Carol Gotbaum: a News Reader’s Notes

A woman misses her flight, becomes upset, starts screaming. This is not a scenario one would expect to end with the woman dead in a police cell within the hour, but that is indeed how Carol Gotbaum’s story turned out on September 28 at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport. On the one hand, Gotbaum was an alcoholic, known to her family as suicidal, on her way to check into a 30-day program near Tucson. Did she want to die? On the other, an airport surveillance video shows police officers wrestling with her on the floor of the concourse. Did they go too far?

As always with this sort of situation, there is room in these events. Different people see different things in such a video. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Gotbaum case over the last week, trying to get my thoughts straight. I’m not sure why it matters to me, except I was once slightly involved in law enforcement and was trained in and thought about situations where, it was expected, I would use force to bring people under control, “the minimum force necessary,” but you’d be surprised what that can look like. Maybe I can picture myself a little too clearly getting into a situation where there’s nothing for it but to wrestle around on the floor with a 105-pound woman, trying to get her into handcuffs.

Then I come across a blog comment on the case where someone says “what’s really sad is that Americans are so spineless that they will assume anyone harmed by the state deserved it.” Is that me? I wonder. Did some switch turn over in me during my training? Am I now just an apologist for state force, trained to submit and take my beating and thank the man for it?

I don’t know, though. I like to think I’m as opposed to “police brutality” as the next guy (although this is about as pointless a thing to even say as “I support family values”), and I’m more concerned than many – I think – that this country is on a not-so-slow-slide toward a disturbing level of authoritarianism and uniform worship.

But I’ve watched the video (on which more later), and, while I’m willing to concede that the Phoenix police seem to have made at least one large mistake in their dealings with Carol Gotbaum, I’m afraid I just don’t see a lot of the rest of that stuff in this case.

Carol, mother of three, 45 years old when she died, was born in South Africa. In 1995 she married Noah Gotbaum, the financier son of an eminent New York family with long ties to the city: his mother (Betsy) is the head of the city’s public defenders bureau, his father (Victor) the former leader of the city’s largest municipal union, his stepmother (Sarah) the retired city parks commissioner. As their recent proficiency with lawyers, private detectives, and private forensic pathologists attests, the Gotbaum family is the kind of family that makes things happen. When Carol and Noah were married in the Boathouse in Central Park, an extensive fireworks display was seen over the Great Lawn. Though the fireworks had been set off for an unrelated New York Philharmonic event, wedding guests naturally assumed that Noah’s stepmother had made some calls, it was reported in the New York Times. (NYT) Betsy, meanwhile, is reportedly considering running for mayor of New York in 2009. (Village Voice)

Though Noah was from New York originally, he and Carol lived in London at first. They moved to the city in 2002 and took a brownstone on the Upper West Side in 2003. The New York Times relates that “friends recalled Noah and Carol as a romantic couple who would surprise each other with jaunts to Paris or Prague,” but there was a dark side. Carol suffered from depression and alcoholism. In the same article, the New York Times reports that she made several failed efforts at rehab over the years and was hospitalized about a year ago after what family members describe as a suicide attempt.

Her emotional state reached “fever pitch” in September, according to Sarah Gotbaum. Betsy Gotbaum remembers Carol recently saying “I’m really down.” Betsy Gotbaum also remembers Carol saying “I know my behavior is self-destructive.” (NYT) On Sept. 27, Carol made plans to travel to a residential addictions-treatment facility in Arizona the next day. Noah has said that the reason he did not plan to accompany her was because she was booked on a direct flight. (NYT) Later, trying to locate his wife on the afternoon of September 28th, he would tell emergency operators at the Phoenix airport that “the police don’t really understand what they’re dealing with right now.” He would say “they’re playing with real fire right now. (NYT)

On the morning of Friday, September 28, Carol changed her travel plans, apparently so that she would have time to take her children to school that morning. Instead of flying directly, she would stop over in Phoenix. It is unclear when Noah became aware of this change, but at some point, it has been reported, arrangements were made to have Carol met by friends in Phoenix who would keep her company until her next flight left. (Flight chronology and airport behavior in this section are as reported by the New York Times.)

They never arrived.

Carol landed at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport at 12:18 p.m. and, as attested by both police and her family’s lawyer, stopped into an airport bar. The policewoman who would later search her after her arrest recorded that Carol “smelled strongly of intoxicating beverage on her breath.” (The eventual autopsy found alcohol, two anti-depressants, cough medicine, two antihistamines and ibuprofen in her bloodstream.)

1:05: Carol tries to check in for her 1:30 connecting flight, only to be told that she is too late, U.S. Airways has given her seat away, and the plane’s doors are closed. (This is, frankly, strange, given that domestic flights typically begin boarding only thirty minutes before departure time and also given that U.S. Airways, on its company web site, doesn’t threaten to give your seat away unless you arrive in the gate area later than fifteen minutes before the flight is scheduled to take off. But I can find no further details on this part of the story on-line.)

U.S. Airways places Carol on standby for a 2:58 p.m. flight.

2:30: In the waiting area for the 2:58 flight, she learns that she will not be given a seat. (I was once told by an airline employee that, in general, passengers on standby after missing a flight have the lowest status among all possible standby passengers, though, as noted earlier, it seems dubious in the extreme to say that Carol “missed” her flight.) Carol convinces another passenger to switch tickets with her. When informed that this is not permitted, she “explodes,” as the New York Times puts it. According to witnesses, this is the point at which she screams “I’m not a terrorist. I’m a sick mother. I need help.” (Perhaps the subject of terrorism arose because the gate employee who informed her that switching tickets is not permitted mentioned “security concerns,” or something like that.)

Carol then starts running down the concourse. At one point she stops and kneels. She bangs her hands on the floor. She upends her purse and dumps its contents on the floor. She throws her BlackBerry cell phone. She runs again, this time coming to a halt near the back end of a security checkpoint.

It is at this point that the publicly available video recording picks up. I’ll talk about the tape later, but for now I’ll just finish the story: standing near the checkpoint, Carol continues to scream, “profanity” according to some witnesses, the statement “I hate American police,” according to another. TSA security guards (two men and a woman) emerge from the checkpoint and try unsuccessfully to calm her down. She continues to yell and scream.

Three police officers arrive and two of them start talking to her. Eventually, there is a struggle. Carol is handcuffed with her arms behind her back and carried off by the police to a holding cell. Her handcuffs are attached to a bracket in the wall with a longer set of shackles, and she is left alone, unmonitored even by a camera. She continues to scream for a few minutes and then falls silent. Investigating this change, “6-8 minutes” after first confining her (Village Voice), officers find her prostrate and unconscious, the shackle chain stretched across her neck.

Carol is pronounced dead at 3:29 p.m.

Four days after Carol’s death, Michael Manning, a lawyer retained in this matter by the Gotbaum family, released a statement to the effect that “Carol was without doubt emotionally disturbed” and that “the family understands why the Phoenix Police Department intervened,” though he expressed concern about “what happened after the intervention.” By October 4, after Manning had had a chance to interview witnesses, his tone had hardened: “the police approached her… [and] made no effort to speak to her, calm her or assess the situation. Two of them immediately took her to the ground.”

Though police disputed Manning’s description and announced plans to release a surveillance tape that, they asserted, would contradict him, Manning’s take was and has remained the take of numerous commentators, bloggers, and blog commenters. And as is so often the case, the tape that police eventually released (sometime between Oct. 4th and Oct. 8th) was far from dispositive. It had no sound, for one thing, and it also happened that the camera that recorded the video had hung from the ceiling, a good 20 yards distant from where Carol’s confrontation with police played out, so that one must look very closely, pausing and rewinding and pausing again, to discern more than broad physical gestures.

The video opens with a several-second establishing shot: the concourse, a broad expanse of swirly-patterned gray carpet, is nearly empty, except for a man pulling a wheeled suitcase who has paused to look back over his shoulder down the concourse. The security checkpoint is in the middle-to-long range of the shot, to the right.

Then, from far off down the concourse, Carol comes into view, running toward the camera. First only her legs are visible, the rest obscured by an airport-information sign that limits the upper edge of the camera’s shot, then her light shirt, then her long reddish-brown hair. She stops about twenty yards short of the camera. She is yelling and bending from the waist with the force of what she is yelling, in almost precisely the manner of someone repeatedly, violently sneezing. A passerby crossing the foreground of the shot looks her way, as if startled. As she continues to scream, whipping back and forth, a tall man in the dark pants and white shirt of a TSA guard moves out from the security checkpoint to talk to her. After a few seconds, he is joined by two more guards.

It seems important to me that the guards simply talk to Carol, all remaining about six feet away from her. It also seems important that Carol waves her arms while she talks. It seems important that one of the guards at one point touches the other on the back as if to caution him, and that they then both take a step away from Carol.

The first police officer comes into view at around the forty-fifth second of tape, although Carol does not appear to notice him until about the fifty-third second of tape, when he stops about six feet from her and apparently addresses her. She turns toward him, and they talk for a few seconds before she backs away from him, her right arm up by her head, gesturing. Over the course of the next ten seconds, while the first cop continues to stand and talk to Carol, he is joined by another cop while a third takes up a station about twenty feet away.

Carol begins bending from the waist, apparently screaming again, and gestures up and down with her arms. The concourse is growing more crowded, with other passengers streaming around the scene of the confrontation. At one point, Carol suddenly starts backing away from the police. The first officer takes hold of her arm, and she spins away, trying to pull her arm free. The second cop moves in and takes hold of her other arm, and so begins the section of the video that culminates in Carol’s being handcuffed and taken away.

It seems important to me that police were at first simply talking to Carol. It also seems important that it is Carol who looks to have made the decision to end the conversation, suddenly moving away from the police in what appears to me the posture of someone who intends to keep moving away. It seems important, further, that the first officer on the scene had had less than 20 seconds – and the other two cops even less time than that – to assess the situation before the situation began to change. Before the “subject” went “mobile.”

It also seems important that Carol put up quite a fight. From first laying hands on her to finally getting her into cuffs, the cops struggle with Carol for almost a minute, a struggle intense enough that the third cop – who had at first held back, observing – makes the decision to join about ten seconds in. He steps back again about eight seconds later, perhaps thinking the other two have the situation in hand, then apparently finds it necessary to rejoin his colleagues after about another eight seconds.

Finally, Carol is handcuffed, and the police lift her to her feet. Two of them walk with her past the camera, each essentially holding her up by an arm because she is stiffening her legs and not really walking.

In the last seconds of the video, as they are about to pass the camera and leave our view, we finally see their faces: the police, stone-faced, glaring; Carol, her hair wild, her face a grimace of anger and pain.

But the things that seem important to me about the video don’t seem to have registered with quite the same effect on everyone else, which is, to me, one of the more interesting aspects of controversies like this one. An October 8th article by education scholar and Gotbaum family friend Diane Ravitch seems representative of one of the major prevailing points of view on the matter, a point of view in alignment with attorney Michael Massing’s October 4th assertion that police, in their dealings with Carol, “made no effort to speak to her, calm her or assess the situation” before two of them “immediately took her to the ground.”

To Ravitch, viewing the video, “anyone can see” that police used excessive force.

“Three burly police officers approached Carol, a slender woman of about 105 pounds, and promptly wrestled her to the ground, face-down. One of them appeared to sit on her back while she was handcuffed. Then they pulled her to her feet and dragged her away, with her hands cuffed behind her back…

“The police officers treated her like a reluctant cow that they were bringing to slaughter, not like a woman in emotional trauma. They were cowboys, she was the terrified beast that needed to be roped and tied down.”

Ravitch goes on to say that the police dealt with Carol as they would “with a rabid dog or a vicious criminal,” and said “the procedures need to be reviewed to figure out how to distinguish between a terrorist and a person who is emotionally and mentally disturbed.”

Commentators like Ravitch make much of the fact that Carol was a small woman and that it was three large male officers who took her into custody. They see this as proof that the police over-reacted. But it seems to me, from watching the video, that these three police had their hands full. It seems to me from watching the video that just one officer might not have been able to get Carol into handcuffs at all, at least not without using something other than “holds,” not to mention that it’s hard for me to imagine police officers who would be content to simply roll around on the ground and wrestle “with a rabid dog or a vicious criminal” without bringing some other tools into use.

Around one hundred people left comments on Ravitch’s web posting. Roughly speaking, over eighty percent supported Ravitch’s basic thrust. Some typical comments are listed below:

Nommo: “They just murdered her, is all.”

caribconsult: “If these so-called ‘airport security’ police can’t tell the difference between an hysterical person and a terrorist, what in the hell are they doing at the airport? Who was the nitwit that gave them this assignment they so woefully discharged?”

arcturus9797: “The video gives damning evidence that she was treated with brutal force…. Carol was crying for help and what she got was a vicious attack. If law enforcement authorities cannot tell a bizarrely acting woman pleading for help from a terrorist, they cannot be acting competently or professionally. Carol was unarmed and presented no danger to anyone, except herself, and she could have been calmed down.”

Among the commenters who disagreed with Ravitch are a few you wouldn’t really want to find yourself siding with, namely those who take a sort of “she had it coming” stance, blaming her for being white and well-to-do (accidents of birth, remember) and taking satisfaction that she experienced what so many poor minorities do, etc., which seems to me a rather backasswards way of looking at the issue of police use of force.

But I was struck by a few comments from people who have been in this kind of situation before:

dbw1: “I am a volunteer EMT. I have been at emergency scenes where, whether due to head injury or drugs or behavioral reasons, a patient has behaved in an irrational manner. It often requires MORE police (and this responsibility always falls to the police) to subdue a patient safely than it would take to simply subdue someone. To a bystander, the process often appears overwhelming.”

sd63: “As a mental health professional, I’d like to comment. This is a horrific tragedy and my heart goes out to Mrs. Gotbaum’s family. Based on my understanding, the police were following their protocol appropriately by detaining someone displaying erratic behavior. It is difficult to ascertain the problem and offer solutions when someone is distraught and surrounded by strangers in a chaotic setting like an airport. My concern is with the fact that they left her alone in the holding room, even for a few minutes. One needs to rule out a physical cause for this type of behavior (diabetic reaction?), a drug reaction or (as was the case) a very vulnerable person with suicidal potential. I believe they are given training regarding the assessment and management of individuals in an acute psychiatric crisis. Perhaps they were waiting for her to calm down, but they should have had someone sit with her 1:1. Again, I’m so sorry for such a tragic loss.”

There was a similar comment on the Youtube page of the version of the security video I watched:

shinykid : “Usually I don’t chime in on stuff like this, but as a worker at a mental health facility for forensics, I too have to occasionally secure individuals in order to keep them from hurting themselves or others. The police did a fine job in taking custody of the woman in a relatively painless fashion.”

In the days following Gotbaum’s arrest, the Arizona Republic convened a panel of mental-health practitioners to comment on events, including Frank Scarpati, a counselor at Community Bridges, a Mesa substance-abuse center, and Dr. Michael Carlton, who directs the chemical-dependency unit at St. Luke’s Medical Center in Phoenix. Scarpati characterized the police as having done “probably… the best they could,” observing that “they simply saw someone emotionally out of control who could have been a danger.” Carlton said that, to someone in the throes of a complete breakdown, as Gotbaum appeared to be, “reasoning with her in that state of mind may not have worked… you might as well be from Mars.”

I’m out of time and a little bit over the 1,600-2,000-word limit I’d hoped to impose on these essays. My self-imposed deadline is bearing down on me, and besides I have to get back to my “day job” and polish up a report I’m editing.

I’m not under any illusion that I’ve changed anyone’s mind with this essay, and I’m not positive I want to. I’m not positive it’s warranted: most of my conclusions, after all, come from about a minute of indistinct, soundless videotape with an undocumented chain of custody, videotape that covers neither the beginning nor the end of the awful events of September 28th. It was with some hesitation that I even decided to write this: I was afraid that people with whom I’ve been discussing this case might feel bludgeoned by my words, and that’s not my intent either. As I said earlier, there is room in all of this, and I guess I can see a narrative fitting these facts in which police were in fact rougher than they needed to be, but honestly this would have to have been either off-camera or at the micro level: on camera, no fists flew, no kicks were given, and all in all the tape looks to me like what happens when police are trying to put handcuffs on someone who doesn’t want them to (and I really was trained that handcuffing in such a situation really is for the person’s safety, so the officers can have more control over what an out-of-control person does, so law enforcement either really does accept this as a principle or my teachers were just trying to trick me). It doesn’t take much to make handcuffing pretty difficult, if you think about how large a handcuff is – and for that matter, let me just say that handcuffing gets easier the more pain you are willing to inflict, which is worth thinking about: I’m sure those cops didn’t want to look like bumbling weak fools on the floor of an airport concourse for a minute or so.

And weirdly, while I came into this sure I believed that cops had erred by not watching Carol in her cell, I find I can now see this as something other than the grossest negligence, now that I understand that she was dead within minutes of being put in her cell, as reported in the New York Times (that bastion of vicious right-wing police cheerleaders), conceivably before the police who struggled with her had even caught their breaths. But I do think it was a mistake for them to leave her alone nonetheless.

I also worried about causing undue pain to anyone who knew Carol, on the off chance they might stumble across this. I decided to proceed because, for one thing, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I wanted to be sure that I had really exposed myself to a good amount of the actual evidence, rather than relying on the opinions of others. And there is also the fact that media events such as this one become part of the public consciousness, part of the story we tell ourselves about what sort of society we live in. It’s stressful, therefore, to find myself believing something different about the Gotbaum case than do many people I respect and love, and I wanted to try to get through some of that in a calm and rational manner.

And then on the other hand there’s this: I remember standing on a coral atoll called Dog Rocks in the Florida Straits, where I’d been sent with a half dozen other Coast Guard boarding officers to take control of and eventually evacuate about 75 Haitian migrants whose sinking sailboat had run aground there. The surface of the island was jagged sharp coral, like broken glass set in concrete. There was no water on the island, and none of the Haitians had brought much food. We were supplying both of those things, and so most of the people were what we were in the habit of referring to as “compliant.” There was this one guy, though, who kept shouting something in Haitian and waving his arms, like he was trying to get everyone to do something. This was the kind of thing we were in the habit of thinking we were supposed to confront. You know. Before it got out of hand. There were three of us who made a sort of flickering eye contact and nodded and gestured in shrugs and chin nudges (it took longer to write that out than it took to actually do it), and then we were walking toward the guy, one of us planning to “contact” and the others planning to “cover” and all of us thinking to ourselves about where we would put our hands on him if it came to that.

I remember thinking, “he’ll sure shut up fast if we take him down onto this coral,” which makes me wonder if I really have a useful perspective on this kind of thing at all.

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