A growing dispute over how police officers can best subdue persons high on the drug PCP erupted into the public spotlight recently when a D.C. Superior Court jury decided the city must pay $400,000 in damages in one such case.
The award was for the widow of a man who was shot and paralyzed three years ago by a D.C. police officer. The man, who had been creating a disturbance while high on PCP, later committed suicide.
In reaching its decision last month, the jury sided with those criminologists and behavioral experts who say police too often provoke violent responses from individuals who are deranged by drugs or mental illness. Soothing words, these experts say, would be more effective in bringing the persons under control.
But law enforcement officials say the superhuman physical strength and tolerance to pain that PCP precipitates in many users causes bizarre actions, which cannot be anticipated and may imperil the user, officers and bystanders.
Generally advising a "safety in numbers" approach, area police officials recommend calling in as many officers as needed to restrain the person, yet they disagree on how that should be accomplished. Some jurisdictions turn to state-of-the-art technology with "Taser" guns that immobilize a person with an electric shock.
Police in Montgomery County are trained to use physical force to overpower a person berserk from drugs or mental illness; Fairfax County police sometimes use a Taser.
The District's police department, which has not previously provided training for officers in methods of handling PCP users, plans to establish a program -- but officials there are not yet sure what to teach.
They are certain it is a problem that will not go away: Over the past two years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of persons arrested in this area who were under the influence of PCP, or phencyclidine, a potent animal tranquilizer that is often available illicitly and is known as "lovely" or "love boat."
"I was frankly shocked that the police force in the nation's capital doesn't have any procedures to handle somebody who is mentally deranged," said George Kirkham, a Florida State University criminology professor who testified in the shooting case in D.C. Superior Court. "I think this officer's conduct was basic training in how not to do it."
Many police officers disagree, saying that their basic mission is to use whatever means are available to protect their lives, as well as the lives and property of others.
"I think that that kind of clinical and classroom kind of response is typical of professors who aren't police officers," said Gary Hankins, chief of the bargaining unit for the D.C. Fraternal Order of Police. "If we're going to be sued anyway, let's be sued for preventing injury to an innocent person, rather than letting an injury occur."
The recent jury verdict arose out of an incident three years ago when officer Norman I. Bell, a 10-year veteran who had never fired his service revolver in the line of duty, responded to a report of a domestic disturbance in the 1800 block of Jackson Street NE.
There, Bell found Raymond Peters, a 25-year-old soldier on Christmas leave from the Army, holding a large walking stick and confronting a motorist, who wielded a nightstick.
Bell ordered both men to drop their weapons. Peters refused, and a scuffle began. Bell said Peters hit him in the arm with the stick and kicked him in the stomach. Bell, who said he feared he would faint from the blows, drew his revolver and shot Peters once in the back.
Peters, who was paralyzed from the chest down, was later convicted of assaulting a police officer in the incident. He committed suicide last year, and his widow claimed that Bell and the city were responsible, contending that the city had inadequately trained Bell to respond to a drug-deranged suspect. The jury agreed and awarded her $400,000.
The verdict followed an incident this year in which a murder suspect high on PCP died of cardiorespiratory arrest after he was physically subdued by several officers.
U.S. Attorney Joseph E. di Genova questioned the use of force in the incident, and assistant D.C. police chief Marty Tapscott recently said, "Perhaps what we need to do is look at how we can counter this violence, short of using force."
Hankins and many others maintain that officers must be allowed to use their discretion in the field.
"Each situation has to be treated separately," said Thomas Shaw, director of the Northern Virginia Criminal Justice Academy, which trains police for Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria.
Officers there, Shaw said, are taught to bring in as much manpower as they think they will need in cases of suspects gone berserk. "It can take two or three officers to restrain the individual," he said.
Trainees are instructed in a number of routine defensive holds. Instructors "basically show the officer how to use leverage on a suspect, preventing him from harming himself or the officer."
Fairfax, in 1982, purchased the electronic Taser weapon specifically with drug-crazed suspects in mind, although it has been used infrequently. The District also purchased several Taser weapons three years ago, but they are not widely available to officers, said Hankins.
Training in Montgomery County focuses on physically overpowering PCP users, said Sgt. Alfred Dooley, head of physical training at the county police academy.
Montgomery police are taught a combination of wrist, arm and neck holds and use of a nightstick to break a suspected PCP user's legs, Dooley said.
"We tell them they don't have any more right to shoot someone on PCP than anyone else," said Dooley. "Just because the person's on PCP, it doesn't give any more leeway on using deadly force."
"But, once anybody's brandishing a weapon at a police officer, arm locks or neck locks or anything else don't work. That's why we carry revolvers," Dooley said.
Capt. William Roberts, head of police training in Prince George's County, said there seems to be "no effective way to handle the problem, because of the unusual strength of people who use PCP."
Roberts said he is still trying to find information on whether it is better for police to subdue PCP users with physical means or by talking to them.
Martin Reiser, director of behavioral science services for the Los Angeles Police Department, insists that specific nonviolent procedures for subduing drug users and mentally ill suspects are not just the musings of academicians.
"It's not academic claptrap," Reiser said. "Police, like other people, are resistant to change and new ideas."
Reiser said Los Angeles police began reexamining their use of force several years ago when a police sergeant shot and killed a man who had taken PCP and gone berserk. The sergeant later resigned because of stress arising from publicity about the incident, Reiser said.
Reiser said officers there are trained to attempt first to communicate with suspects, and to resort to tear gas, a Taser or a "swarm technique" involving groups of officers as the situation demands.
"We have a policy of minimal force, depending on the situation," Reiser said. "Our officers right from the academy and recruit school get specific training in differentiating people who are high on PCP or other drugs from mentally disturbed people."
New York City police have added to their arsenal a robot that asks the deranged subject if he wants a cup of coffee then sprays him with Mace, and a blanket made of bulletproof material that officers can use to cover a subject gone beserk.
Harvey Goldstein, head of the psychological services division for Prince George's police, said people on PCP are extremely difficult to handle because the drug causes their central nervous system to be "scrambled."
The worst thing that can happen is to stimulate them further, so Goldstein said, whenever possible, officers should approach these people calmly. When that is not possible, Goldstein suggests throwing a net over the suspect -- a sort of "loose straightjacket" -- a technique also being tested in Los Angeles. That way, he said, the person will flail about, and as soon as he realizes he is just fighting himself, he will probably calm down. Or, if necessary, he can be transported in the car while still inside the net.
But it is not common practice in the county, Goldstein acknowledged.