their lineage to a 1984 case from Charlotte, North Carolina. In that case, a diabetic man's erratic behavior during a trip to a convenience store for juice to bring up his low blood sugar led to a confrontation with officers that left him with injuries from head to foot.

Dethorne Graham's subsequent lawsuit against police for his injuries led to a 1989 Supreme Court decision that has become the prism for evaluating how police use force. As soon as Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown on Aug. 9, the Graham v. Connor case became the foundational test for whether Wilson's response was appropriate or criminal.

Article Photos

AP Photo/In this Sunday photo, police wait to advance after tear gas was used to disperse a crowd during a protest for Michael Brown, who was killed by a police officer on Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo.

To most civilians, an 18-year-old unarmed man may not appear to pose a deadly threat. But a police officer's perspective is different. And that is how an officer should be judged after the fact, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote in the 1989 opinion.

"The 'reasonableness' of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight," Rehnquist wrote.

The sequence of events that led to the death of Brown, a black man shot by a white officer, remains unclear. An autopsy paid for by Brown's family concluded that he was shot six times, twice in the head. The shooting has prompted multiple investigations and triggered days of rioting reflecting long-simmering racial tensions in a town of mostly black residents and a majority white police force.

Fact Box


When police use force against citizens

A look at some of the issues involved when officers must decide whether to use force, deadly or otherwise:

Q: How often do police use force, or threaten to use it, against citizens?

A: A 2011 study by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics found that just 1.4 percent of the nearly 60,000 U.S. residents who had contact with police three years earlier said the officers used or threatened to use force against them. Those numbers are similar to national survey results in 2005 (1.6 percent) and 2002 (1.5 percent).

Males were more likely than females to have force used or threatened, and blacks were more likely than whites and Hispanics to be on the receiving end of force, or its threatened use. Three-quarters of the respondents said they felt the police response was excessive, and nearly one in five said they were injured from the encounter. Close to one-fourth of those surveyed said they cursed, argued with, insulted or threatened police.

Q: What are the legal standards governing police use of force?

A: A U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Graham vs. Connor 25 years ago remains the legal standard. In that case, the court's majority ruled that a "reasonable" police response must be "judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than 20/20 vision of hindsight." Although the ruling provides a minimum standard, law enforcement agencies still have latitude to develop tougher rules rather than rely on a national template or uniform policy.

Q: Why do police officers seemingly shoot to kill rather than try to wound or immobilize suspects?

A: "Police officers are trained to shoot at center mass," said Maria Haberfeld, professor of police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Hartsfeld, a former Israeli national police officer, and other experts added that unlike specially trained police snipers, most patrol officers lack the skill required to disable a suspect by shooting him or her in the arm.

Q. What is the use-of-force continuum?

A: Most police departments rely on what is known as a use-of-force continuum, which consists of a series of more forceful responses depending upon the severity of the perceived threat. At the low end, the continuum consists of verbal direction and calm, nonthreatening commands such as "Let me see your license and registration," or simply, "Stop." The continuum increases to include "soft techniques" such as grabbing or holding a suspect, to "pain compliant techniques" such as choke holds, and ultimately, guns as a means of lethal force.

Q: What about Tasers and other stun guns?

A: Known more broadly in police parlance as "conducted energy devices," stun guns are not always carried by patrol officers. Their use can also sometimes cause further agitation in suspects, Haberfeld said. In Ferguson, the police department was sued this week by the wife and mother of a 31-year-old man who died from a heart attack in September 2011 after he was shocked while running down the street naked.

Q. What happens when police departments are deemed to have abridged citizens' rights through excessive use of force or other constitutional violations?

A. The U.S. Justice Department has cracked down on civil rights violations in several big-city police departments over the past two decades after the federal agency received more legal power following the 1991 Rodney King beating in Los Angeles. Police departments in Cincinnati, Detroit, Las Vegas, New Orleans and Pittsburgh are among those to have entered into consent decrees with the Justice Department, which is now investigating the Ferguson Police Department.

Attorney General Eric Holder said Thursday the incident had opened a national conversation about "the appropriate use of force and the need to ensure fair and equal treatment for everyone who comes into contact with the police."

A grand jury is hearing evidence to determine whether Wilson, 28, who has policed the St. Louis suburbs for six years, should be charged in Brown's death.

The key question will be: Would a reasonable police officer, with a similar background as Wilson, have responded the same way?

The answer is typically yes.

"Except in the most outrageous cases of police misconduct, juries tend to side with police officers and give them a lot of leeway," said Woody Connette, the attorney who represented Graham.

In Graham's case, his behavior as he was experiencing low blood sugar looked similar to that of a belligerent drunk.

On Nov. 12, 1984, Graham, 39, felt the onset of an insulin reaction, and asked a friend to drive him to buy orange juice that would increase his blood sugar, Connette said.

According to the Supreme Court, Graham rushed into the store and grabbed the orange juice but saw the line was too long, so he put the juice down and ran back to the car.

Charlotte police officer M.S. Connor thought this was suspicious and followed him. When Connor stopped Graham's friend's car, Graham explained he was having a sugar reaction. But Connor didn't believe him.

As Connor was following up with the store to see whether anything had happened, Graham left the car, ran around it twice, then sat down and passed out for a short time. Other police officers arrived, and Graham was rolled over and handcuffed. The officers lifted Graham from behind and placed him face down on the car.

When Graham asked the officers to check his pocket for something he carried that identified him as a diabetic, one of the officers told him to "shut up" and shoved his face against the hood of the car.

Then four officers grabbed Graham and threw him head-first into the police car. Once police confirmed no crime had been committed inside the convenience store, they dropped Graham off at his home and left him lying in the yard, Connette said.

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