Training Police Not to Beat

Few scenes are more repelling than police officers engaging in what appears to be gratuitous violence. The videotaped scene from Philadelphia last week, with officers kicking and pummeling a man at the end of a perilous chase - in which one policeman had been shot - was a sad replay for many viewers.

Though the circumstances were in many ways dissimilar, it inevitably recalled the 1991 Rodney King incident in Los Angeles.

No matter what the person being arrested did, is there any excuse for a brutal beating after the suspect is subdued or incapacitated? The man in Philadelphia, originally apprehended for having a stolen car, had been shot five times in the course of the chase and earlier confrontations, before he was finally stopped and pulled onto the pavement.

This was undoubtedly a dangerous individual, but is it the prerogative of the police to administer their own punishment before trial?

The answer to both questions is no. That's the cool-headed, reasoned, and legal way to view these situations. Those caught in the emotions of such incidents don't always act in what they may in fact know to be the right way. Fury too easily takes over.

The history of such incidents shows that prosecutors and juries weighing charges against police officers are often unwilling to indict or convict, even with taped evidence of brutal behavior. The police on the scene frequently get the benefit of the doubt concerning the dangers they faced or felt.

Yet the increased availability of videotapes of police actions (often by news teams) has had its own dampening effect on excessive force. Many forces, not least Philadelphia's, have made strides toward reducing brutality by officers.

More effective training of officers, including ways to check anger, is a key element here. So is a determination to weed out racial attitudes that have exacerbated some incidents - though the Philadelphia case involved both black and white officers beating a black suspect.

Philadelphia's police department has promised a thorough investigation. That process will be closely watched as the city gets ready to host the Republican National Convention - an event where street protests, and the police response to them, will be squarely in the camera's eye.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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