Shooting Superman

As recently noted, the new diagnosis whenever someone dies following a tazing is “excited delirium,” which Steve Tuttle from Taser International advised me was not their invention, even if they seized upon it as an awfully facile excuse. But there is another word in the lexicon of force to note: superhuman.

Who doesn’t think it sounds pretty darned cool to be described as a “man of steel”?  Except the word gets trotted out not as a compliment, but a rationalization. From Work Without Dread :


Bartholomew Williams, the unarmed African-American graduate student shot dead on Sunday night by Cal State San Bernardino campus police, showed “superhuman strength” as he struggled with them, according to police. If that sounds familiar, that’s because superhumanity is a lot more common than has been thought. Roberto Laudisio-Curdi, an unarmed student killed by police in Sydney in October, also had “superhuman strength.” A man on a stolen motorcycle who resisted arrest in South Carolina last September had “superhuman strength” too, although it seems to me that it was more to his advantage that he had a gun, which the deputy through superhuman strength of his own got control of. Last summer in Maryland, a guy in a shootout with police “held on to his gun” after being hit by a bullet, which led a police spokesperson to remark, “The PCP just provokes superhuman strength.” And at about the same time, police in Georgia said that a delirious man that they arrested “had superhuman strength and admitted being high on bath salts.” (See also State of North Carolina v. Jonathan Howard Norton, No. COA10–1544, June 2011.)

The post goes on to argue that the use of the characterization “superhuman” is the new means of dehumanizing the target of police violence.


You don’t have to be Foucault to see that superhumanity functions as subhumanity; it allows the nonhuman to be eliminated while releasing the perceiver from having to answer for seeing someone as nonhuman. Like last spring’s “bath salts” hysteria itself, the phrase “superhuman strength” reflects police discomfort with mental illness–or even just “irrationality”–on the one hand, and with the unaccountable phenomenon of resisting arrest on the other.

While this explanation delves deeply into the police psychology of viewing non-cops, the us-and-them mentality, as lesser humans unworthy of concern or compassion, my sense is that the description isn’t so much a tacit reflection of their dehumanization as it is another in the long list of convenient words that can provide a ready excuse for the use of force. It’s easy, quick and immediately explains why they had to shoot, taze, beat a person whose conduct otherwise compelled no need for force.

As is often the case, the word is used in conjunction with the underlying criminal accusation, such as the use of PCP or bath salts, playing upon public hysteria and ignorance. After all, how many people are going to rush to the aid of the dead man claiming they use PCP all the time and never had superhuman strength?  On the other side, the mythology surrounding crazy, wild things that happen to people who do demon drugs plays right into a claim like this.  As Judy Tenuta liked to say, “it can happen.”

While police are frequently uncomfortable with mental illness or irrationality, though the latter usually reflects the peculiar police perspective that failure to immediately comply with their commands constitutes irrationality per se, the use of force isn’t limited by any stretch to those who suffer from some mental impairment.  With increasing frequency, it’s just a matter of time and convenience, where they have the means to end an incident now, and use it, or don’t feel much like chasing down a perp and just shoot instead.  It’s quick and easy, the only thing needed is an excuse. 

The beauty of characterizing a person as having “superhuman” strength is that it not only provides a justification for the use of force that would otherwise be inexcusable, but it can’t be tested later for veracity.  Much like the beloved “furtive gesture,” it happened only because the police officer said so, and then it’s gone.  In the case of furtive gesture, the result is a search. In the case of superhuman strength, there’s usually a dead body.

Does anybody actually have this “superhuman” strength? No and yes.  No, there is no such thing as Superman, and no one suddenly manifests abilities beyond those of mere mortals, regardless of whether they’re wearing a cape.  But drugs do cause disinhibition, where a person will exert his very human strength to its fullest, without any reluctance, despite doing so in the face of police force.  The fact is that a person on PCP may well beat a cop in fight; cops don’t necessarily have secret cop-fu that allows them to come out on top in hand-to-hand combat.  They can be beaten. They can be hurt. They are not inclined to let that happen.

At the same time, use of such shorthands as “superhuman” strength build a mythology that’s hard to resist. It becomes a mantra, where just saying the magic words makes whatever comes afterward perfectly understandable. What could the cop do in the face of this drugged up guy with superhuman strength? He had no choice but to shoot.  And another unarmed person lies dead on the street, and there is no way to dispute it.  Except it isn’t real.

H/T FritzMuffKnuckle

8 comments on “Shooting Superman

  1. Dismoun

    From the tone of your post, it would appear that each of your examples represented lazy, overfed cops who simply chose to shoot a resisting suspect rather than expend the sweat to arrest him peacefully.

    From the CalState article:

    ” After snatching the pepper spray, the student sprayed the officer it belonged to and later, when the same officer was on the ground, began kicking him “violently” in the head and chest, Lt. Williams said. “

    The fact is, police have two basic ways to take a person into custody: they can do it by consent, or they can force the person into custody. The second option is actually far harder than people realize, and most police weapons and techniques are used not to physically immobilize and cuff a person, they are used to cause the person to cease resistance. The only real exceptions are the taser, handgun and choke hold.

    Someone who is sufficiently motivated, either through mental illness, substance abuse, or sheer blind rage can be surprisingly difficult to control. Even an average sized person will require more than one officer to control them sufficiently to cuff them. If the person is large, it may take more than three or four people to restrain them, and if they are slippery with sweat and offer few handholds (naked people come to mind), it may be simply impossible to retrain them with hands alone. I encourage you to try to place into handcuffs someone who simply refuses to comply with instructions, direction or pain-compliance techniques. If the person is willing to have you dislocate their shoulder rather than be cuffed, or is insensible to the pain, good luck restraining them without injury.

    Make no mistake, there are certainly bad cops, and bad shootings. I’d certainly like to know what you’d suggest the officers in the cal-state incident should have done, though. If physical force from three people, the use of pepper spray and batons were insufficient to control the indiviudal, and he had not only disarmed one of the other officers but pepper sprayed him and was kicking him in the head and torso. It appeared (granted, this is the police talking) that they had in fact exhausted the other options available to them in the circumstances.

    The phrase ‘superhuman strength’ is hackneyed and inaccurate, to be sure, but it does get the point across. I rarely see it used in circumstances where one officer and one suspect are fighting, it seems to crop up in situations where several officers are unable to restrain someone, or where someone suffers severe injuries and keeps resisting, requiring the infliction of more damage before the situation ends. I have personal experience with a 14 year old girl overdosing on something, who struggled so hard that it required four police officers to hold her still enough to be sedated. I wouldn’t describe her as superhuman, but as someone who was not reacting at all to pain, and who was highly motivated to escape, allowing her to access more of her natural muscular capac

  2. SHG

    You’re point is well taken, that there are times when cops, even good cops, are constrained to use force because of the situation. My point is that this “superhuman” trope is crap, and the manufacture of these myths to be used a shorthand excuses invariably leads to trouble, where the “lazy, overfed” cops shoot, yell “superhuman,” and that’s the end of it.

    Just like the old dropsy days, there no doubt were actual dropsy cases, but when every case becomes a dropsy case because it’s too easy to say, it has to end. Superhuman may get the point across, but it’s nonsense. Let facts prevail rather then phoney mantras.

  3. Dr. Sigmund Droid

    .
    Greenfield, I think I have identified your major problem now. You seem too insistent on letting the facts get in the way of “justice” (and probably just about everything else in your life) . . .

    Of all people, you should know, that facts – how can I say this? – facts, at times, them thar things can be so darn inconvenient to so many people. Never let a good or bad fact stop progress . . .

    To another topic in your original post – I really like the sound cadence and I am very intrigued by this whole “excited delirium” concept. I’m now compelled to try it at least once. Gotta add that to my bucket list. It seems so, er um, well, exciting!! I’ve got a question for you though – do I need to be donkey punched in order experience the “excited delirium”?? Because I’m not so sure I’m ready for that quite yet . . .

  4. Dr. Sigmund Droid

    .
    SHG, you are a true renaissance man. You appear to have diverse expertise across a wide range of subjects. Have you actually experienced the “excited delirium” for yourself or did you just look it up on Wikipedia?? Enquiring minds want to know . . .

    My ultimate goal before I die is to become self-actualized and it sure seems like the “excited delirium” is my fast track to getting there . . .

  5. Nigel Declan

    I must say that I am disappointed that “superhuman strength” made it into the dehumanization/post hoc rationalization lexicon ahead of my personal preference “eminently shootable/tazable”. When “furtive gestures” needs an update, I’m pulling for “looking criminal-ish” to take its place.

  6. SHG

    At least looking “ciminal-ish” would be relatively truthful. Kinda like looking “black-ish” or “young-ish.”

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