Citizen footage starting in the middle of an interaction between a police officer pointing a gun into a car with a pregnant woman, her one- and four-year-old children, and their father inside has gone viral. The Phoenix Police Department is now facing a $10 million lawsuit due to the incident, which happened late last month. Last Thursday, a notice of claim was filed alleging “police brutality and civil rights violations,” azfamily.com reported.
The father of the children, Dravon Ames, was in the driver’s seat when the police confrontation allegedly began, some time after the family had left a dollar store with a shoplifted Barbie doll. According to the family, five to 10 minutes had passed before the filming started. You can watch the most complete footage I have found here (warning: it is full of expletives and may be difficult to watch for sensitive viewers).
An officer can be clearly seen pointing a gun into the car for at least 30 continuous seconds and shouting profanity-laced commands at the couple. The mother, Iesha Harper, can be heard pleading with the officer not to point a gun at her kids and telling them she’s pregnant.
Once outside the car, an officer rushes up to her and points an index finger in her face, shouting, “When I tell you to put your hands up, you put your f-cking hands up.”
“I couldn’t put my hands up. I had a f-cking baby!” she cries. “What the f-ck are you talking about?”
Harper is ordered to set her child down; she jerks away as the police officer attempts to grab her by the arm. As the confrontation escalates, Harper changes position, putting more of her body in between the officers and the baby on her hip. One of the officers demands again, “Put the child down,” to which Harper screams, “She don’t walk! She’s a baby!”
Previous debates over escalated police encounters have centered on citizen compliance and an officer’s “reasonable belief” that the citizen may be a physical threat to the officer or others. “Reasonable belief” has been cited in cases where a subject reaches out of view, such as toward the small of his back, or into his pocket, or rapidly pulls out something that may resemble a weapon at first glimpse.
In 2016, Daniel Shaver was shot dead in Mesa Arizona while attempting to comply with a series of very specific commands from an officer. He had reached back, presumably to pull his shorts up, while slowly crawling toward the officer at his command. That officer was acquitted, to the outrage of people across the political spectrum.
Although no one was shot in the Ames-Harper incident, it calls into question the idea that any delay or brief lapse in compliance lies somewhere on the spectrum between resisting arrest to evincing a threat. An officer training a gun on a pregnant woman and her small children sheds a bright light on the lack of nuance in “compliance/non-compliance” doctrine that we might miss in confrontations between adult males.
Ames’s behavior should of course be examined to discern whether Harper’s treatment was largely a byproduct of a reasonable response to Ames’s resistance or threatening behavior. According to reporting by azfamily.com, the police report states the officer “drew his gun because Ames ‘began to reach towards the center of the vehicle between the front seats.’” No weapon was reported at the scene, however, and neither adult was charged with resisting arrest.
Would a “reasonable and prudent” officer in that position draw a gun and threaten to “put a f-cking cap right in your f-cking head” for a reason as vague as “reaching toward the center of the vehicle?” And if that standard were applied to anyone pulled over for a potential petty crime, how many drivers would end up shot?
Yet what appears, based on the partial footage currently available, to be highly unreasonable behavior doesn’t end there. The other officer continued to point a gun into a car with a pregnant mother and children in it even after Ames had exited the vehicle and was well under officer control. Is being “loud, verbally abusive, and refusing” to put hands up and exit the vehicle, as Harper’s behavior was described in the police report, an excuse to point a gun and scream profanities at her?
If the audio of Harper’s voice is to be believed, she was holding, or holding onto, at least one child at the time. Holding onto your child, as a mother, is not the same as holding onto a briefcase or a bowling ball. Mothers like myself know that when you feel your baby’s safety is being threatened, as by all the available evidence it was in Harpers’ case, you do not let go.
This may not seem “logical” to those who are not mothers or who have only had peaceful, trusting encounters with law enforcement. Why can’t she just obey? How hard is that?
But a reasonable response for a mother at gunpoint, with the adrenaline pumping through her system, who is intensely focused on the safety of her two born children and one just five months along, is far different. It could be very close to physically impossible for her to release her grip on her baby in such a circumstance, no matter how many times “an officer in uniform” demands she separate herself from the most precious life in the world to her.
From my perspective as a pregnant mother with a toddler, Harper did everything a reasonable mother would do, from holding onto her baby like her tiny life depended on it, to begging the officer not to point the gun at her children. It shouldn’t matter that she was “loud” and that her responses were laced with profanity (and to no greater extent than the officers who were commanding her).
According to the Phoenix Police Department Operations Manual:
A. It is the policy of the Department to use a reasonable amount of force to conduct lawful public safety activities. B. The response option employed will be reasonable and based on the totality of circumstances… (2) Circumstances that may govern the reasonableness of using a particular force option include, but are not limited to:
The severity of the crime
Whether the subject poses an immediate threat to the safety of officers or others
Whether the subject is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight” (emphasis mine).
If police responses are “determined by the totality of the circumstances,” then a pregnant woman holding a baby, having just come from the Dollar Store, shouldn’t be considered a threat. The Venn diagram between mothers who shoplift (or allow their child to shoplift) $5 dolls and people who assault police officers is not huge. In addition, her form-fitting dress didn’t leave much, if any, room to conceal a weapon between herself and her baby (as if that were even a plausibility).
Even if one views Ames’s delay in compliance as resistance, the “threat” assumed after he “reached toward the center of the vehicle” should have passed when Ames was removed from the vehicle and under officer control. Yet Harper was still at gunpoint while Ames’s legs were being kicked apart several yards away. They proceeded to aggressively demand she put her baby down and attempted to restrain her, even once she was out of the car and clearly visible as a non-threat.
If we are to place such a great benefit of the doubt with officers as to what is a “reasonable” response, maybe we should consider what is a reasonable response from the citizen they’re interacting with. Shaver was shot dead after briefly reaching toward his haunches, despite every indication, over minutes, that he was trying his best to obey the officer. Harper was verbally abused and threatened for doing what any mother would have done when put at gunpoint by a man who had just been screaming at the top of his voice that her partner in the drivers’ seat would “f-cking get shot.”
The police uniform does not automatically bestow an officer with the full confidence of the residents he or she is policing, especially for demographics that have historically been subject to harsher standards and more suspicion than the rest of the population. To insist the uniform itself should elicit such faith and trust, to the point of overriding even the most basic maternal and self-preservation instincts, is not just wishful thinking, but dangerous.
It’s a marvel no one got shot on that afternoon in late May. A cop’s actions in the moment convey much more meaning than the badge on his vest, and the more seriously law enforcement take that, the safer and more constructive their interactions with the community will be.