Friday, February 13, 2015

In the Matter of Sureshbhai Patel

This one's getting a bit of notice:

In response to a non-emergency call from a neighbor regarding the sighting of a "real skinny black man wearing a toboggan on his head" walking in an upscale Alabama neighborhood, two officers and then another approach a man named Sureshbhai Patel walking on the sidewalk on the street in question and attempt to engage him in conversation so as to determine his origin, purpose and intent. The 57 year old man who apparently understands very little English indicates that he is from India, and he doesn't understand much else that the police officers want from him. He is repeatedly ordered not to walk away, but he attempts to step back from the officers nevertheless.

As an officer holds the man's hands behind his back and attempts to pat him down for weapons or contraband or who knows what, the man takes a step away and the officer, named Eric Parker, throws him violently to the ground, breaking his neck. Paralyzed, Mr. Patel cannot rise or respond to officers' commands from that point onward, and yet the officers continue to badger him with questions and orders and toss his limp body around like a rag doll.

They do not offer of first aid of any kind but they do apparently handcuff his limp body "just in case" and call for emergency medical attention.

While initially defending the actions of his officers it soon enough became apparent to the police chief that this was a "misunderstanding," and Mr. Patel, grievously injured, was inappropriately controlled or neutralized. He had done nothing wrong or illegal, he was not a threat to anyone, not even himself, and the officer in question had overreacted. An apology was offered Mr. Patel's family and the officer was suspended, then fired and arrested on charges of assault.

Mr. Patel had recently arrived from India and was staying with his son and family in the neighborhood, looking after his grandson and probably helping out as needed around the house. In the mornings, he took a walk as is common among middle aged and elderly men from India  -- as I've seen myself many times in California's Central Valley. There is nothing unusual about it, certainly nothing threatening about it. Walking is good exercise and clears the mind.

While there was nothing unusual about Mr. Patel or his actions that morning, a neighbor called the police non-emergency number to report what he believed was a suspicious stranger in his neighborhood, a real skinny black man with a toboggan on his head, walking along and looking into garages and what not, and giving his wife the heebe-jeebes. He wanted the police to check out this stranger, and dispatch was made.

When the police arrived and challenged the man, the encounter seemed fairly cordial (there is a longer video at the website which documents the encounter from the beginning) but Mr. Patel clearly does not understand what the officers want from him and he is unable to comply with the officer's commands -- to produce ID, state where he lives, account for his presence in the neighborhood, etc. He establishes right away that he is from India, however. He is not a "real skinny black man with a toboggan on his head," he is  (East) Indian, probably a Hindu, out for his morning constitutional, and that's really everything the police need to know. His presence in the neighborhood should not need an explanation.

The upscale neighborhood in question is Madison, which is suburban Huntsville. Huntsville, AL is the home of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and a thriving center of advanced research and development. Mr. Patel's son works full time in the Huntsville area as an electrical engineer and was studying for his master's degree prior to the birth of his son. East Indians are hardly strangers to the area or to the space program, but at this point, given what happened to his father, Mr. Patel's son wonders if moving to Madison, where he thought his family would have a better quality of life, was a mistake. 

He's sued the Madison police department, and so far, the GoFundMe campaign on his father's behalf has raised over $88,000 to help cover medical expenses.

This incident is an example of police on a power trip using their power and authority against the most vulnerable -- because they can, and because they will almost always get away with it. In this instance, Officer Parker was training a rookie and probably wanted to show how to control a non-compliant offender. The fact that they were responding to a suspicious person call, and the man they stopped to question was non-compliant with the officer's orders (irrelevant at the time whether he understood) was sufficient for Officer Parker to make the split-second determination that Mr. Patel was an offender who had to be controlled using what the officer considered to be appropriate force -- ie: taking him down to the ground.

The move used was one you often see employed at police academies. You certainly see it in video after video of police take-downs. While it can result in injury, it usually doesn't result in severe injury. It appears that Mr. Patel sustained severe injuries to his neck and spine when his face and head hit the grass covered rise that he was thrown down on. Had the surface been flat and padded (as is the case in police academy takedowns) Mr Patel might have sustained only minor injuries.

As it was, his injuries were severe enough to induce immediate paralysis which was exacerbated by the officers' attempts to get him to stand and walk and otherwise tossing him about.

The officers made no attempt to render first aid or to lay Mr. Patel flat and stable. While every police officer in the land has been trained in first aid and many are certified EMTs, I have never seen a police officer render first aid to an individual s/he or a colleague has shot or assaulted no matter the apparent gravity of the injuries. I have seen them prevent emergency aid by others -- even fire department EMTs. This seems to be a protocol -- one that is not announced to the public. Police officers are not to render first aid to those they or their partners or colleagues have shot or assaulted, and they are to prevent others from rendering aid until and unless they declare the scene "safe and secure." By that time, of course, the victim may be dead, but oh well.

In fact, it is this typical and casual disregard for human life by police in so many circumstances that has raised the hackles of so many people. The officers are often blamed personally for this behavior, but it is obviously policy, one the public is unaware of.

Policies are not law. They can be changed by fiat by the police chief. Police disregard of human life is protected by law, but it is not required by law. Policies enable -- and sometimes require -- such callousness, however, and that is what can be and needs to be changed forthwith.

It won't be, of course, but the mounting chorus of protest has already had an effect, and as the various threads of protest and response are woven together, policies will change despite the resistance of police unions, city managers, and police captains.

The current level of police violence in this country cannot be maintained.

Here's wishing Sureshbhai Patel a full recovery and an end to police killing and violence.

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