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Breakdown: Does Video Show Reasonable Force or Not?

Breakdown: Does Video Show Reasonable Force or Not?

Video Screen Capture

February 10, 2011

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NEW BRUNSWICK – Before anyone gets any more exercised over a YouTube video that claims to “prove” a New Brunswick police officer brutalized a Rutgers University student: Watch the video yourself, preferably with the sound off. Read the state Attorney General’s guidelines on the use of force. Then decide for yourself.

On the YouTube video — titled “Rutgers student brutally beaten by NBPD” — a young man narrator provides “commentary” on the action, referring to the officers involved as “The Seven Dwarves,” only with names such as “Punchy” and “Batty.”

He even labels a screen shot.

Unfortunately, in a media-saturated world, this passes for “news.” It gets passed around, and people are influenced. And it’s not necessarily by what they see, but by what they hear a narrator say, as well.

“This is not what I do on a regular basis. I’m not, like, a professional criminologist or something like that. I’m a musician,” he says. He then notes that, at the end of the video, “I will provide links to some of my work, if you do actually want to see that….”


One of those links takes you straight to a collection of shots from behind of young women in various states of undress shaking their butts at the camera.

This from the self-appointed expert on reviewing a single-vantage-point videotape that, at its most critical moment, completely obscures 20-year-old Elliott Marx of Lindenhurst, N.Y., as a group of officers arrests him.

I’m not, like a criminologist or something like that. But I do know that one-two-three-four short-armed punches in rapid succession from an officer who is both kneeling and trying to hold a resisting suspect down with the other arm amounts to little more, physically, than getting whacked with a small stick.

The argument also could clearly be made that Marx was punched in the arm — not the face, as the narrator contends.

Another assumption might be that Marx was on his back. However, he’d actually been turned over and apparently was trying to tuck his arms beneath him in an effort not to be handcuffed.

That could account for the scratches that appear on his forehead in a photo released to the media. Being wrestled to the pavement because you won’t voluntarily go down when ordered to will do that.

But don’t take it from me.

“I was working the desk during this incident,” a dispatcher on duty said. “From everything I heard/saw that night, everything was by the book.”

Meanwhile, NJ.COM quotes Jon Shane, a retired Newark police captain who now teaches at John Jay College’s Department of Law and Police Science:

“The amount of force looks reasonable,” Shane said. While the student is on the ground, “he’s not in custody. Who knows what he’s doing or saying down there.” Officer didn’t know if the student had a weapon under him, he added. “You’re in grave risk of being harmed.”

Someone with a camera above the street made the video and posted it on YouTube. Next thing you know, it’s all over local television. Various copies were posted — including Stephan’s mini-analysis.

I am a HUGE fan of citizen journalism. I teach it, in fact. What I do not support is running, subjective commentary on what appears in a video.

Jamal Albarghouti, a graduate student at Virginia Tech, made history when he used his cellphone to capture footage of police officers responding to an on-campus massacre on April 16, 2007. The video literally speaks for itself. Albarghouti doesn’t.

In this case, Marx’s arrest followed a brawl — involving as many as 50 people — that continued even after police arrived and tried to break it up around 1 a.m. Saturday.

Police spokesman Lt. J.T. Miller said Joseph Keepers, 21, of Edison, was charged with disorderly conduct and released without bail.

Marx, meanwhile, was charged with resisting arrest, obstruction, aggravated assault on a police officer and possession of phony ID.

“He jumped on an officer’s back,” Miller explained.

His own attorney, in a rare type of disclosure, urged the public “not to prejudge the police officers or Mr. Marx."

NJ.COM reported that the lawyer said his client and Keepers were headed into a party when someone punched Marx in the face. Amid the melee that followed, Marx went after a man he only later discovered was a police officer, the attorney reportedly said.

Marx is free on $10,000 bail, pending further court action. Neither he nor Keepers filed a complaint with city police, said Miller, the department spokesman. Meanwhile, all of the officers in the video remain on active duty, he added.

The state mandates that police agencies investigate such incidents. So an Internal Affairs probe is under way. You can be sure the investigators will be looking closely at something neither you nor I have seen: The videos recorded by mandatory cameras mounted on the dashboards of police cruisers parked nearby. The overall picture will be fairly conclusive, I would guess.

Most sworn officers I’ve known have spoken of the responsibility that comes with the job. No matter what anyone may think, THEY understand that the use of physical force has to be only when necessary — otherwise, they will find themselves investigated by their agency’s Internal Affairs bureau, or perhaps even by a higher authority, including the federal government.

At a time in New Jersey’s history when their livelihoods literally are at stake, few — if any — are going to take a chance on a borderline action that could cost them their employment and pensions, not to mention a substantial payout in the event of a lawsuit.

That’s why there’s a special course at the various police academies statewide dedicated solely to the topic. That’s why police officers carry around a copy in their folders of the New Jersey Attorney General’s Guidelines on the Use of Force.

Only the narrator knows what he was trying to accomplish with his “dissection” of the video.

I say: Dissect for yourself:

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