They go to work every day to serve and protect. They patrol the streets and keep society safe. When a citizen is in trouble, they are expected to come and assist. To help them complete these duties, they have been trained in the lethal arts and given licenses to carry weaponry. But how many of them have taken liberties with this duty, this privilege? How many have lost sight of the thin line between protecting the citizens and violating their civil rights? How often can that line be blurred in the midst of maintaining the peace? They are the police officers, the patrolmen, the ones at the other end of the emergency call service. They are the watchmen. But “who watches the watchmen?” as Alan Moore so aptly put it in his graphic novel, Watchmen.
The police officers in the Springfield, MA area have not had a good history in this regard. One officer in particular, Officer Jeffrey M. Asher, has been involved in numerous cases of police brutality and civil rights violations.
In April of 1997, Asher was accused of assault and battery while arresting a fugitive, Roy Parker, who assaulted him with a sharp object. The incident was caught on tape, but charges were later dropped against the officer, who was suspended without pay for six months.
Then, in November of 2004, he was again accused of assault and battery, alongside officer James L. Shewchuck and two others, while trying to subdue a suspect who was suffering a diabetic attack at a gas station on Main St. in Springfield. The man, Douglas G. Greer, was a charter school principal, and claimed the officers used excessive force while restraining him, one witness claiming to have seen Asher beat him with a chrome flashlight. The Police Commission found there was no probable cause to pursue disciplinary action against the four officers facing charges in the case, and Asher and the others were assigned to Administrative duties. Greer was awarded $180,000 in damages three years later in 2007 when the case was settled.
Finally, in November of 2009, Asher was again charged for allegations of police brutality in relation to his arrest of Melvin Jones III on drug charges. Asher allegedly beat the suspect with a flashlight, and the incident was also captured on amateur videotape. Asher applied for retirement and was approved in September, 2010. One day later, he was fired by Police Commissioner William J. Fitchet, but remained eligible to receive a pension.
Also in Springfield in November of 2008, Guy Larkins filed charges against eight officers, including Police Commissioner Fitchet, in relation to his arrest. The officers arrested Larkins on charges of disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and assault on a police officer. Larkins claimed that he had already surrendered before two officers took him to the ground and broke his ankle, and the other members of the police force involved in the suit ignored his pleas for medical attention. Two officers in the suit, Richard Ward and Felix Aguirre, were suspended without pay for five days, and Ward and Sergeant Julio M. Toledo were subjected to mandatory retraining.
In the wake of these cases, it seems the Springfield area is no stranger to police aggression. But most cases involve repeat criminals that are themselves inclined to respond aggressively, save for Greer. Roy Parker was a fugitive who had jumped bail. Melvin Jones had an extensive criminal history, and was again caught shoplifting while out on bail for the drug charges related to the November 2009 arrest. These are the kinds of people that members of the police force must deal with every day on the job. Perhaps more training on restraint is needed, or perhaps they have lost sight of the greater good, but who is to be the judge of that?
There are two sides to every story, and this blog intends to keep that in mind as it tackles the thin line drawn between an officer and a suspect, between what is right and what is necessary, between rational thought and an error in judgment. And therein lies the challenge.