This is a letter to the editor from Kathryn Russell, professor emerita of philosophy at SUNY Cortland. Opinions expressed in letters to the editor are those of the writer and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of The Ithaca Voice. To learn more about submitting letters, click here.

What is “police brutality”?

The formal response of the Ithaca Police Department to Black Lives Matter Ithaca (BLMI) and Ithaca Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) is basically that we shouldn’t be throwing around the word “brutality” in complaining to the police that they used inappropriate force in the arrest of Cadji Ferguson and Rose de Groat on April 6 on the Commons.

Such a word, they claim, is disrespectful and disruptive of successful police-community relations.

Well, anyone who watches public videos of the incident with an open heart and mind will wonder why on earth the police, after a white woman points up the Commons to a scuffle, start running, and ONLY 30 seconds later, they body slam a black man, throwing him to the ground and tasering him. They also body slam another youth, a black woman.

Body slamming and tasering were the actions that were disrespectful and disruptive of good community relations, not our protest against “police brutality.” What is the IPD’s policy on the use of tasers? Release it and let the public comment on it.

No one was threatening the policemen’s own safety. Ferguson had no weapon. I believe that they must have acted automatically because a construction in their consciousness was signaled: “black man fighting = dangerous threat; take him down!” They seemed to identify with the drunken middle-aged white man from out of town and had no empathy for the young people, citizens of Ithaca whom they are supposedly sworn to protect. Investigate the man from out of town and bring charges against him for forcibly touching a woman.

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of ‘brutal’ is lacking sensitivity, or compassion; befitting a brute, such as cruel, hard-hearted, harsh, severe. There is no excuse for the brutality of the policemen, the lack of sensitivity, compassion, and the harsh, severe treatment of these young citizens. It was excessive force, cruel and unnecessary; it was disproportionate to what was happening.

I argue that the charge of “police brutality” is an appropriate and effective intervention in police-community conversation about how to effectively act humanely as police officers in this town.

How is it that two strong policemen could not use nonviolent, physical techniques to insert themselves into the scuffle and stop it? Does their training not include aikido or other physical de-escalation strategies? Why did they not try to find out what the scuffle was about, leading to a discovery of the forcible touching of Ferguson’s friend by the white man which initiated the whole conflict?

If they had defused the situation, Ms. de Groat would not have been so frightened for the life of her friend that she felt she had to intervene. Instead, they “subdued” her with such great force that they piled escalation on escalation, in a way that broke my heart.

I support the demands of Black Lives Matter Ithaca. I ask that the District Attorney Matt Van Houten drop all charges against Ms. de Groat and Mr. Ferguson. Issue an apology and pay restitution for their sufferings and financial costs.

Immediately begin open meetings to establish a meaningful community police board with real power to wisely control police action.

Kathy Russell
Ithaca, N.Y.

Featured image: Black Lives Matter Ithaca organized a rally on May 13 to support Ferguson and de Groat. (Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice)