May 20th, 2009
10:26 PM ET

Undue force – or necessary dirty work?

Video of the car chase and police striking the suspect.
Video of the car chase and police striking the suspect.

Gene O'Donnell
John Jay College

The soundless video shows several police cars trying to pull over Anthony Shannon Warren's van. It shows him putting innocent people at risk–including police.

Was Mr. Warren trying to run down the officer he swerved toward and struck while the officer was placing spike strips on the road? As a former police officer and prosecutor, I believe the evidence shows he was. The pursuing officers were close and had a clear view of him apparently trying to kill a uniformed colleague.

It would be interesting to hear the police radio transmissions to understand the limits of what the cops knew and what was in their minds. Whether captured on audio tape or not, the cops are probably wondering why this man seems so desperate to avoid capture. Is he wanted? Armed?

The driver's utter disregard for the safety of innocent motorists and pedestrians suggests that if they catch up with him, he will not acquiesce. How much force will they need to use on him? At significant risk to themselves, the cops manage to bump him off the road causing his vehicle to overturn and Mr. Warren to be ejected.

At that moment, Mr. Warren appears almost lifeless. Is he? Are there any other situations the cops deal with in which a seemingly lifeless person ends up killing or injuring someone? Absolutely.

A crucial police academy training exercise involves teaching cops how to approach someone they've just shot. After a careful approach the suspect, though grievously wounded, should be handcuffed. This is based on previous scenarios in which wounded people, sometimes in their dying moments, harm or even mortally wound officers.

Officers strike Mr. Warren over approximately 10 seconds. Then, almost in unison, the cops retreat, seemingly satisfied that he is in fact not a danger to them.

Did the officers strike the injured Mr. Warren believing he could be a threat or was this a punishment beating? Perhaps they are the only ones who know for sure. But based on police pursuit history, officers - and police supervisors - have to do everything they can to limit the amount of force used to arrest the offender and defend themselves, particularly when a colleague has been injured or the chase itself has put the officers at great risk.

Emotions run high at such times. The cops have to try to control themselves. The greatest complicating factor is that, at the end of the day, though the cops get a bunch of tools and training to help them do their job, they cannot ditch the imperfections and passions of their humanity, and they do not enjoy extra-human abilities to divine the exact moment when a resistant suspect decides to comply.

Three quick points:

- The Birmingham police department should indicate whether this chase accords with department policy. In most American cities, police will not pursue for all but the most serious crimes. There is just too much at stake and too many examples of chases ending with lethal results for the chased, the cops and innocent folks.

- Then there is the reality that more and more police work is being brought into American living rooms thanks to ubiquitous surveillance equipment. Hopefully, people will have a better understanding that using force on people is a core function of police work that differentiates their jobs from civilian occupations. Perhaps this will make Americans leery about involving the police in so many areas of domestic life. And policing too often continues to be a hot button topic that allows us to glimpse larger issues of race relations.

- Finally, will police chiefs and mayor's have the stomach needed to defend police operational judgments even when the actions of officers "look bad"? We are starting to see police chiefs quickly weigh in on controversial police videotapes even before officers have a chance to defend themselves. The nation as a whole seems to be driven more by the visceral, and less by the contextual, with snap judgments being offered up about the good guys, the bad guys and the victims.

We will all ultimately be in deep trouble if the first question at police headquarters and city halls becomes, "What are the political implications for the chief and the mayor?" These events have to be looked at through the eyes of the officers on the ground and it would be nice for some public officials to take responsibility for their police while acknowledging that the cops are out there often doing our dirty work for us.

soundoff (21 Responses)
  1. karen

    This criminal tried to run over a police officer.even if he "didnt" see the officer, he had no regards for the life of that police officer or any other driver on the road. Granted the officers may have been in the wrong, but I have NO sympathy for the low life..crimanals already have more rights than victims or anyone for that matter and more luxuries....NO sympathy for them!

    May 22, 2009 at 11:05 am |
  2. Max

    I don't think the cops made any mistake. What if the guy was playing dead? The officers roughed him up a bit then stopped when they realized the guy was unconscious. Those officers did a good job. Remember this guy tried to run over a cop. What if he succeeded? would they be fired for using a little force?

    May 22, 2009 at 2:38 am |
  3. Pete

    The first cop was a real dumb fool.
    He ran, slipped and fell and then just began to beat the perp like this was a personal vengance. And the other fools joined him in mob mentality. Where do you hire these jerks from.
    No wonder people lose their faith in the system. The Police chief had a lot of gall to fire all 5 morons. If I was in his place I would make sure they get indicted and prosecuted to the fullest extent of law. Regardless of what the perp did, they had no right (and this is one against 5 armed jerks) to treat the criminal in the way they did.

    May 22, 2009 at 1:31 am |
  4. Scott

    Anderson, that teacher was terrible and should be removed from his position. This guy is teaching future police officers?!? Very scary. You should have pushed harder on him instead of letting him repeat the same stupid explanation over and over again.

    May 22, 2009 at 1:08 am |
  5. Gee- NJ

    Just because this guy 'teaches' at John Jay should NOT give him legitimacy. He's a former cop supporting other cops. Yes, adrenaline is rushing but law enforcement is TRAINED to be PROFESSIONAL – not react with that visceral response Mr. O'Donnell refers to.

    May 21, 2009 at 10:24 pm |
  6. Gerry Arbios

    When I saw this segment on TV, I was shocked. When O'Donnell was speaking, I could feel my anger rising...and this guy teaches at a college. How can anyone in a civilized society say it was necessary to beat an unconscious man? His justifications were really lame. I think the college should rethink his employment, and I also think the criminal justice system needs to take a good hard look at itself. –GA

    May 21, 2009 at 8:48 pm |
  7. G.Yost

    Since 9/11 and the Patriot act police are like this everywhere. They act as if they are above the law. There should be no high speed chases risking innocent lives. Over 70% of all officers are overweight, out of shape and fail to do their real job of serving and protecting. These officers are a small example of what happens all over the country. In North Carolina you can speed all you want as long as you have your seat belt on.. All the small communities and rural roads are race tracks around here. Officers spend more time looking for free wi fi areas than doing their job.. It's a real shame but the reality is that it's going to get worse..

    May 21, 2009 at 11:06 am |
  8. gary f

    Of all the reporters out there to watch I had the highest respect for you until last night. You should go work on the view if you’re not going to ask the hard questions. That guy from John Jay College was a joke and you gave him a free pass. What are you afraid of? John Jay College should look into this mans teaching methods. It’s clear to me he doesn’t understand the law s of this country.

    May 21, 2009 at 11:05 am |
  9. charles l

    ANDERSON, i'm a bit upset with you about the interview you had with the guy from john jay college last night. there's no justification for what happen, you should have really went after that guy, but you gave him to much time to say nothing. he needs to be fired from teaching anything, especially law enforcement

    May 21, 2009 at 10:43 am |
  10. randall williams

    MR. Anderson , i have watched this video over and over again and i have a question and i really do need someone to answer for me . if and when someone is breaking the law , no matter what they are doing or what they have done ,they are breaking the law and do we or do we not have a court of law that will allow lawyer's, prosecutor's, jurors and judge's to their job according to the law's of the land and the Constitution of these United States and if this is to be true ,then tell me how is it that law enforcement are allowed to take the law into their on hand,s and become the prosecutor without the judge and the juror? If the police are going to be able to continue in this way ,then people who break the law and are brutalised by the police ,then that should be their punishment and they should be released fore they have already been punished at the hand's of the police . they are being punished twice and i thought that was illegal.

    May 21, 2009 at 10:37 am |
  11. Teresa, OH

    ^5 for the police chief signing the termination papers: IT IS WHAT IT IS. You said it all: "we wont hide it, we wont DEFEND IT." Chief Roper, you did the RIGHT THING. The first cop should have put the perp in handcuffs. There should have been no beating on the guy. Mob mentality here. Dude wasn't even moving. I was wondering where that last cop was going as he ran back to the cop car.... was he running to turn off the camera?

    I am not so sure that the perp saw the cop w/ the spikes either. It looked as if he was swerving around the one car and trying to restraighten his vehicle into the lane he wanted.

    Either way, he needs jail. But he didnt need beat up like that.

    I guess 5 more guys are gonna be on unemployment now, huh?

    May 21, 2009 at 10:33 am |
  12. mark

    funny how all who commented are so sure of their positions. there was an hour of unseen video tape. whether or not one agrees with the NY cop who gave possible explanations, those explanations were plausible. that is not to say he was correct, merely that he had a reasonable point of view. a full examination of the situation probably will expose many gray areas.

    May 21, 2009 at 10:25 am |
  13. James

    The perp did not see the cop. His van was directed in the cop's direction by contact with the car on his left.

    May 21, 2009 at 9:32 am |
  14. David

    I think that the police was dead wrong on this. This man is not moving and they beat him up because they are mad. I think cops take the law to far and hide behind it in hope that they can do what they want at anytime.

    May 20, 2009 at 10:52 pm |
  15. Jatovi, NC

    There was no reason for the officers to do what they did. The guy was not moving, the cops were not checking for his hands, and the reason they left is that the realized they were being recorded.

    May 20, 2009 at 10:51 pm |
  16. Dave

    Its pathetic they should be fired,,,, you can see the first cop just hit him with such force he fell back,and the third one down knocked another cop out of the way and just wailed on his head ,, no way you could see the guy was out cold ,,good choice to fire them

    May 20, 2009 at 10:50 pm |
  17. Angela

    How can that police trainer say the officers had the right to get physical with a suspect who was clearly unconcious, just because the suspect ALMOST hit another officer? I think there is something wrong when actions are taken against the officers but it is still being condoned.

    May 20, 2009 at 10:50 pm |
  18. Adi

    You should have asked the officer if HE actually thought that the officers in the video were attempting to restrain, subdue, etc. or they were acting out of anger and emotions?

    May 20, 2009 at 10:50 pm |
  19. Joe Laman

    This is called police brutality. NO doubt. They should be prosecuted with severe sentences.

    May 20, 2009 at 10:50 pm |
  20. David C

    The guy tried to run over an officer! He got what he deserved.

    May 20, 2009 at 10:50 pm |
  21. Steve, NYC

    This so called police "trainer" obviously needs more training himself. When beating an unconscious man constitutes the definition an appropriate use of force, it is time that we started mandating better training for our police officers. If an officer cannot handle the "adrenaline rush" then perhaps they should pursue another career. Not only should these officers be fired, they should be prosecuted!

    May 20, 2009 at 10:48 pm |