It could just as easily have been my immigrant father on a stroll. Or a visiting uncle. Or
Watching the video of Alabama
police officer Eric Parker slamming
Sureshbhai Patel to the ground, I
internalized that concern immedi-
ately. And so did my immigrant
mother, a retiree in Oklahoma.
“Subodh, Beta, it’s scary,” she said.
“It could happen to any of us, any
As usual, my mother is right.
And it has happened.
In the last year, our legal system
from Ferguson to Staten Island and
from Florida to California has fumbled to address alleged police-brutality incidents. Too few desis, however, realize that these incidents
far-too-often impact our own community.
Consider a recent case our law
firm handled in another red state.
An Indian immigrant widow — a
retired nurse and mom — was driving home after dark from worship
at her Hindu temple, attired in a
salwaar kameez. A plainclothes
officer in an unmarked vehicle tried
to pull her over, for no apparent
reason. She was never cited for any
traffic violation. Fearful for her
safety, and concerned based upon
rumors she had heard that this
might be someone pretending to be
a policeman, the woman returned
the short distance to the temple.
She knew the parking lot was well
lit and that her fellow devotees
would still be dispersing.
As the woman left her car, the
officer threw her — just like Patel —
to the ground, shattering her knee
into fragments. This left her bedridden for months, and has
caused lifelong pain. She will likely need multiple knee
replacements over her remaining years.
The woman’s anguished son — a lawyer himself — asked
me to represent his mother in the family’s quest for accountability. And she eventually obtained a small taste of justice,
in the form of a settlement with the officer’s municipal
But the officer never lost his job. Nor was he criminally
charged. And the settlement — while reflecting her locale’s
conservative nature — will not fully compensate for a lifetime of pain and partial disability.
While money damages are the only way our legal system
has of compensating for pain and suffering, a civil lawsuit or
settlement cannot heal broken bones or shattered trust. And
any compensation obtained through a civil suit comes only
after the additional stress of the litigation process, which is
rife with obstacles — any one of which could derail a victim’s
What Patel will have to prove
Should Patel be forced to maintain his lawsuit to the end,
he will have to prove that the stop was an unreasonable
seizure under the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment. The
test for that is whether the officers had ‘reasonable suspi-
The (in my opinion, racist) call from the neighbor report-
ing a suspicious ‘skinny black man’ ‘near’ a garage may have
justified the initial police inquiry, but once the officers saw
Patel engaged in no suspicious activity, and that Patel — as
one officer so ungrammatically put it — ‘don’t speak a lick of
English,’ detaining Patel was questionable at best.
Patel will also have to prove that the officers engaged in
The US Supreme Court requires answers to the following
questions: First, how severe was the crime that the officer
believed the suspect to have committed or be committing?
Second, did the suspect present an immediate threat to the
officers’ or the public’s safety? Third, was the suspect actively resisting arrest or attempting to escape?
Officers may only use force that is both ‘reasonable and
necessary’ to effect an arrest or detention. Anything more is
considered excessive. Courts consider the need for applying
force, the relationship between the need and how much
force is used, and the extent of the injury that the officer’s
Here, Patel was engaged in no crime. He presented no
safety threat. The video and audio do not reflect any justification for slamming him to the ground. The amount of force
was massive given the lack of need for it.
What about the injuries?
Partial paralysis. Face bloodied. Neck injuries. And cervi-cal-fusion surgery required.
Police-brutality lawsuits like Patel’s face significant hurdles.
One is a legal doctrine called ‘qualified immunity.’ This
protects officers from liability unless they acted so badly
that no reasonable officer would have acted similarly —
based on the law as it existed at the time of the incident. So,
for example, courts have dismissed excessive-force cases
even after acknowledging that the particular use of force
was improper, because previous case law had not yet
addressed that particular situation.
Qualified immunity is considered so important that officers may seek an appeal in the middle of a case, potentially
dragging litigation on for years.
Another hurdle is that the US Supreme Court has cau-
tioned that we may only judge the reasonableness of an
officer’s particular use of force
from the perspective of a reason-
able officer on the scene — and not
with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.
The Court reasoned that police
have a tough job: ‘Officers are
often forced to make split-second
judgments — in circumstances
that are tense, uncertain, and rap-
idly evolving — about the amount
of force that is necessary in a par-
You can be sure that Officer
Parker’s attorney will be arguing
that Parker was merely responding
to (again, an apparently racist)
caller reporting a suspicious ‘skin-
ny black man’ who was then non-
And another significant hurdle is
skeptical judges and juries.
Most police-misconduct cases
are thrown out of court by trial and
appellate-court judges. Some correctly. Many wrongly. As our federal courts, where these battles are
fought, have become increasingly
corporatist and conservative, the
hostility toward such cases has
Obtaining a fair trial (or settlement) in a police-misconduct case
in a deeply red place like Alabama
is difficult, even with the incident
captured on video.
Many potential jurors, especially
in such places, will choose to see
Some potential jurors (like those who have donated to
Parker’s defense fund) will view Parker as a hero who was
just doing his job. Even if they found liability, juries in such
places would generally be stingy with economic damages.
Fortunately for Patel, the police chief is seeking to terminate Parker’s employment, and saw to it that Parker was
charged with assault. That should help establish the wrongfulness of the officer’s conduct.
The police chief’s stance — and the Alabama governor’s
unprecedented apology to the Indian government — bode
well for Patel and his family. It is refreshing — and sadly,
unusual — to see public officials doing the right thing early
in such cases.
It’s time for more of us to care
Those desis who have believed that it is only African-Americans who should be concerned about law-enforce-ment abuses should now understand that they are mistaken.
To some of our fellow Americans — including, unfortunately, some with badges, guns, and inadequate training, we
remain ‘the other.’ Black lives should matter to us because
brown lives — indeed all lives — matter to us.
Subodh Chandra is the managing partner of The Chandra
Law Firm in Cleveland, Ohio, with a national practice in
civil-rights matters, white-collar-criminal defense, and
business litigation. Previously as Cleveland’s law director,
he negotiated an agreement with the Department of Justice
to improve police use-of-force practices. Before that, as a
federal prosecutor, he earned a commendation from FBI
director Robert Mueller. Chandra is a graduate of the Yale
Law School and Stanford University.
While money damages are the only way our legal system has of compensating for pain and suffering, a civil lawsuit or settlement cannot heal broken bones or shattered trust, says Subodh Chandra
It could have been my immigrant father. A visiting uncle. Or me
A demonstration against police violence, in Oakland, California December 13, 2014 after decisions by grand juries to return no indictments against the officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York. The cases put police treatment of minorities back on the national agenda.
S TEPHEN LAM/REUTERS