Did I do the right thing? (witnessing others subdue attempted thief)
September 8, 2014 11:48 PM   Subscribe

I came across three people pinning a man down in a parking lot for attempted theft/purse snatching. Just wanting to know if I assessed the situation correctly and if there is anything I could have done better.

Tonight in a parking lot my aunt and I heard screaming. I followed the sounds and found three adults (mid 20s to early 30s, one man, two women - let's call the man "A" and the two women "B" and "C") pinning down another man (let's call him "G"). They said G had attempted to steal something from one of the women, and they were calling the cops.

G was face down (or facing sideways with body down), both arms twisted behind his back. A is a medium build man pinning his knee to G's neck on the right side and holding one arm back. B and C are slim women on the right and left side, pinning one knee to G's right calf and lower back, respectively. One of them is holding G's other arm back. G is lanky, visibly older, with disheveled hair and dirty clothes. G is in obvious distress and appears to be struggling, but the three look like they have him easily pinned to the ground, weight bearing down.

At the point I reach them, another unrelated man has let me know the basic situation before running off to find security, and C is on her cell phone with what appears to be 911, as she is relating details of the situation. I ask if the three are okay, and confirm that they've called 911 (as I'm prepared to do it myself if needed - they say it's okay). I do however, also notice that G has been saying that he can't breathe several times, and is visibly distressed (face red, wincing, gasping/grunting - although distress would seem to be an expected reaction). I also notice that A has his knee directly on G's neck, such that G can't move his face from the ground. A is not letting up, and C (while on the phone with 911) says something like "If you can talk, you can breathe" to G.

Perhaps this sounds familiar? Unfortunately, it did sound to me as similar to another unfortunate recent event.

I am aware that many people subdued on the ground do say that they can't breathe, either because being pinned down is a panic inducing act, or because it can be effective to get away if you're involved in wrongdoing. In any case, I point out that G may not be able to breathe that well, and ask A to move his knee away from the back of the neck to the upper shoulder, to pin G down but not block air flow. I'm no medical professional, this just seemed reasonable?

A told me to "shut up, mind your own business, and keep shopping." C insisted that G talking meant he could breathe fine. Partially due to stubbornness and partially because being told to shut up and go shopping made my blood boil (I'm a woman, if it matters), I shot right back that it's possible to kill or hurt someone in that situation, and that I'm making sure everyone is okay, including G, regardless of what he did. I said I would stay until security or other first responder arrived. We can't actually leave at that point, anyway: it looks like someone's truck (presumably one of A/B/C before they got out to subdue G) is blocking the exit. We all kind of glare at each other for a couple minutes until cops finally show up and are able to take G into custody. Since the exit is now free and I'm not a witness to anything other than the subduing, I and my aunt drive away.

This has been bothering me, but I want to takeaway something (or things) useful from the situation. So my questions:

1) I'm no martial artist, law enforcement professional, or medical professional. I've taken a few krav maga classes, but that doesn't really get into how to subdue a person on the ground for an indefinite time. Neither A/B/C identified themselves as a professional. Was I right to read any danger into the situation re: breathing problems with someone's knee on someone's neck? If this isn't something that could reasonably cause blocked airflow, that would be good to know for future purposes.

2) I was really taken aback at being told to shut up and mind my own business, because I was trying to make sure everyone was okay (and A/B/C seemed receptive at first). I am aware that I did not see any violent conflict leading up to G being subdued, and that adrenaline does weird things to everyone. I also noted that G did not appear to be mentally well, which could complicate things physically re: subduing. Was there a better way to address the situation?

3) Finally, was I being naively meddlesome? I'm told by my aunt that I should not have gotten involved (even to see what the screaming was about) and that my concern for the person on the ground was unwarranted, given he was likely a criminal. I don't necessarily agree with either of those statements. I think that reading about some awful things (e.g. Eric Garner, Ferguson, etc) happening in the world makes me not want to be an ignorant bystander, but I also want to be able to assess situations in a way that I don't cause further trouble.

Thank you!
posted by orbit-3 to Human Relations (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: C insisted that G talking meant he could breathe fine.

C is a fucking moron, as the Eric Garner incident illustrates.

Was I right to read any danger into the situation re: breathing problems with someone's knee on someone's neck?

Yes. This kind of restraint technique can demonstrably cause injury. Here's a report of a person who claims to have suffered muscular injury to the neck, from a cop kneeling on him. He also claims that he couldn't cry out beacuse of the pressure on his neck, ie his airflow was restricted.

Here's another report of a police officer placing their knee on the neck of a suspect, causing a misplaced fracture of the suspect's larynx.

I imagine other MeFites with actual medical knowledge (which I do not have) can provide better evidence or commentary.

Finally, was I being naively meddlesome? I'm told by my aunt that I should not have gotten involved (even to see what the screaming was about) and that my concern for the person on the ground was unwarranted, given he was likely a criminal

Snatching a purse doesn't mean you deserve to die.

You did the right thing. There was more risk in doing nothing, ie, the alleged purse snatcher dying because of some overzealous would-be warriors of justice trying to be macho idiots that they saw on Cops last night. Your involvement may have prevented A, B and C from going overboard. At the very least, you did no harm.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 12:10 AM on September 9, 2014 [16 favorites]

Best answer: I've been in a few dicey situations though never one as physical as you describe. All you can really do is express your concern, and in this case, you stayed until he was taken into custody safely. If only someone had spoken up for Eric Garner as you did. There was a case a while back of an unruly air passenger who was subdued by (apparently) members of a rugby team also on board, and he went into cardiac arrest and died.

That said, you can only insert yourself so much and since you lacked backup and any interference might have been seen as disruption or even assistance to someone they considered a criminal, you were also wise to hold back. There seems to have been a strong tilt in American culture to the belief that being accused of a crime casts someone to a subhuman state where any concept of human rights is completely alienated.

A potential disarming tactic at the glaring point might have been offering empathy to the sitters along the lines of "Hey, I'm just looking out for your potential liability here." Even if it's not really true it might have eased tensions.

My advice here is to look at body language and listen carefully to what people say to you. I think doing this got me out of a situation last month -- I asked some guys across the street to be quiet since it was almost midnight, and they turned on me and used intimidation just short of openly threatening violence. They used emasculating insults in an attempt to get me to overreact and "start" a fight. I ignored the insults, stated that I had made a request and asked them a) if they were refusing to comply and b) if they were threatening me (they did not answer either), then walked away calmly without showing concern -- and once safely inside my home called police. The two times that I was a victim of criminal violence (attacked on my porch by a suspected drug dealer, and mugged after a long, weird walk when this guy basically "followed me home" while badgering me about being a racist because I didn't want to walk with him), my instincts that these guys were dangerous turned out to be correct. The first time I did not take sufficient action to get me out of the fray (and in fact fell prey to a tactic Gavin de Becker notes in The Gift of Fear is often used by assailants, in that I let myself get backed into a corner with no escape route), and ended up with a concussion and insufficient information for an arrest. The second time I was smarter and got the guy arrested, convicted, and in prison as I type. I'm no genius at reading people, either, and I would be foolish to believe that I am, but it's all about trying to read a situation and figure out what the trigger for an escalation of the problem might be.

I guess another factor here might be that when I was younger and living in NYC I was sort of a proto-urbex type and walked into all manner of neighborhoods, probably far too naively for my own good, and yet I was only once accosted about my presence (meanwhile I got my pocket picked on the subway twice, and had more unnerving encounters there as well). The advice that I took to heart then was to project calm and look like you belong wherever you are.

I would read de Becker regardless if you don't consider yourself a victim, as he has a lot of insight into the mindset of people who can seem perfectly reasonable up until the moment when they are attacking you.
posted by dhartung at 12:14 AM on September 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think you did the best that you could in a crappy situation. Even if he was trying to mug/rob someone, being held on the ground by three people, with one of those people with their knee to the neck area, seems like really excessive force.

There are a lot of people (like your aunt) who don't like to intervene in such situations, but I think you did a really good thing.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 1:29 AM on September 9, 2014 [11 favorites]

I think you were right to be concerned for G's safety and do *something*, but let me get this straight -- you walked up to three people ganging up on a third, you took their word that they had called 911, and then you were surprised when they snapped at you and said to mind your own business?

That's more risk than I'd personally take. It could have turned extremely dangerous for you. I think I'd stay a safe distance back, definitely call 911 myself, yell concerns about the guy on the ground from a little ways away, and perhaps start filming and let the subduers know I was doing so.
posted by ktkt at 1:41 AM on September 9, 2014 [10 favorites]

Best answer: When in doubt, call 911 yourself. Doesn't matter if they already have it reported. It'll just confirm the severity of the situation so the 911 officer can properly dispatch.
posted by zizzle at 4:18 AM on September 9, 2014 [5 favorites]

Next time, start filming? You can be at a safer distance and filming them with your phone is increasingly accepted. I think you did a brave and kind thing. It was risky, but you were reasonably careful.
posted by viggorlijah at 5:07 AM on September 9, 2014 [5 favorites]

Good for you. I'm sorry you had to witness that. You must have been terrified and overwhelmed, as well as angry. How confusing. Take care of yourself.

Sometimes doing the right thing feels really shitty.
posted by the young rope-rider at 5:52 AM on September 9, 2014 [6 favorites]

Also, with respect for other commenters, they weren't there. You're safe, you tried your best, that means you did fine. End of story.
posted by the young rope-rider at 5:54 AM on September 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

I think you did good. I'm often the random meddler adn yea, you get shit on a lot even by the people you are trying to help, and sometimes even teh police if you try to recount what you witnessed. But we can't be a society that does nothing until it affects us personally because that's how bad stuff (rape culture, police brutality is allowed to flourish.

The guy snapping at your was assholery, but i think you are 100% right that people do wierd things under adrelaline rushes so he might have been instinctively fending off another "attack." Don't think too much into the shopping thing, if you were in a parking lot i suppose its reasonable to think you were shopping.
posted by WeekendJen at 6:11 AM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

You're doing what everyone does after a crisis, which is replay it over and over and think what you could have done differently. It sounds like you did what you could, and you did more than 90% of the people I know would have. This too shall pass.
posted by randomkeystrike at 6:31 AM on September 9, 2014 [11 favorites]

Being concerned for a fellow human is absolutely a good thing to do. I'm glad that you intervened, and from the sound of it your actions sound reasonable. The reaction you got was probably due to the hyped up nature of the individual and certainly does not reflect on you.

As others said, being cautious wouldn't hurt, and had the situation been otherwise you could have got into trouble in this instance. But you didn't, so I wouldn't feel bad about that!
posted by Cannon Fodder at 7:41 AM on September 9, 2014

YAY FOR YOU!!!!!!!!!

Thank you so much for being reasonable and courageous when tensions were high and adrenaline was in play.

Bless you.
posted by jbenben at 8:44 AM on September 9, 2014 [5 favorites]

Your behavior was reasonable, honorable, and beyond reproach. Also very brave.

Your aunt was wrong to say you shouldn't have 'meddled' (on the other hand it's probable her words came from a concern for your safety and hers rather than moral distaste for what you did).

Let's assume that the guy on the ground had committed the offense in question. That doesn't mean he suddenly loses the right to life. From what you've said, your perception that his life was at risk was a reasonable one. And, while you were not under a duty to help him, neither were you under any prohibition to do so. It's OK to to come to the aid of a fellow citizen who is in danger.

You did the right thing, even in the face of implied threats and derision. If I were you, I would feel proud.
posted by Pechorin at 11:19 AM on September 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Your instincts were good, and you did a good thing -- especially staying until the pros arrived.

Like others have suggested, if you were to run into a situation like that again (hopefully you won't), I would call 911 independently. Part of the dispatcher's job is to co-ordinate multiple reports of the same event. They won't send out double the response just because they got two calls, and so there is no risk involved in calling on your own.

The world needs more orbit-3s.
posted by sparklemotion at 11:49 AM on September 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

Pretty sure that C could conceivably be charged with assault, though in light of the situation, probably would not be.

You did the right thing. I like to think I would have called 911 myself if placed in that situation, however, how we THINK we'll respond to a violent event or emergency is rarely how we would actually react.

The police should have taken the information of the three people (A, B, and C) who were holding G down, as the state will need those people to testify in court as witnesses to the theft. If it is bothering you that much, I suppose you could call the police on a non-emergency number, mention that you were a witness to the arrest at such and such day and time at such and such location, and that you are concerned that C was using excessive restraining force on the suspect's neck, to the point where the suspect expressed concern about having trouble breathing. I'm not sure the police would DO anything about that -- but it could assuage your concerns. At best the police might take a statement from you and might charge C with assault. I'm not a lawyer, nor am I in any way involved with law enforcement professions, so this is just a lay person's guess here.
posted by tckma at 1:41 PM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for your answers. From a medical/physical standpoint, it's good to know what the potential danger is, so thanks for the links to examples of injury. It's also been very helpful to me to hear anecdotes to better understand the confrontation/communication standpoint.

Calling 911 independently regardless of an established call is also not something I had considered (due to lack of experience, I guess?), but would appear to make total sense in these situations. So thank you also, for that added perspective. I will also consider that determining personal risk is something that I should prioritize in these types of situations, but hopefully this isn't something I will run into often!

I marked some as best answers, but every answer was helpful to me, and some were very kind. It has really helped me to process this, in the best way. Thank you all!
posted by orbit-3 at 10:39 PM on September 9, 2014

Good for you! You renew my faith in humanity, which seems to need renewal more frequently than ever before.

You may not realize it, but you may have saved the life of the guy on the ground. I think it's fair to say that having someone's knee on your neck is a situation that could go seriously downhill in a hurry - all that has to happen is for the knee to slip a little or the person on top shift his weight a bit, or even for the pressure on the neck to continue for a few moments too long and the person is hurt too badly to survive. The news has been full of this information lately, to the point that I wouldn't be surprised if the "knee" man actually learned this maneuver from the news as a means used by police to absolutely subdue someone.

You are brave and wonderful and yes, you did the right thing. The only thing I think you should have done differently is to film the entire thing if you had the means to do so, but there probably wasn't time to even think about that - the urgency for your intervention was clear and you stepped up to the plate.

Well done.
posted by aryma at 11:45 PM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

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