That thinning blue line

Editorial from The Oregonian, November 20, 2009

By hitting a police officer, a 12-year-old put herself at risk, but was it necessary to shoot her with a beanbag?

Snap judgments are almost invariably wrong in police use-of-force cases. We repeat: “almost” invariably.

In Arkansas last week, a police officer zapped a 10-year-old girl with a Taser to force her to take a shower before bedtime. “People here feel like that he made a mistake in using a Taser, and maybe he did,” Mayor Vernon McDaniel said, with an excess of caution — maybe? — “but we will not know until we get an impartial investigation.”

Let’s go out on a limb here and say that, yes, that officer did make a mistake. But judging what Portland Officer Chris Humphreys did a week ago today on a MAX platform is not as simple. Humphreys fired a beanbag shotgun at a 12-year-old girl, hitting her in the thigh.

This juvenile had made what can be, and has often proved to be, a fatal error: She struck Humphreys’ fellow officer, Aaron Dauchy, in the face.

It will take an internal affairs investigation to determine whether Humphreys acted in accordance with Police Bureau policy and training. Although admittedly, if he did, then it’s fair to add: Maybe it’s time to improve both.

It would be nice to think that two Portland Police Bureau officers would be capable of subduing a 12-year-old girl — even one of adult height and weight — without resorting to weaponry, even the less-lethal variety. Yet the reality is that neither the bureau’s critics nor its defenders actually know enough, based on the video image that’s been shown, to condemn or exonerate this officer. And yet that didn’t stop both sides from rushing to their predictable battle stations Thursday.

To the critics, it’s obvious that Humphreys shouldn’t be a police officer anymore. And let’s admit that he does have another strike against him. He was one of three officers involved in the fatal foot pursuit of James P. Chasse Jr., the schizophrenic man who died in police custody three years ago.

On Thursday, Police Chief Rosie Sizer called the MAX platform video “troubling” and determined that Humphreys shouldn’t be on patrol but could perform desk work, pending the results of an internal affairs investigation. City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who oversees the Police Bureau, went further, deciding that Humphreys should be placed on paid leave. “I did not want him on the street,” Saltzman said.

These are reasonable judgments to make, based on the circumstances. But you’d never guess that based on the reaction of the police union. More than 40 officers assembled Thursday, shoulder to shoulder on the steps of the Justice Center. To these officers, it’s apparently obvious that an officer who shoots a weapon at a 12-year-old girl is above reproach.

But how can the officers be so sure about that? The police are actually trained not to make snap judgments, but to examine the evidence — which isn’t all in, in this case. It would be nice to see Portland police officers demonstrate the cautious, tempered judgment that they expect their critics to demonstrate.