The University of Florida taser incident should lead to a broader review of protocols for speakers forum, both for the student group that sponsors them and for the campus police, which prides itself on its adherence to professional standards. But all universities—public and private—should be on notice.
I know I'm late to the party (I was on vacation when it happened), but there are some charity accountability issues surrounding the University of Florida town hall forum with John Kerry that resulted in the videotaped arrest & tasering of Andrew Meyer right there in the hall.
The event was sponsored by a student group called Accent, claiming to be the largest student-run speaker's bureau in the US (largest by what measure? and who is keeping track of this?) Accent's status as part of student government at a state university raises a tangle of free speech and oversight issues. University president J. Bernard Machen has appointed a task force to address three issues and make recommendation by the end of this year:
- Event policies (Accent and other campus operations)
- Codes of conduct for students, faculty, and visitors
- Issues of health, security and safety relating to the use of force, tasers in particular
On event policies, one of the many video takes of the tasering incident showed a person behind Mr. Meyer at the mic, first conversing with the police officers and then apparently signalling with agitation for his mic to be cut off as Mr. Meyer asked Mr. Kerry about his membership in Skull & Bones. Shortly thereafter the police step in. If, as seems likely, this individual was associated with Accent, it raises the obvious question of who this individual was (and whether he was a student or faculty member), why cutting off the mic alone was not sufficient, much less why the questioner was not simply allowed to complete his run of rambling questions.
On the use of tasers, it turns out that this is not the first tasering by police on a state university campus that made its way to YouTube. Last fall, a UCLA student was tasered after failing to produce student ID in the library (required for individuals in the library after 11 PM). (Here's the story in the Daily Bruin by Sara Taylor.)
What these two incidents suggest to me is a surprising insensitivity of state university police to the impact of the use of tasers in an academic environment with numerous uninvolved bystanders—with video cameras.
The University of Florida has a policy on the use of force which appears to be based on the standards set by an accrediting body, the Committee on Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies (EIN 54-1163134 Form 990). But the standard is not that specific on what intervention is appropriate in a circumstance like this:
The officer should strive to use the minimal amount of force necessary to effect control over a subject. The officer should begin with the lowest level practicable and escalate only after meeting with increased resistance from the subject. As an individual increases his/her resistance level from verbal to physical, an officer may have to increase the level of his/her defensive response until the resistance ceases and the officer is able to regain control. As soon as the point of subject compliance is reached, the officer must de-escalate his/her response level to the minimum defensive action necessary to control the subject.
There is also a list of factors that an officer should consider in determining the level of force:
(1) Seriousness of the crime committed by the subject;
(2) Size, age, and weight of the subject;
(3) Apparent physical ability of the subject;
(4) Subject's medical conditions, mental state and influence of alcohol or drugs;
(5) Number of subjects present who are involved, or who may become involved;
(6) Weapons possessed by or available to the subject;
(7) Known history of violence by the subject;
(8) Presence of innocent or potential victims in the area;
(9) Whether the subject can be recaptured at a later time;
(10) Whether evidence is likely to be destroyed.
What strikes me about both the University of Florida and UCLA incidents is that the escalation to the taser level involves a leap in response level that is not warranted by application of these standards—the seriousness of the crime (if there was one when the police first stepped in), the apparent physical ability of Mr. Meyer or his mental state, his lack of weapons, and obvious passivity of the bystanders (which others have noted).
One cause here may be that the university police in Florida seek accreditation from the organizations that review regular police forces. It would seem more appropriate for university police forces nationwide to establish their own accreditation standards, or at least to have their own supplemental standards for dealing with campus situations. The Florida task force is looking for models (so called best practices) from other universities. But this shouldn't be a short term task force project, it should be an ongoing process that requires ongoing, sector-wide participation.
Another observation is that the university police organization chart suggests a structural origin to the problem. Note that the special event security is placed under support services, right next to parking enforcement. In some respects it would make more sense to put special event security under patrol operations, in recognition of the fact that special events are more likely to generate situations that require good training in interpersonal intervention (not that parking violations are completely exempt from that potential!)