Wednesday, January 03, 2007

You call that a Riot?

CourtTV is getting really trashy. You used to be able to watch real trials with professional legal commentary and actually learn something. Don't get me wrong, I like some action and I enjoy a smattering of Cops and World's Wildest Police Videos now and again, I think this sort of reality TV helps keep me from becoming too theoretical in my discussion of the law and public policy.

But I knew it had reached a real low tonight when I told Sarah that I'd already seen the upcoming gun battle, but I'd be back up when the show about riots came on....the show claimed to be about riots, but riots were only a small fraction of the content.

Speaking of riots, earlier today I was talking to one of my colleagues who was a in the midst of college in 1969 at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. She was there the day that the Madison police department was summoned to campus to break up a sit-in against the Vietnam War. The police went on a rampage and bludgeoned all the protestors they could lay hands on. Much of the rest of the University rioted. Classes were canceled and the students were sent home with pass/fail grades.

I've been thinking about what DR said about the necessity of the police use of force. DR suggests that police cannot justify use of force as self-defense as a civilian would. I will concede that the police are in some ways the living, breathing embodiment of the state and they carry guns and radios and (at least theoretically) have the entire apparatus of the state (up to use of the National Guard and military) to help enforce order.

Not only that, but police thrust themselves into violent encounters, and thus deserve a different moral & legal standard for their use of force than that we employ for civilians who are not necessarily looking for trouble, but find themselves in a violent encounter.

Police, by contrast, must defend the rule of law and in the process themselves. DR may not find self-defense a reasonable rationale for police use of force, but it is difficult at times for them to assert order without protecting themselves.

There is no doubt in my mind that sometimes the police conduct themselves as ruffians with impunity from the law and strike out against those they dislike or despise. What happened at Wisconsin - Madison in 1969, I believe, it was a police riot where they saw an opportunity to kick the shit out of some dirty hippies and took it.

Another incident that has been described as a police riot took place in San Francisco when the police brutally re-established order after the White Night riots. The gays were pissed and they rioted, the police from the entire Bay Area moved in and were pretty brutal in putting down the gay riot.

The question really is then how to distinguish the appropriate use of force. From a legal perspective the answer depends upon a review of the totality of the circumstances.

The police are an institution in our society and there is some much granularity looking at different crimes and different policing methods as well as the differences between geographical regions of the United States, that I think it's hard to generalize about police use of force.

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