By Pamela Burke
Monday, February 18, 2008
A spate of negative publicity raises the question of whether police are using excessive force against women. A nurse's aide in Arizona, who faces a trial after being pulled over by an officer, says the issue is central to her own case.
CORNVILLE, Ariz. (WOMENSENEWS)--The four successive signs at the side of the road greet drivers saying: Welcome to Cornville . . . A quiet place . . . Please slow down . . . To a leisurely pace.
But Cornville was far from quiet for Dibor Roberts, a nurse's aide born in West Africa, who took a short cut on her drive home from work last summer. At about 10:45 p.m. on a Sunday evening she saw a blue light, then bright lights and a vehicle with "Sheriff" written on it.
It was the beginning of what she calls a giant misunderstanding with law enforcement that leaves her facing two felony charges: resisting arrest and unlawful flight from an officer.
Roberts says she doesn't know if she was speeding. She insists the reason she didn't stop was because she wasn't certain it really was the police. She had seen news stories about police impersonators arresting unknowing victims, so she wanted to get to a well-lit area before pulling over.
Before she could get there, she says the driver of the other car forced her off the road and jumped out of his car screaming and yelling with gun drawn. She claims he broke her window, grabbed her cell phone and threw it away, eventually knocking her to the ground and handcuffing her. He told her she would be going to jail.
Yavapai County Sheriff Steve Waugh defended the officer in a press conference in January saying he clearly identified himself by pulling alongside her car so she could see his patrol vehicle, which was well marked. He contends that the sergeant was ignored and that she refused to pull over. He insists Roberts was not thrown to the ground--a witness who was driving by indicated she was "combative"--and that the officer was well within his rights to take the action he did. He says the incident snowballed into something unfortunate for all parties.
"He didn't tell me what he was arresting me for," Roberts contends. "I tried to explain what happened when I was in jail but no one would listen. I've lost my trust in the police. It seems they can do whatever they want regardless of the truth."
Having had no prior arrest, she was nevertheless held for more than a week until she posted $20,000 bail. She awaits a future court date and hopes that justice will prevail.
"I wasn't expecting to stay in jail for six days for something I didn't do," says Roberts with tears running down her cheeks. "It was terrifying and brutal. The policeman lied about everything that happened."
About 30 supporters of Roberts gathered in December outside the courthouse during a hearing in Prescott, Ariz., carrying signs saying "Drop the Charges" and "Accountability."
Amid a wide range of commentary both pro and con on the case in letters to newspaper editors and to the county attorney's office, which is prosecuting the case, as well as Web postings, a few women piped up to say they wouldn't stop on a dark road under the same circumstances either.
"It's important for women everywhere that this case be resolved in Roberts' favor. How can she be guilty of anything more than trying to stay safe?" one woman wrote on Verdenews.com, Web site of The Verde Independent, a newspaper in the Cottonwood area.
"What woman would have acted any differently?" another woman posted on the same Web site. If convicted, she felt "we must all add this terrible miscarriage of justice to our greatest of nightmares!"
Reports of police impersonators across the country--such as those Roberts worried about--have surfaced over the past year as well as a spate of negative publicity that raises controversy and questions about the treatment of women when they interact with police. In some cases, alarm has been stoked by videos of arrests gone wrong posted on Web sites like YouTube.
Video of an agitated Carol Anne Gotbaum--the stepdaughter-in-law of Betsy Gotbaum, an elected official in New York City--being arrested at Phoenix's Sky Harbor International Airport drew national attention last September. Police said the mother of three became angry and loud when denied access to a flight. They insisted they were trying to calm her and didn't know that she was on her way to Tucson to check into an alcohol rehabilitation program.
Gotbaum was later placed in a holding cell, left alone and unobserved, according to press accounts. She was found unconscious soon after with numerous bruises on her body and could not be revived. The case is still being investigated, says Phoenix attorney Michael Manning, who is handling legal matters for the Gotbaum family.
Pictures of a handcuffed and screaming Heidi Gill, a single mother from northeastern Ohio, being stun-gunned by a patrolman in Warren after police claimed she ignored their commands were widely circulated in September.
She had been ordered out of a local bar and, according to a police report, was kicking at a police car window. Her lawyer asserted that the officer used his stun gun on her when she was sitting upright and kicked her while she was on the ground.
In November YouTube showed a pregnant woman in Trotwood, Ohio, being forced to the ground and stun-gunned when police say she refused to answer an officer's questions. A police report indicated she was upset and thrashing violently, resisting warnings that a stun gun would be used on her.
These and other incidents--including the stun-gunning in Chicago last fall of an 82-year-old grandmother with a history of mental illness who was reported by police to be swinging a hammer--have caused Amnesty International to call for an independent study on stun guns. The human rights group has also called for a moratorium on their use by law enforcement until there is a better understanding of how they function.
The death of a Polish immigrant stunned by police with a Taser gun in Vancouver, Canada, last October is helping to spur this outcry.
In March 1999 a Harris Poll surveyed 1,008 people nationwide--no gender breakdown is provided--to rate their police. On the question of not using excessive force, 28 percent said police were "excellent," 41 percent said they were "pretty good," 16 percent said they were "only fair," 9 percent said they were "poor" and 5 percent said they were "unsure."
It's hard to know if perception of police--or police behavior itself--has changed for the worse since then. Amnesty International says it is not aware of any more recent data.
For his part, Manning, the lawyer for the Gotbaum family, does wonder if police methods have gotten harsher since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In a recent interview, Manning said that he's handled many types of death cases, and those on behalf of female detainees. Since Carol Gotbaum's death he's received a flood of phone calls and e-mail from women all over the country claiming mistreatment from police and law enforcement in general.
"These people were asking whether something should be done or looked at by a commission or the press," he says. "None of my cases has ever evoked this kind of response."
Pamela Burke is a writer and producer living in Los Angeles.
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