Command Prompt

Radley Balko picks up yet another incredibly sad story borne of the inherent conflict between protect and serve out of Hillsborough County, Florida.  From the Tampa Bay Times:

Allen Daniel Hicks Sr., 51, was found stopped in his car on the side of Interstate 275 by a sheriff’s deputy and a Florida Highway Patrol trooper the morning of May 11, 2012. Passers-by had called 911 after they saw Hicks’ Chevy Cavalier swerving west into a guardrail, records of the incident show.

Speaking incoherently and unable to move his left arm, Hicks was arrested on a charge of obstructing a law enforcement officer when he did not respond to commands to exit his car. Just after noon, he was booked into the Orient Road Jail.

As police approached Hicks’ car on the side of the interstate, one of two things could have happened. They could have sought to determine if he was okay or the could have acted in a way that enforced the First Rule of Policing without regard to why a car was stopped on the side of the road. They chose the latter.

Police always invoke their “life and death decision-making” as a justification to cut them some slack in the performance of their duties. It’s a cop-meme upon which they can rely to rationalize a poor outcome from a wrong choice.  The approach to Allen Hicks’ car reflects the fallacy of the rationalization.

Hicks wasn’t approached because he was thought to be a bad guy, a criminal, a person who threatened anyone, police officer included, with harm.  He was there, on the side of the road, where he shouldn’t be in the ordinary course of affairs. Something was amiss. What that something was, however, was an unknown. 

Dealing with an unknown is very much a part of the police function, but that doesn’t turn every unknown into a threat to police safety and a violation of The First Rule. There was nothing about Hicks to suggest any threat to police. Rather, it was the initial choice made, to approach as if a threat existed and issue a command, that gave rise to a hostile and fearful attitude by police.

Lunsford and Guzman became worried when Hicks did not obey commands to show his hands and exit the car. Seeing that Hicks’ left hand was drooping into the side pocket of the driver’s door, the officers pulled their handguns.

Hicks still acted befuddled, saying to Lunsford, “that’s a 9-millimeter semiautomatic gun that you have,” the report states. After ascertaining Hicks was unarmed, Lunsford and Guzman pulled him out of the car through the passenger door and handcuffed him.

When an officer commands a deaf man to do something, he won’t comply. He can’t hear. There is absolutely nothing the deaf man can do about it, as not even the command of a police officer enables a deaf man to hear. He attempts to alert the officer to his inability to hear, which is later characterized as “erratic” or “threatening.”

The officer doesn’t “know” the man is deaf, and thus assumes the noncompliance to reflect a threat and challenge to the officer’s authority, which (as the officer is trained) is an intolerable situation that is most likely to result in harm befalling the officer. The officer acts upon the perceived threat. On a lucky day, the deaf man is merely tased, beaten and cuffed. On a bad day, he ends up like Hicks.

The initial perception that Hicks was, in some inexplicable way, acting criminally pervaded the perception of him in what followed:

Hicks did not receive a medical screening, but was put in a cell where he lay facedown on the floor or tried to crawl using the one working side of his body. On the night of May 12, soaked in his own urine, his brain choked of blood, he was at last taken to Tampa General Hospital and diagnosed with an ischemic stroke. He slipped into a coma and died within three months.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s office didn’t deny they blew it, and their failure resulted in Hicks’ death. It would have been hard (though not impossible) to do otherwise. They announced a plan to train their deputies better to discern the symptoms of a stroke.

But that covers a tiny aspect of what went horribly wrong here. They can retrain cops to be more aware of a stroke, or of a deaf person, or of mentally ill person, but they will never be capable of providing such exacting training for every ailment, situation, circumstance that life will put in their way. The fault isn’t lack of specific training to identify a stroke, but of the approach, the attitude, that every unknown is assumed to be a threat to their safety such that they will shoot first, tase first, beat first, arrest first, under The First Rule of Policing.

But what of their safety, you ask? Is it not reasonable for a police officer to operate under the default assumption that everything they don’t know constitutes a potential threat? Is it not reasonable for a police officer to ground his conduct in his desire to make it home that night unharmed?

Yes. And no. It is not unreasonable for a cop to want to live, and not want to risk his life. It is similarly not unreasonable for a deaf man or a stroke victim to want to survive.  It is not unreasonable for either to believe that being deaf or suffering a stroke will not result in their execution, whether quickly by bullet or prolonged by subsequent neglect. And if we’re forced to make a choice between who bears the risk of death, the risk must fall on the person who deliberately chose to wear a shield with the knowledge that he selected a job that was potentially dangerous.

Yet Allen Daniel Hicks Sr, is dead for nothing. Feeling badly about it afterward isn’t a solution. Neither is the money his family will get from the lawsuit. He should have lived.



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