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An Arizona Sheriff Deputy's Abuse of a Quadruple Amputee Teen Highlights a Policing Culture That Must Change

Police departments can be a dangerous powder keg of racism, militarization, and resentment of the communities they are charged with serving.
Ezekiel Edwards,
Former Special Counsel,
ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project
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November 18, 2019

Inhumane. Cruel. Abusive. What other words could possibly describe a Pima County, Arizona Sheriff Deputy placing a 15-year-old quadruple amputee who posed no threat into a headlock and then pinning him to the ground at a group home? What if the Deputy then screamed at another teenager videotaping the abuse and yelled at him repeatedly “shut the hell up” and, “Am I your bitch?” before slamming the teenager’s head into the wall while handcuffed?

This is not another example of a police officer using far more force than necessary, though we have seen that story play out time and again. This is a police officer using abusive force when no force was required at all. This is about the notion, widely held by law enforcement, that cops should be overlords who demand respect and service from the community while being willing to physically and verbally threaten and punish anyone — including a child with no arms and legs to defend themselves — who dare challenge their authority.

While Deputy Manuel Van Santen’s behavior is shocking, it is an all too familiar occurrence. In the U.S., we have grown accustomed to videos of law enforcement abusing their authority and using force that is unreasonable and unnecessary. Police body-slamming a high school girl in a classroom in South Carolina because she wouldn’t leave the class. A cop handcuffing and arresting a 6-year-old in Florida for “acting out” in school. Arizona police officers pointing a gun at an unarmed pregnant mother and her children, while telling her that she is “going to fucking get shot” because her 4-year-old daughter allegedly took a doll from a dollar store. A SWAT team in Georgia tossing a flash-bang grenade into a crib with a baby sleeping inside.

This incident is at once stunning and symptomatic of a crisis in policing in America. In many counties, cities, and towns police departments are a dangerous powder keg of racism, militarization, and resentment of the communities they’re charged with serving. Combine this with a culture of impunity aided by insufficient legal standards, and decades of policies designed to harm communities of color and situations like the one in Pima County become commonplace.

From this noxious potion, we have seen a slew of harrowing episodes in which police shoot and even kill people, including people unarmed and attempting to comply. A man crying for his life and crawling on a hotel hallway floor as ordered, murdered by an Arizona cop brandishing a gun with the words “You’re fucked” written on the dust cover. Another murdered while reaching into his car for his driver’s license upon demand by a police officer in South Carolina. A father reaching for his driver’s license and registration when demanded while sitting in the passenger seat of a car in which a four-year-old girl was in the back seat in Minnesota.

Deputy Van Santen made the boorish statements so nonchalantly that it seems clear he did not consider it outside the norm for appropriate behavior. Both his attitude and language were well within what was deemed appropriate in the culture. This is the culture behind the slogan “comply, then complain.” It means shut the hell up, no matter what you see us doing, or you will get some too. That culture dictates that police don’t serve the community — they occupy it.  And if any of us dare to question or record them, while they physically abuse a child with no arms or legs, we will suffer the consequences.

This officer needs to be fired. But it is the culture of policing in America and in the Pima County Sheriff’s Department that must change. If you want to consider the officer a bad apple, just remember they don’t fall far from the tree.  And if we are not moved to action when a police officer chooses to “restrain” a person with no arms and legs in the way this officer did, while abusing another person trying to shine on a light on such violently abusive behavior, America is in even more trouble than we thought. 

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