One Schenectady man suffered a broken and dislocated arm for insisting on locking his door. Another ended up at Ellis Hospital with pepper spray in his eyes and a swollen, bruised knee for telling police that he had to turn off his oven.
Situations like these have become the most common cause of police brutality claims in Schenectady. Nearly half of the 100 cases reviewed by the Civilian Police Review Board each year involve suspects who were physically and painfully restrained when they felt they had legitimate reasons to ignore an officer’s commands.
“It’s probably every other case, the person felt justified leaving,” said Civilian Police Review Board member Fred Lee.
The number of resisting arrest complaints is so high that the review board is considering an educational campaign to teach people how to act while being arrested.
“We almost need a course in it,” Lee said. “It’s one of the things we talk about at the Review Board. It’s the job of the Civilian Police Review Board to educate the general public. And these cases, they’re often.”
The scenario begins with police arriving at a suspect’s home and interviewing him or her outside.
Eventually, police believe they have reason to make an arrest.
It’s at this point that some suspects begin to talk about their oven. Or the need to lock their door, call the baby sitter to watch the kids, pick up their wallet — the list goes on and on.
Just as they do in every case, police say no.
That’s when the fights begin.
It’s a case of mutual distrust — the suspect does not believe the officer is taking the situation seriously. The officer, in turn, does not believe the suspect has a legitimate excuse that warrants a delay.
“We have cases where they have gone in the front door and run out the back,” said Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett. “People have run into the house desperate and taken pills, grabbed a gun and killed themselves. Or they take someone hostage.”
Usually the suspect tries to escape, he said.
“But they can come back out with a gun or a knife,” he said.
So police are trained to never let the arrestee get away.
“The bottom line is, when police command you to do something, you have an obligation to do it,” he said.
But that’s not so easy when the suspect is worried about his dinner setting his house on fire.
“I asked to go back inside to turn off the oven,” said Justin Brown, who was arrested on a charge of sending a harassing text to an acquaintance.
“The officer said no, you’re standing here talking to me.”
Brown insisted. The officer told him to stay put.
“So I said, ‘I’ll be right back,’ ” Brown said.
As he remembers it, the officers reacted instantly.
They pushed him down and grabbed his arms, trying to handcuff him.
“I panicked,” Brown said. “I was like, ‘Get off of me!’ ”
He wrapped his hand around the front railing of his porch. Police pepper sprayed him, placed a boot on his head and handcuffed him as he sobbed and begged them to stop hurting him, he said.
It was, to him, a wholly unexpected reaction to a simple request.
But that’s only because he genuinely intended to turn off his oven, Bennett said. “They’re not looking at it from the police officer’s point of view. They know what their intention is, but the police officer doesn’t.”
He advised residents to obey police, submit to being handcuffed and then ask the officer to turn off the oven or complete any other necessary task to make their property safe while they are gone.
“Most cops, if it’s a matter of security of the home, they’ll get that done,” Bennett said. “They’re not unreasonable requests — once the situation is under control.”
But some say the police could defuse those situations by reassuring the resident immediately, rather than simply ordering them to stay put.
Lee said he’s seen police do that effectively.
“They say, ‘We’ll have plenty of time to take care of that,’ ” Lee said. “Very calming verbiage, I think that’s very important.”
That would have helped Michael Campo, who told police he simply wanted to lock his door before being arrested. He was charged with destruction of personal property for placing a former roommate’s belongings on the curb.
He said he would have been willing to let the officer close the door — but the officer refused to do it.
Campo was on his front porch, his door ajar behind him.
“I said, ‘All I have to do is just pull the door shut,’ ” Campo said. “He said, ‘No, you’re not.’ I said, ‘Excuse me, I’m protecting my belongings.’ ”
Campo grabbed his doorknob. The arresting officer grabbed him.
“He threw me down. Then he’s on top of me. He pulled my arm back. He dislocated and broke my arm,” Campo said. “Then I was handcuffed. There wasn’t anything I could do, and he had the nerve to take off my glasses so the pepper spray went into my eyes.”
Campo suspects the officer pepper-sprayed him to get back at him for a sarcastic remark. (The officer asked him if he was a smart-aleck. Campo admitted he said the officer wouldn’t be able to tell.)
The incident left Campo angry and less likely to trust police. Brown said he’s now afraid of police. Both don’t understand why police could not find some gentler way to arrest them.
But Lee said they could have avoided being pepper-sprayed and wrestled to the ground if they had understood how the arrest process works.
“Obey their orders. There will be plenty of time to talk about it afterward,” Lee said.
He wants to begin a class — perhaps at youth agencies — called “How to be Arrested.”
Without a class, Lee said many residents react naturally when they panic like Brown during an arrest.
“The big picture is, I think Americans really relish our freedom. We bristle at the thought of anyone saying we have to stop, that our freedom will be taken away, even if only for a moment,” Lee said. “That angers us.”
Campo filed a complaint in his arrest, and Brown is preparing paperwork to do so. In the meantime, Campo pleaded guilty to a lower charge of disorderly conduct.
Both men were also charged with resisting arrest. Campo’s resisting charge was dropped. Brown is awaiting a court date.