Experts say police who dragged passenger had other options
CHICAGO — Airport police officers called to remove a passenger who refused to leave a United Express flight essentially walked into what law enforcement experts say was a no-win situation: enforcing a business decision by a private company.
But if the passenger posed no threat and was not being disruptive, officers almost certainly could have tried an approach other than dragging him out of his seat and down the aisle, including simply telling the airline to resolve the situation itself, experts said.
Cellphone video of the bloodied passenger, 69-year-old David Dao of Elizabethtown, Kentucky, has become a public-relations nightmare for United and led to the suspension of three police officers who worked for the Chicago Department of Aviation.
The video also underscores a growing dilemma: From airlines to schools, police are called to deal with situations that in the past might have been handled without them, sometimes leading officers to respond with force far beyond the provocation.
“Police have an innate bias for action, but there are times that it’s not in their best interest or that of their agency to get involved in an issue that requires you to use a high level of force,” said Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation, a Washington D.C.-based research group, and former police chief in Redlands, California. “You have to ask whether … you really needed to use force when doing the airline’s bidding.”
In an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America” aired Wednesday, the chief executive of United Airlines said the carrier will no longer ask police to remove passengers from full flights.
After passengers were already seated on the full flight, United announced that four people needed to get off to make room for employees of a partner airline. When nobody accepted the airline’s offer of $800 to relinquish a seat, the airline chose four passengers at random. All but Dao agreed to leave.
It’s unclear what police were told by the airline about the situation. Screaming can be heard on the videos as Dao is dragged from his window seat and across the armrest, but he is not seen fighting with the officers. He appears relatively passive while being dragged. Later he’s seen standing in the aisle saying quietly, “I want to go home, I want to go home.”
But once police were aboard the plane, it would have been difficult to walk away, especially if they did not know why the passenger was asked to leave, said Kevin Murphy, executive director of the Airport Law Enforcement Agencies Network.
“Once you’re there, it becomes tough to disengage. You have an obligation,” Murphy said. “If someone is saying they’re staying no matter what the property owner says, you have to wonder why they want to try so hard,” to stay … “Is there something else going on?”
But police officers should try to find out what they are going into and to defuse the situation, if possible, experts said.
Officers with the Los Angeles Airport Police do not get involved in civil matters such as business disputes between airlines and passengers. They have sometimes refused airlines’ requests to board planes, said spokesman and police officer Rob Pedregon.
“We don’t just fly into action when someone calls us,” he said. Officers will “basically find out the whole situation, why we’re here, get the background and then decide if it’s within our legal authority. We wouldn’t get (someone) off just because the airline wants them off. If a law is broken, then we will take action.”