Coming in the heels of the recent street riots that erupted over the failure to indict of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson who gunned down Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager who happened to be black, another grand jury voted not to indict Daniel Pantaleo, a New York Police Department (NYPD) police officer accused of fatally applying a supposedly banned chokehold on Eric Garner, who, as it turns out, is also black.
Observers, however, point out that Americans really aren’t in any position to be indignant about police practices considering that the United States suffers among highest crime rates in the First World. A virtually irrevocable gun culture continues to prevail in Amercian society and the US, almost rightly so, is often described as a country of fearful affluent people thanks to many reported incidents of random acts of deadly violence often involving firearms. Many victims of such vicious and barbaric attacks are innocent American school children. Police officers are often caught in the middle having to deal with a tangle of guidelines that govern the use of deadly force when faced with situations that pose a threat to their own lives.
But the illegality of the chokehold applied by Pantaleo on Garner leaves very little to debate. On the 17th July 2014, Eric Garner, a 350-pound, 43-year-old, 6’3″ tall, asthmatic African American man, was approached by a plainclothes police officer, Justin Damico, in front of a beauty supply store at 202 Bay Street in the Tompkinsville neighborhood in Staten Island. After telling the police officers, “I was just minding my own business. Every time you see me you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops today!” Garner swatted their arms away, saying, “Don’t touch me, please.” He was then put in a chokehold or headlock from behind by officer Pantaleo, in order to be subdued. While Garner repeatedly stated he was not able to breathe, other officers struggled to bring him down onto the sidewalk and have him put his arms behind his back. The video shows officer Pantaleo using his hands to push Garner’s head down into the sidewalk. Garner died a few minutes later.
In comparison, the shooting of Brown by Wilson in Ferguson is far more contentious as current US law gives police wide latitude to use deadly force…
Deadly force is justified if the officer reasonably believed at that moment that he or others were in imminent danger, and it doesn’t matter whether any danger actually existed.
That Washington Post report continues: “The law’s recognition of the police officer’s perspective in shootings is echoed in a favorite saying among police: ‘Rather be judged by 12 than carried by 6’.” Like Garner, Brown is also a large 300-pound man.
The appallingly fatal consequences of police officers failing to come in hard with firearms drawn and ready to fire was on display to the world in the 2010 bus hostage crisis in Manila, Philippines that claimed the lives of nine Hong Kong tourists. Assaulting personnel from the Manila Police were seen in news footage cowering underneath the bus while a lead officer clumsily hammered at the door with a sledgehammer. British security analyst Charles Shoebridge observed at the time how “[the police] acted as 99% of the population would have, which was to turn round and get out. They didn’t seem to have the necessary determination and aggression to follow the attack through.”
It is interesting that many who are admirers of countries with very low crime rates fail to recognise the cost such society’s often have to live with in order to enjoy that security. Police forces in many other countries are not as reluctant to apply deadly force in the course of their work. In other countries, laws are harsh and their application in sentencing often unreserved.
Singaporean law, for example, allows caning to be ordered for over 30 offences, including hostage-taking / kidnapping, robbery, gang robbery with murder, drug abuse, vandalism, rioting, sexual abuse (molest), and unlawful possession of weapons. Caning is also a mandatory punishment for certain offences such as rape, drug trafficking, illegal money-lending, and for visiting foreigners who overstay their visa by more than 90 days (a measure designed to deter illegal immigrant workers).
A rattan cane four feet (1.2 metres) long and half an inch (1.27 cm) thick is used for prison and judicial canings. It is at about twice as thick as the canes used in the school and military contexts. The cane is soaked in water beforehand to make it more flexible and prevent it from splitting during use. The Prisons Department denies that canes are soaked in brine, but has said that the cane is treated with antiseptic before use to prevent infection. A lighter cane is used for offenders aged under 18. Men who have been caned before described the pain they experienced as “unbearable” and “excruciating”. A recipient of 10 strokes even said, “The pain was beyond description. If there is a word stronger than excruciating, that should be the word to describe it”
While most caning offences were inherited from British law, the Vandalism Act was only introduced after independence in 1966, in what has been argued to be an attempt to suppress the activities of opposition political parties in the 1960s because their members and supporters vandalised public property with anti-PAP graffiti. Vandalism was originally prohibited by the Minor Offences Act, which made it punishable by a fine of up to S$50 or a week in jail, but did not permit caning.
Michael Fay is an American who briefly gained international attention in 1994 when he was sentenced to caning in Singapore for theft and vandalism at age 18. Although caning is a routine court sentence in Singapore, its unfamiliarity to Americans created a backlash, and Fay’s case was believed to be the first caning involving an American citizen.
The official position of the United States government was that although it recognized Singapore’s right to punish Fay within due process of law the punishment of caning was excessive for a teenager who committed a non-violent crime. The United States embassy in Singapore pointed out that the graffiti damage to the cars was not permanent, but caning would leave Fay with physical scars.
Then-U.S. President Bill Clinton called Fay’s punishment extreme and mistaken, and pressured the Singaporean government to grant Fay clemency from caning. Two dozen U.S. senators signed a letter to the Singaporean government also appealing for clemency.
The Singaporean government pointed out that Singaporeans who break the law faced the same punishments as Fay, and that Singapore’s laws had kept the city free of vandalism and violence of the kind seen in New York. The Straits Times criticized “interference” by the U.S. government and found it surprising that the President had found time to become involved, given the various foreign-policy and other crises it was facing. The number of cane strokes in Fay’s sentence was ultimately reduced from six to four after U.S. officials requested leniency.
The trouble with these recent “police brutality” cases gripping the United States is that the race card is being played copiously and, as expected, emotional responses are the rule du jour which further clouds efforts to approach these with a rational mind.
[NB: Parts of this article were lifted from the Wikipedia.org articles “Caning in Singapore” and “Michael P. Fay” in a manner compliant to the terms stipulated in the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License that governs usage of content made available in this site. Photo courtesy ABC.net.au.]
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