Monday, February 16, 2015

American Sniper: On the Police Assault of Sureshbhai Patel

As an immigrant from India, last week’s incident in Madison, Alabama, in which police used unwarranted force on an Indian man who indicated he didn’t understand English, is deeply disturbing. This 57yr old grandfather had recently arrived in America to stay with his son and daughter-in-law, to help care for their toddler. He walked in the neighborhood, up and down the street where his son lived.

On February 6th, around 8 am and on his morning walk, Sureshbhai Patel aroused the suspicion of a neighbor who called the police and requested that he be investigated.

There are two video recordings from police car dash cams showing different angles of the incident, which help re-create what transpired.

The two officers who investigated this call were Officer Eric Parker and his trainee, Andrew Slaughter. When they arrived, Sureshbhai Patel was walking at a brisk pace on the sidewalk along the houses. The officers parked their patrol car and caught up to him:

Officer Eric Parker:
Hi Bud. Talk to you real quick. Come here. What’s goin’ on sir?

Sureshbhai Patel:        (inaudible)

Officer Eric Parker:   
You what? India? Your knee? You’re doing what?
Come here. Where you headed?

Sureshbhai Patel:        (inaudible)

Officer Eric Parker:   
Where? I can’t understand you sir.
Where’s your address? Where d’you live?

(Mr. Patel begins to walk away)

Officer Eric Parker:   
Stop walking. Stop walking. D’you have any ID on you?
No ID. What’s your name?

Sureshbhai Patel:        (inaudible)

Trainee Andrew Slaughter:  
He’s sayin’ “No English.”

Sureshbhai Patel:        (inaudible)

Officer Eric Parker:   
India? OK.
Do you live here? Do you live in this neighborhood?
Where’s your address? Where you goin’?

(Mr. Patel begins to walk away again.)

Trainee Andrew Slaughter:  
Sir, sir. Come here.

Officer Eric Parker:            
We’re tryin’ to figure this out. Are you lookin’ at houses and stuff?

Trainee Andrew Slaughter:  
Stop. Do not jerk away from me again.
If you do I’m gonna put you on the ground.
Do not jerk away one more time. D’you understand?
DO you understand what I’m sayin’? Do not jerk away from me again.

Officer Eric Parker:            
Relax. Relax.

This is when the officers throw Mr. Patel face-down on the ground, with nothing to break his fall because his hands were held behind his back. He is patted down. Still in a prone position, he is asked to uncross his legs. He doesn’t do it, and as the officers quickly find out, it is not just because he doesn’t understand English. They hoist him up and ask him to stand, but Mr. Patel’s legs dangle limply. The force of being thrown down causes spinal injuries resulting in paralysis.

This incident has quite possibly caused every Indian immigrant in America to wonder whether this atrocity could have happened to his or her own parents. One subset of immigrants, I’m guessing, might have dismissed their imagined versions of a police encounter gone bad by reassuring themselves that their parents are immune to this kind of a disastrous turn of events because their parents speak English. (Roughly, about 2% of India’s population is fluent in English and uses it as their primary language).

While fluency in English will likely have reduced the chances of a violent outcome with the police, the root of the problem here is not a lack of communication. Blind use of force in the context of a communication gap is the cause for this latest episode of unwarranted violence by the police.  If you reassured yourself that your parents are immune, picture this:

      In a hypothetical encounter with the police, your English-speaking father or uncle, unskilled in the required behavior of just-the-right-amount of subservience by people of color in the presence of police, reaches for something in his pocket before a trigger-happy officer launches a round of bullets through him.

Aside from the problem of overuse of force by the police, there is the question of the neighbor – with whom this whole fiasco begins. Is the role of the neighbor incidental or pivotal?

The neighbor’s “concern,” which is now a bold euphemism for perpetuating racist stereotypes, is fueled by the Culture Of Fear that inundates America. We are hyper-vigilant about our safety in ways that run counter to common sense.

During the police call, our Neighbor Of The Year begins:

“We’ve had a….He was doin’ it yesterday, and today he’s just kinda wanderin’ around in driveways and now he’s walking down Hardiman Place Lane towards Hardiman Road… 
He’s kinda walkin’ around close to the garage and I stopped and started lookin’ at him and he started walking down Hardiman Place Lane towards Hardiman Road…”

It doesn’t occur to NeighborOfTheYear that if the same man was there “yesterday,” and again today, he might have good reason to be there. Clearly, the color of his skin stole any possible legitimacy to be in that neighborhood.

In an ironic twist, when Chirag Patel, the son of Sureshbai Patel is interviewed, he says: “This is a good neighborhood, so I didn’t expect anything to happen….”

So good, that in the eyes of his Friendly Neighborhood Bigot, it is no place for a colored man to be seen.

When the police dispatcher asks American Neighbor to describe the man, he says:

“He’s a skinny black guy, he’s got a toboggan on, he’s really skinny…..

And I don’t …I’ve lived here for four years…I’ve never seen him before….”

As AmericanNeighbor points out, Mr. Patel is very thin. Some media reports put him at 130-140 lbs. Hardly an intimidating figure - further indicating that the tactics used to restrain him and stop him from walking away were abusive.

AmericanNeighbor mistakes Mr. Patel for an African American. Let’s be clear - there’s no crime in that! But the hypothetical question remains unanswered of whether he would have been just as concerned about the safety of his family had he identified Mr. Patel as a person of color, but not African American.

And even though the officers who responded to this call were expecting to encounter an African American man - about 30 years of age according to AmericanNeighbor –  they learn from the very beginning of their interaction with Mr. Patel that he is from India and speaks no English. Their use of force on Mr. Patel is not because they think he is black and are acting on whatever prejudice that knowledge entails, as some media commentary seems to indicate. They are well aware of Mr. Patel’s ethnicity when they slam him to the ground.

If at all the police brought any additional prejudice into the fray, a possible candidate is - Disdain For Those Who Don’t Speak English:

The initial investigation begins with two officers. A third officer pulls up in his patrol car at the time when Mr. Patel is brought down physically to the ground – that is why there are two police video recordings with different vantage points. As the third officer approaches and asks  Any Madison ID?,” the investigating officer answers:

“I don’t know. He don’t speak a lick of English.”

Whether this comment was just a neutral piece of information being conveyed, or whether it carried undertones of disdain, is open to interpretation. However, there is ample evidence all around us, that there is much antipathy for those who don’t speak English in America. The possibility that not being fluent in English degraded the status of Mr. Patel in the eyes of the officers is one worth examining:

Even despite the color of his skin, Mr. Patel possibly went from being someone with rights to a Person Of Inconsequence simply because he didn’t speak English.
That there is hostility towards those who do not assimilate linguistically when they live in America is most apparent in people’s attitudes toward Hispanics, especially in border-states with large Hispanic populations. But it is far from being just a border-state phenomenon. A recent and amusing blog post in the Vermont Political Observer,  “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished,” illustrates the point:

In brief: An eighth-grader and a student of Latin in Vermont requested Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning to introduce a bill to give Vermont a Latin motto in addition to the existing one in English. Benning introduced the bill earlier this month. After a local news channel covered this initiative by Benning, the news station received a barrage of angry posts on their Facebook page “from ignorant Vermonters spewing their hatred in barely readable fractured English. (Spelling and punctuation as-is) Warning: Teh stoopid, it burns!”

A few unedited posts:

Chris Ferro: “That’s a BIG NO, if you live in the United State YOU need to learn ENGLISH!!”

Kurtis Jones: “No cause vt ain’t no Latino area. Leave the motto alone”

Dorothy Lynn Lepisto: “I thought Vermont was American not Latin? Does any Latin places have American mottos?”

Norman Flanders: “What next Arab motto??”

Kevin P. Hahn: “How about ‘go back south of the boarder'”

Richard Mason: “We are AMERICANS, not latins, why not come up with a Vermont motto that is actually from us”

Ronald Prouty Jr. “No way this is America not Mexico or Latin America. And they nee to learn our language, just like if we go there they want us to speak theirs”

Heather Chase: “Seriously?? Last time I checked..real vermonters were speakin ENGLISH.. NOT LATIN..good god…”

Phil Salzano: “My question is, are we Latin, or are we Vermonters? Alright then, English it is…..”

Julie Kellner: “No, you a USA citizen!.. Learn & understand the language!!!.”

Kelley Dawley: “How do you say idiotic senator in spanish? I’d settle for deport illegals in spanish as a back up motto”

Linda Murphy: “This is America! Not Mexico!”

Not knowing the difference between Latin and Latin America is one thing. Not knowing about the heritage of the English language vis-à-vis Latin, is another, and all the more comical coming from people vehemently advocating learning English! This incident in Vermont not only reveals a widely held hostility to any deviation from English, but also betrays a deep ignorance of American history.

If AmericanNeighbor began this relay of prejudice based on the color of Mr. Patel’s skin, the officers carried the baton further when they assumed that a lack of fluency in English is a sign that the man they were dealing with was a Person of Insignificance. With these preconceptions, they could never have imagined that Sureshbhai Patel belonged in that neighborhood by virtue of his educated son, and that he now has a community of support (Indian, American and international) behind him. Given Mr. Patel’s obvious lack of understanding of what the police were asking him, they could have followed him to see where he was headed. If they were aware (and they ought to have been) of AmericanNeighbor’s observation that Mr. Patel was also seen in the same neighborhood the day before, they had all the more reason to constrain themselves and watch where their suspect was headed.  If they had waited, they would have seen Mr. Patel enter a residence not ten houses away from where they stood, and the situation would have been resolved peacefully.

During the call to the police, AmericanNeighbor follows Mr. Patel at a distance in his car. He describes:

“I’m just kinda followin’ him from a distance….
I’m on my way to work but I’m nervous leavin’ my wife and….
He’s just standing around in the driveway across the street…..
He looked at me and started walking away so……. I’d like somebody to talk to him.”

AmericanNeighbor exhibits classic symptoms of our Fear Culture. It seems that an individual’s lack of familiarity with passersby on a public street is now grounds for questioning safety. Anyone daring to walk in residential neighborhoods in broad daylight better be prepared for scrutiny, especially if they are people of color.

Our hyper-vigilance is manic. Children no longer populate their neighborhood streets in much of America, the way they did a generation ago. Children seen without an adult chaperone in residential streets and public parks are targets of police investigations, and their parents are attacked by the Predatory Wing of Child Protection Services. Instead of looking out for your un-chaperoned children, AmericanNeighbor will call the police. Under the pretense of “concern” for your children, AmericanNeighbor derives great pleasure in bringing you down.

Within one generation we have already managed to trigger tectonic shifts in our sense of security. We used to derive our sense of well-being from intangible powers – from the feeling of belonging to a community, and faith in that community. Now we have externalized our sense of security into the purely tangible: It has transformed into the ever-present devices that rule our lives – Cell phones. Security cameras. Electronically monitored gates. And guns.

Hyper-vigilance has seeped into every aspect of our lives. We examine everything through the lens of safety.  There is less crime in present times than there was a few decades ago when today’s parents were growing up. And technology has made it easier and quicker to communicate and get help when true emergencies happen. Yet, we are increasingly afraid of daily, imagined disasters.

The proverbial Village Idiot has morphed into your Friendly Neighborhood Bigot. And he has much in common with the American Sniper. He takes shots at you from the sanctuary of his home.  He fires at you from the safety of distance, wielding a weapon we call 911.

Police video recordings of the assault:

Investigating officer's patrol car dash cam


  1. Thanks for sharing the comprehensive circumstances around the incident, including the videos.

    Horrible, horrible is a combination of an instinct (or paranoia) trained to expect and anticipate the extreme (and tellingly, the inability to differentiate between a person intent on violence vs. a harmless individual), the expectation to be treated as authority ("he's walking away from me"), cultural insensitivity (which you've amply described) , a lack of training (like how to deal with non-english speaking individuals), language insensitivity (aren't there software solutions that convert english to hindi/spanish etc.?), and a paranoia that a man putting his hands into a pocket needs to be taken down.

    Painfully, it is the innocence of Sureshbhai Patel that caused an image of a guilty individual. He was probably wandering around driveways as part of his daily walk exploring the neighbourhood. I did many a time in my recent trip to San Jose, and barely saw a few other souls while doing so. When approached by cops, he likely walked away, instinctively, because that is what he would do if he were in India. He likely put his hands in his pockets, again instinctively, to calm himself down. Maybe he thought they would just go away, when they knew he was an Indian.

    I do laud the transperency (sharing of the videos, conversations and 911 call content), and the learnings that would come from this unfortunate unfortunate incident. My thoughts to the family. Unlikely as it seems, I do hope he is able to recover to lead a semblance of a normal life.


  2. Cultural awareness is so desperately needed, especially for those in law enforcement...... I read somewhere that he might have just been admiring the homes on that street and feeling good about how far his son has come... and that's why he appeared to have been lingering.... And what a thing to happen. So avoidable. I heard on NPR today that the Governor of Alabama apologized to the family......And that the wretched cop is pleading Not Guilty to assault and is fighting his dismissal. The nerve of it all!