Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle at work in Utah
In 1991 George Holliday videotaped some police activity occurring outside of his residence. After the tape was publicized, the ensuing events resulted in 53 people dead, $1 billion in property damage, and something of a revolution that became known as inverse surveillance.
During the incident that Holliday filmed, the police officers used a less-than-lethal weapon designed in the 1970’s by NASA scientist Jack Cover. The device was designed to subdue suspects without exposing the police to injury and with a greatly reduced risk of injury or death to the suspect. Recently Cover called the device, “…the single most important police device ever invented.” He named it after the weapon used by the hero of the 1911 boys’ adventure story, “Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle.”
The incident videotaped by Holliday was the arrest of Rodney King and the less than lethal device was the TASER. The original manufacturer of Taser went under after the King incident, but a new company was created around the turn of the century and Tasers are now standard issue to all street officers in every department that can afford them.
The instances of amateur, incidental, accidental and inverse surveillance video have mushroomed in the last twenty years. Broadband Internet has made sites like YouTube viable and extremely popular. Anybody can be a director of their own movies or an investigative reporter.
This is a major sea change for society as a whole and the police as an entity and individuals. The police have to get used to the fact that almost everything they do can be recorded and then broadcast to the world before the day is over. Individuals will have to think more about how their actions will be perceived when they can be seen by everyone on the internet. Citizens have to get used to seeing things that look a lot uglier than what they see on the average television police drama while understanding that ugly doesn’t necessarily mean wrong or bad.
Real police work is often ugly. Like it says in my byline “An ugly job, but it’s a living.”
There’s a YouTube video that has gotten over a million hits recently that deserves some attention and interpretation. The basic story here is that 28-year-old Jared Massey was driving on US 40 near Vernal, Utah back on September 14th. In his SUV were his pregnant wife Lauren and his young daughter. The video is from the dashcam of Utah Highway Patrol Trooper John Gardner, who pulled Gardner over for speeding in a 40-MPH construction zone. Massey made a complaint regarding Gardner’s actions to the UHP, but feeling that they were dragging their feet in the investigation of his complaint he filed a FOIA request for the dashboard video from Gardner’s car. He made the video public on YouTube.
As you saw in the video, the situation deteriorated into what we law enforcement professionals refer to by the technical term “a fucking mess”.
Massey, in the course of falling down due to electricity screwing with his gross motor skills, got a minor cut on his head. Since the video appeared on Youtube, Trooper Gardner has been the subject of numerous death threats. Although most of those seem to be from 14-year-olds (and those who think like 14-year-olds) commenting on Youtube. In addition, Massey got taken down to the jailhouse and Gardner’s conduct is being scrutinized by his agency.
There’s an old maxim in police work:
Your actions dictate my reactions.
Trooper Gardner started the traffic stop with a relatively friendly “how ya doin’” and a mention of the fact that Massey was going “kind of fast”. Then he asks for Massey’s DL and registration paperwork. Pretty much the standard, run-of-the-mill basic contact procedure for a low profile traffic stop. It happens the same way thousands of times every day across the United States.
As happens sometimes, Gardner finds that Massey is one of those people who want to argue and question the validity of the offense right there on the side of the highway. Dealing with one of those is not my idea of fun, but as long as you hand me the DL and other paperwork I’m happy and I’ll gladly explain exactly what it is that I thought you were doing.
Mr. Massey, it turns out, is more the type who wants to continue to argue and question and just ignore the lawful demand, albeit a fairly polite one, to fork over his license and registration. Trooper Gardner, who seems to be a little exasperated about the situation, repeats his demand and adds on a sharp “right now”. Massey seems to be simultaneously claiming that he was not in the 40-MPH construction zone until he passed Gardner while also wanting to know what speed he was clocked at.
Most of the rest of the initial conversation is drowned out by the noise of passing cars. However, it does appear that Massey continues to question and debate the validity of the traffic stop and the speeding allegation raised by the trooper. Gardner does not seem to have the patience of Job while dealing with Massey, and while I think he did try and explain the placement of the temporary speed limit signs, it sounds like he never told Massey what speed he clocked him at. There’s nothing really wrong with the latter, or being a little exasperated at being engaged in a meaningless debate, but I don’t think that Gardner did much in the way of giving Massey any assurances that Gardner knew what he was talking about. It’s a little thing, not of much significance, and I’m not sure if it would have done any good with Massey. But it made me think that Trooper Gardner’s communication skills were not at their best during this traffic stop.
The tape jumps a few minutes to the point at which Trooper Gardner has written the ticket and re-approaches Mr. Massey to finalize the incident.
Massey was under arrest the moment that Gardner pulled him over. Under normal circumstances Gardner would issue Massey a traffic citation that detailed the offense and when and where Gardner could appear to contest the charge of speeding. To make that happen all Massey had to do was formally acknowledge the fact that he had received that notice and knew that he was subject to later arrest if he didn’t comply with the appearance notice. When a violator refuses to sign the ticket the officer is forced to consider an arrest if he believes the violator’s intent is to blow off court. Letting a case go to warrant just means that somebody has to go find the guy and arrest him later – it is the police equivalent of leaving a mess behind for someone else to clean up.
Maybe Gardner didn’t do such a great job in explaining it to him, or maybe he did and Massey just didn’t want to listen. I can’t tell from the tape. But what I can tell is that when Massey hears Gardner saying he’s going to issue him a citation he starts to turn a minor legal problem into something more serious.
He starts telling the cop what he is going to do…
What you’re going to do, if you’re giving me a ticket… First of all you’re going to tell me why. Second of all, we’re going to go look for the 40-MPH sign.
Gardner, who can barely get a word in as Massey lays down his demands, tells him “you’re going to sign this first.” But Jerald just ignores all of that crazy talk and goes on to say “No I’m not. I’m not signing anything, officer”.
Ripping off a line from True Grit, I must say, that is mighty bold talk for a
one-eyed fat man who doesn’t have the keys to the handcuffs.
Reaction follows action and this is a point at which I am critical (or at least questioning) of Trooper Gardner’s actions. Sure, whenever somebody started talking like that to me I usually put my pen away because I wanted my hands empty when the bell rang and I found myself in the octagon at the UFC. But having this aversion to getting all grimy and dirty from wrestling in the street, or getting bo-bo’s on my body in case I wasn’t the victor, I would usually try to get compliance without being forced to resort to all of the manhandling stuff.
It doesn’t take much to get the message across, and I found you could even have a little fun with it. Of course I never had a dashboard camera so I could get away with a teensy bit of sarcasm:
“Look partner, you’re either signing the ticket or going to jail. Those are all the choices you get. I’m not Monte Hall and Jay Stewart is not about to tell you what’s behind door number three, because there is no door number three. But if you do decide you want to try for a different outcome other than the two I’ve offered, well, there is a jail ward at the county hospital where you can recuperate before trial. You have to decide and decide now – before I make the decision for you.”
There is one issue that I can only speculate about – could Trooper Gardner have just written “Refused To Sign” on the ticket and sent Mr. Massey on his way? The UHP Commissioner said that was an option, but he has been countered by the Utah Highway Patrol Association that cited state law and local court policy in claiming that the trooper had to book Massey into jail. If the trooper felt his hands were tied then it’s a moot point. But if he made the choice solely because he could, then it would make me lean more toward thinking that the trooper had a low tolerance for verbal bullshit. There was no indication that Massey was not going to go to court, just that he was going to be a pain in the ass about signing the citation. And I would be a liar if I claimed that I have never slapped cuffs on somebody who was pushing my buttons when I would have given an uncooperative but less abusive violator a “Refused To Sign” ticket. If Massey’s arrest was based on attitude, I would have to say that it doesn’t take much to push Trooper Gardner’s buttons.
But Trooper Gardner went straight from “Sign the ticket” to “Okay, hop out of the car”. What he meant, but never said was, “Okay, hop out of the car so I can take you to jail.” What was never said (or meant), but what Massey thought he meant was, “Okay, hop out of the car so we can talk about this.”
The trooper put his pen away and tossed his clipboard on the hood of his car as he was about to go for the cuffs. It is at this point in the video that you can see a completely clueless Jerald Massey walking up to the trooper to point to the speed limit sign he is talking about. The complete disconnection between the perceived realities of the two men is very apparent at that moment.
Massey, warming up to the great debate he is sure he will win, walks up behind the officer and starts to gesture toward the signs in question. He never looks at the trooper who is emptying hands in anticipation of handcuffing him. Gardner (who put himself in a poor tactical situation) is in full-blown arrest mode when he realizes that Massey is right on his ass and raising his arm. I think that Gardner misinterpreted Massey’s position and gesture as the opening bell in the 2007 Highway 40 Street Fighting Open.
Trooper Gardner could have done a better job in communicating what was going on to Massey, and that might have made the next few seconds different. Then again, Massey just might not have been in the mood to listen that day. We’ll never know.
And I’m not saying that Gardner did anything wrong other than a minor tactical glitch when he let Massey get right behind him. Other than that, he just handled things differently than I would have. That’s not to say my way would have worked either – I might have been so charming and sweet that Massey would sign the ticket and thank me – or I might have had to light him up like the White House Christmas Tree.
But I wonder if the Taser might not have played a role. I was trained on the first generation Tasers back in the mid-80s, and while I carried one for a few years I never had an occasion to use it outside of training. Not because I was opposed to using it – it’s just that we couldn’t carry them on our persons as you can the current models- and we had a few incidents of them failing to hold charges after they got older. That, and the fact that it’s design made it look like the love child of a Klingon disruptor and a cheap Radio Shack flashlight, meant that it was usually left on the front seat of the car. The result being that my use of force continuum went from verbal controls to hands or stick and then on to loud noises, muzzle flashes and nasty bullet wounds. I knew that if deadly force was not an option that it was either talk suspects into compliance or fight. There was no stand off and zap them capability readily available.
What I’m wondering is, does the relative safe deployment of a Taser – as compared to wrestling and trading punches – cause officers to not put as much effort in using verbal controls on uncooperative suspects. There is a big difference between “do what I say or I’m going to make you” and then hope you can back those words up, as opposed to “do as I say or I’ll zap you and make you cry for mommy” when you know you can make that happen.
Anyway, the reason why Massey got zapped and found himself calling for his mommy was because he ignored Gardner’s clear commands to comply, and then stuck his hands in his pockets. There’s not a cop in America who doesn’t get very nervous when a suspect puts his hands in his pocket. When an uncooperative suspect puts his hands in his pocket, especially after you’ve drawn a weapon on him, your mind immediately runs through the possible inventory of what might be in that pocket. I’m not talking bubble gum, condoms and car keys; I’m speaking of guns, knives, sharp rocks and all other kinds of bad things that can hurt me. If they had allowed me to keep all of the weapons that I dug out of suspects’ pockets (sometimes with they nasty little fingers all wrapped around them) I would be able to open a huge discount gun store. Albeit one chock full of mostly cheap and crappy guns.
Massey was obviously kind of freaked out, and why he acted the way he did that day is a mystery. His reaction to Gardner’s commands give credence to my belief that he was ignorant (or in denial) on the nature of the relationship with a police officer who has stopped him for a traffic violation. It is custodial in nature, and until the cop says “You’re free to go, sir”, a violator is not free to do as he pleases.
Up to that point where he went a little batty, Jared Massey was just acting like a somewhat deluded or arrogant dimwit who wasn’t cooperating. When he refused to obey commands, ignored the obvious attempt to secure compliance with the threat of force (pointed weapon that he thought was a firearm), and then turned to conceal one hand while simultaneously reaching in his pocket with the other…well, that was just incredibly stupid.
People have been shot in similar circumstances. But the Taser offers a whole different way to go. So, while it looked ugly, and maybe the officer could have prevented it from going as far as force being applied (as most certainly could the violator), it only resulted in pain and embarrassment as opposed to something far more permanent and tragic.
And isn’t that the reason why we give officers the Taser as an option?
As a postscript, I must give Jerald Massey due credit for comments he made after learning of the death threats made against John Gardner:
“I wish people would have some common decency every once in awhile. When I posted the video it wasn’t to vilify the guy, demean him or destroy him, and that’s one of the things I hate about this. I wish people would realize and think about this: Trooper Gardner is a real person, he’s got a real family. Real lives are being affected.
All we are trying to do is say maybe there is something as a public that we need to look at. I’m not going to say I’m 100 percent right about how I acted.”
While I still think that Mr. Massey conducted himself like a near idiot back on September 14th, I think his later comments prove that it’s not his normal character or demeanor. It appears that he is actually a decent gentleman who screwed up – it happens to all of us.