A sheriff’s deputy in Manatee County, Florida, used a stun gun three times on a 70-year-old grandmother last week after she blocked his efforts to enter her home. Deputy Jason Riley was executing an arrest warrant on December 26 for Barbara Pinkney’s grandson at the time, who’d allegedly violated the conditions of his probation by carrying a concealed weapon and had written his grandmother’s address on his probation paperwork, according to the Washington Post.
Pinkney demanded to see a search warrant. Riley didn’t have one, nor was he legally required to — Florida law allows officers to enter homes with just an arrest warrant if they believe a suspect is present. The grandson was not present. When Riley tried forcing his way inside, Pinkney stuck her foot across the doorway to block him from entering. He responded by stunning her three times — once in the left arm and twice in the upper back — before pinning the five-foot-two black septuagenarian to the ground with his knee as another deputy handcuffed her.
An acknowledged failure of the Black Lives Matter movement is that it failed to stop police killings. Quite the contrary: Annual police shootings have remained more or less steady since the protest movement launched in 2014, hovering between 950 and 1,000, with 2019 marking its lowest tally in four years with just shy of 900. But equally stark is the extent to which police violence consistently fails to spare even the most vulnerable, including children and the elderly. One byproduct of a law enforcement apparatus whose operatives have such wide latitude to beat and kill with impunity — especially when the subjects are black — is that anyone who resists their authority is fair game, no matter how minimal a threat they actually pose.
Several high-profile examples have included black grandmothers like Pinkney. In 2014, a California Highway Patrol officer was captured on video straddling 51-year-old black grandmother Marlene Pinnock by the side of a freeway and punching her repeatedly in the face; he claimed to be subduing her to protect her from walking into traffic. In 2018, a traffic stop in Alpharetta, Georgia, escalated when Officer James Legg forcibly dragged 65-year-old black grandmother Rose Campbell from her car after she refused to exit her vehicle. Legg quit the force before disciplinary measures could be taken. Pinkney told WFLA over the weekend that she has trouble sleeping at night as a result of her assault. “I don’t know,” she said. “Whenever I see police I just try to not look at them.” Neither age nor infirmity prevented officers from seeing these unarmed, middle-aged–to–elderly women as worthy of violent intervention.
Nor is this Riley’s first such experience. In 2008, the Manatee County deputy arrested a 75-year-old grandfather named Benjamin Daker who was trying to prevent him from executing an arrest warrant against his grandson. Daker, who was white and frightened that Riley would damage his pacemaker, resisted detention as a protective measure and ended up lying in the back of the officer’s car with a fractured rib. Riley was found not guilty by a jury of wrongdoing in 2012. This is standard. Only 33 percent of officers were convicted of crimes for use-of-force incidents between 2009 and 2010, and just 36 percent of those ended up serving prison sentences — in both cases roughly half the rate of civilians charged with comparable crimes, according to Vox.
If nothing else, last week’s incident casts further doubt on the notion that police officers apply force commensurate with the level of threat they perceive. Most official defenses of use-of-force incidents against unarmed civilians hinge on the claim that an officer, or officers, felt their safety was at immediate risk and they had to act violently to prevent violence against themselves or others. Aside from the inherent subjectivity of this rationale — which rest almost entirely on the officer convincing investigators or jurors that he or she “reasonably” feared for their safety, which is invariably easy to do — it evaporates in the face of brutality against grandmothers. One would be hard-pressed to conjure a physical threat less dire than a 70-year-old trying to bar entry to her house using her leg.
Pinkney was charged with battery and resisting arrest and released on $1,000 bond. If convicted, she faces up to six years in prison and $6,000 in fines. Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells blamed her entirely for the incident. “Deputies had lawful reason to enter the residence and search for [Pinkney’s grandson],” Wells wrote in a statement, according to the Post. “Had [she] complied with the duputies [sic] orders, none of this would have happened. From everything we can see at this point, it appears the deputy did what he had to do.” The notion that Riley “had to” use a stun gun three times to subdue a 70-year-old grandmother suggests a prevailing attitude among many law enforcement officials that there’s no unarmed civilian for whom a stun gun isn’t an appropriate response, given the right circumstances. That Riley’s boss defended him so unequivocally shows the degree to which such conduct is normalized. The question for the rest of America is whether this is an acceptable price to pay for the illusion of public safety.