Arkansas police officers suspended after a video shows brutal beating

Three police officers in Arkansas have been removed from duty after a bystander's video captured two of them brutally beating a suspect during an arrest. The incident is again raising questions about the use of force by police, when it's excessive and what can be done. Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of "The End of Policing,” joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Amna Nawaz:

    A new video shared widely online is raising questions once again about police use of force.

    Three law enforcement officers in Arkansas have been removed from duty after bystander video captured two of them beating a suspect during an arrest, while the third holds him down. Police said officers were responding to threats made at a convenience store in Mulberry, about 140 miles northwest of Little Rock. Authorities have not suggested that the suspect was armed. State police are now conducting an investigation.

    Now, it's a graphic video, so we are only showing a bit of it. As seen on social media, the 27-year-old man is pinned down, then punched and kneed repeatedly. Later in the video, his head seems to be slammed to the ground.

    The man was taken to a hospital and later arrested. This afternoon, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson criticized the officers' conduct.

  • Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R-AR):

    That is reprehensible conduct in which a suspect is beat in that fashion. We saw a glimpse of that. It is under investigation. We don't have all of the details.

    And, certainly, that suspect had a history of concern that was legitimate for the officers. But that — what that response was, was not consistent with the training that they received as certified officers with the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy. That will be investigated by the State Police.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Some reaction now to this incident and the larger questions around use of force.

    Alex Vitale is a professor of sociology and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of "The End of Policing."

    Professor Vitale, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thanks for being with us.

    I just want to ask you off the bat, what was your reaction when you first saw this video from Arkansas?

  • Alex Vitale, Brooklyn College:

    Well, it's obviously a deeply distressing example of police use of force.

    And, on the one hand, it's clearly a very high level of violence for what seems to be an overall not very threatening situation. But, on the other hand, part of a pattern we have seen of police use of force to manage situations where, in many cases, police just shouldn't be involved in the first place.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, based on what you know about police training — we should say there is a lot we do not know about the circumstances before the video.

    But, given what you know, are there circumstances under which this kind of use of force would be justified?

  • Alex Vitale:

    Well, some of it perhaps.

    But then, when we see the suspect on his stomach, with three officers on top of him, and then his head being bashed into the concrete, I think, by almost any measure, that's going to turn out to be an excessive use of force.

    But to use the baton — to use the hand strikes and the kicking is actually a kind of standard, trained set of procedures for managing a noncompliant suspect who's resisting arrest.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, videos like this continue to emerge. I can't tell you how many have shown up in my feed over the last several months. It's typically because someone sees it, pulls out their phone, and starts to record.

    And the worry then becomes, how many more incidents like this are not being captured or recorded? Is that a valid worry?

  • Alex Vitale:

    Well, I think we do have more detailed information about police-involved killings, when police kill someone.

    And the sad fact is, is that there has been no change in that number in the last several years. If anything, the number has gotten greater. So, despite several years of demands that police make reforms, reduce the levels of violence, American police continue to kill three Americans pretty much every day in the United States.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What about not lethal killing, though, when we're just talking about excessive use of force?

    I mean, the other thing I should raise is that body cameras have often come up as an argument that would help to hold police accountable and prevent those kinds of excessive uses of force. Have we seen that?

  • Alex Vitale:

    Well, unfortunately, we don't have good data on this. Police have consistently refused to report this data in a way that would allow us to make really good comparisons over time.

    What I think is pretty clear, though, is that body cameras have not been the kind of panacea that people thought they would be. Increasingly, we see officers either with their own body cameras or with someone filming them, the officers clearly aware, as they were in this case, that they were being filmed. And it just doesn't seem to make any difference.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, at the federal level, we should point out President Biden did sign an executive order this spring revising the use of force guidelines. But that's just for federal law enforcement, right? That does not apply to the some 18,000 police departments across America.

    So, when it comes to revising use of force guidelines, standardizing it in some way, having more accountability, how do you do that across all the nation's police departments?

  • Alex Vitale:

    Well, it's extremely difficult.

    We have over 18,000 independent law enforcement entities in the United States, overwhelmingly under local control. And what we have seen is that, even when these local forces do tighten their use of force guidelines, it does not produce the desired results.

    Minneapolis, in the wake of the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson, Missouri, did tighten up its use of force policies, added body cameras, created de-escalation training for officers, and it just did not matter when it came to the killing of George Floyd.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You mentioned George Floyd.

    And I think the big question is, if that killing wasn't a transformative moment, then what is? What will it take?

  • Alex Vitale:

    Well, I think there have been some changes in the direction that we were hearing demands for on the streets following the Minneapolis uprising. And that is a growing number of cities looking at ways of reducing the role of policing by creating new public safety infrastructures.

    I think there's some evidence in this case in Arkansas that this person was having a mental health crisis. And we know that between a quarter-and-a-half of all people killed by police in the United States are having a mental health crisis.

    And so a growing number of cities are creating new non-police crisis response teams that are integrated into 911 systems, and that gives them a better way to respond to these calls that doesn't end up resulting in this kind of high level of use of force.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Professor, is there a city you can hold up as sort of an example that provides a blueprint for other police departments?

  • Alex Vitale:

    Well, I think one city that's doing a good job on this specific kind of issue is Denver, Colorado.

    They recently created what they call the STAR program that has — that utilizes trained mental health and outreach workers to respond to mental health crisis calls, a homeless person in distress, maybe someone in distress related to a substance use. And this is producing very positive outcomes.

    The pilot program was so successful that Denver is radically expanding it. And we have new research that shows that there are actually crime reductions in the areas where these teams are operating.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Professor Alex Vitale of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College joining us tonight.

    Thank you for your time.

  • Alex Vitale:

    You're welcome.

Listen to this Segment