Confrontation in Cincinnati
The kinds of answers we get are almost always determined by the questions we ask. In the recent, tragic death of Nathaniel Jones of Cincinnati, Ohio, we appear to be asking the wrong questions.
To recap for those who may have missed it: Police were called to a Cincinnati fast food restaurant on a Sunday morning in early December after reports that a man who had passed out on the lawn outside had awakened and was making "a nuisance" of himself. (What one must do in Cincinnati to become a nuisance has not yet been defined, but that is another question.)
In any event, police arrived, and beat Jones to death with billyclubs. The county coroner later said that an autopsy of the 41-year-old Jones showed that he had an enlarged heart, suffered from obesity and had intoxicating levels of cocaine, PCP and methanol in his blood.
"Absent the struggle," the coroner said, "Mr. Jones would not have died at that precise moment of time." But while the beating led directly to Jones' death, the implication of the coroner's public statements was that the victim's health and stimulant conditions were the actual, inherent causes of death, with cardiac dysrhythmia being the immediate culprit.
What brought this case to national attention was the fact that the confrontation was recorded on a videotape camera mounted on the police cruiser. Within hours of the incident, the video was broadcast by television stations across the country; Rodney King, the Remix, over and over, its images imprinted on our brains in the sort of national, mass visual experience we've come to expect in these days of 24-hour-cable news.
With predictable reaction.
"The sight of police officers repeatedly beating Nathaniel Jones with metal night sticks is sickening and appears well outside of the norm for subduing an unarmed suspect," said NAACP president Kwesi Mfume.
"Why didn't they use a stun gun or other nonviolent means to subdue him? Police officers have options available to immobilize citizens short of death," said the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
"If proper procedure means that you can use that kind of force to clobber people repeatedly who are clearly disarmed, then there's something wrong with the policy," said Calvert Smith, president of the Cincinnati NAACP chapter.
"You don't keep beating on him; you give him a chance to surrender," said Ken Lawon, the Cincinnati attorney called in by the Jones family to represent them in the matter. "No-one is going to surrender as long as you keep slapping them across the head or body."
Referring to the 19 African-American men who have died in encounters with the Cincinnati Police Department in the past eight years, Malik Shabazz, the national chairman of the New Black Panther Party, charged the Cincinnati police chief with "running a criminal organization that has the blood of 19 black men on its hands."
To their credit, a number of African-American leaders and organizations called for an investigation into all of the circumstances surrounding Jones' death, including how police respond to citizens who may display symptoms of mental instability. But in the seductiveness of the video itself, those nuances were lost. And the problem is, by itself, the Nathaniel Jones video does not support a charge of police excess. Watch it yourself, in the quiet of your home, now that a little time has passed, and the emotion of the initial event has somewhat eased.
What the video shows is a large man (Jones was reportedly some 350 pounds) lunging at one police officer, swinging at him, and then attempting to collar him. Under those circumstances (and remember, we're considering only the video itself), the police response appears appropriate, and may be more properly be defined by what they did not do than what they did. The police did not pull out guns and shoot Nathaniel Jones. They did not strike him in the head with their clubs. Once Jones was on the ground, they did not kick him, nor try to raise up his head and strike it against something. Instead, they jabbed and beat him with billyclubs on his upper and lower torso until they were able to get him subdued.
Constantly replayed on camera, the scene is not pretty. But violence -- actual, real-world violence -- is never pretty. It doesn't play out in choreographed, slow motion artistry like a scene from "The Matrix." It doesn't come with music to identify the good guys and the bad, to cue us in on which side to take. The rebroadcast of real-life violence almost always appears thuggish and brutal and sickening, no matter which side you started out supporting. And so, if all we focus on is the image of the swinging clubs, the police officers will always come out wrong.
What may have provoked Jones' initial action to swing on the police officer is unclear at this time. The drugs in his system? Something the police did or said to him off-camera? Flashbacks from some past dealings with police? A trial may reveal this, but more likely, because Jones is not present to give his side, we simply may never know.
That leaves us with two questions to be answered. The first is directed at the African-American community in general and African-American leadership in particular: under the circumstances portrayed in the videotape -- and only the circumstances portrayed in the videotape -- what should we suggest that the police officers should have done? Some have said that the response should have been some form of "non-lethal" firepower such as tasers or rubber bullets or wooden dowels. But if Jones had died under that kind of firepower -- and his medical condition gives every reason to believe that this was a possibility -- would the reaction against the Cincinnati police from the African-American community been any less vehement?
Another popular answer is that the police should simply have backed off. But faced with Jones' attack on the officers, this is an answer that only says, "deal us out of this hand." It might have been an appropriate response from African-American leaders of a generation ago, in the days of Bull Conner and Sheriff Jim Clark, but not now. Though in many ways, police attitudes toward the black community have not much changed from those bad old days, still, there are African-American police chiefs and mayors and council members in cities across this country. Some of us have stepped into the Big House now, not merely as cooks and servants, but in positions of authority.
No. If we have a better plan, then some of us need to spell it out. How would we have been handled it, specifically, had we been the police officer dodging Jones' blow?
The second question to be answered -- this one to the population at large -- is, who should respond to reports of unstable citizens, and how?
Surveillance video released from the fast food restaurant where the altercation took place showed Jones dancing and marching around the restaurant and then the parking lot. Jones later reportedly fell outside, and rolled down a hill. That's when fire department paramedics were called. They found Jones acting in a manner that has been variously described as "strange" and "bizarre." Following standard procedure on situations somewhat out of their field of expertise, they called the police.
Police are trained (some better, some not so well) to subdue and arrest criminal suspects. Paramedics are trained to treat emergency medical victims. Neither seems capable of handling what appears to be a growing American social problem: the mentally unstable. Combine the rise of drug use with the explosion of the homeless population, add in President Reagan's emptying of the country's mental wards for the sake of some short-term savings, and you end up with a large number of odd-acting folks walking around our streets and other public places. Some mumble to themselves. Some shout. Others act aggressively towards others, or do other belligerent things. Are these people merely dancing to a different drummer, or are they actually threats, to themselves or to folks around them? Only professionals can tell.
Often, our responses to these people becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: the very presence of police officers may (and in this case, we must stress the may, since we're only speculating) have provoked Jones to a violent response, whereas his response to some other type of professional might have led to a less tragic result.
The problem is, we are asking police to do things beyond their field of expertise, and then offer criticism when they cannot perform what they have no training to do. We appear to have no middle ground to call upon, a professional force that can, on the street and in the heat of a confrontation, recognize the difference between mental instability and criminal intent and respond appropriately in either situation. Such a force is clearly needed.
So far, the death of Nathaniel Jones has led to a widening of the great rift between the police and the African-American community and their supporters, both in Cincinnati and in other parts of the country. His death might be an opening to solution for some enormous national problems. But only if we ask the right questions.
Jesse Douglas Allen-Taylor is a freelance writer living in Oakland, Calif.