Although police violence doesn’t grab headlines as often as it did a few years ago, the problems of unnecessary and excessive force continue throughout the country. One case out of Glendale, Arizona is making its rounds on the Internet after the body camera video from the officers was released to the public.
If you click through to the very disturbing video, you can see what is detailed in the federal lawsuit against the officers and the Glendale Police Department (GPD): In July 2017, Johnny Wheatcroft, a passenger in a stopped vehicle, asks why the police officer demanded to see his identification. The officer, Matt Schneider, falsely told Wheatcroft that vehicle passengers needed to carry identification. Schneider then needlessly escalates the situation, forcibly removing Wheatcroft from the car while still entangled in his seatbelt. Wheatcroft was physically abused and shocked with a Taser 11 times, several jolts of which were inflicted after he was prone and in handcuffs, including once in the groin area (the lawsuit asserts he was shocked directly on his genitals, though GPD released a statement denying this and said the Taser was applied to Wheatcroft’s thigh). This spectacle all takes place in front of Wheatcroft’s wife and rightfully horrified children who were in the backseat of the car.
Wheatcroft was arrested and charged with resisting arrest and aggravated assault. He spent months in pretrial detention before charges were dismissed after review of the footage.
While the current case is a civil matter, it is possible that Officer Schneider could be criminally liable under federal law. The language from the U.S. Department of Justice website reads, “It is a crime for one or more persons acting under color of law willfully to deprive or conspire to deprive another person of any right protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States.”
The key term here is “willfully.” Many of the police shootings that have made the news in the past few years involved officers who rushed to judgment and made lethal mistakes. While undoubtedly tragic, such instances of bad or mistaken policing are not willful violations of an individual’s rights if, say, the officer wrongly perceived a toy gun to be real (Tamir Rice) or that an armed driver was reaching for his gun (Philando Castile). This should not necessarily absolve those officers from termination, lawsuits, and/or state criminal charges where applicable, but the point remains that the federal criminal standard requires willful intent, and even gross incompetence does not meet that standard.
The officer in the Wheatcroft incident, however, can be seen using excessive force after Wheatcroft had been handcuffed, laid prone on the ground, and showed no signs of disobedience, flight, or other potential risk. Even if the force used to remove him from the car could be excused (putting aside the many procedural problems with the seizure), Schneider’s actions after he had been removed from the car are not justified. Indeed, despite the officers’ report that Wheatcroft resisted, the internal affairs report released by the GPD said Wheatcroft “was compliant and didn’t resist.”
Schneider was suspended 30 hours for his actions and remains on the force.
These cases tend to take a while to move through the court system, so it will probably be a while before this is resolved one way or another. But when a police department feels it’s necessary to clarify precisely where near a man’s exposed groin he was Tased while he was handcuffed and on the ground, it’s hard to understand how the offending officer still has a job.
ABC15 has the video and asks policing experts about the incident here. We will follow this case as it develops.