I found out a couple months ago that the University of New Mexico Art Museum was going to use this photograph of Agent Lee Baroni for their brochure announcing an upcoming exhibition. I knew they had this print in their permanent collection but I knew nothing of the exhibition. Over this past weekend the curator contacted me and I learned the exhibition was Necessary Force - Art in the Police State opening this coming Friday.
I then read the description of the exhibition on the announcement:
The exhibition Necessary Force: Art in the Police State addresses the systemic forces in our history and our society that continue the violation of civil rights in this country through a range of issues, including police brutality, surveillance and imprisonment, poverty, gun violence, racial profiling, as well as the power of collective protest and collective healing. The exhibition includes seminal photographs documenting the civil rights movement from the museum’s own collection. In conjunction with the exhibit, the museum will host a diverse program of public events with the participation of artists, scholars, law enforcement and local organizations to discuss some of the foremost civil rights issues facing our communities and nation today.
I immediately became concerned because I didn't want my images being taken out of context. My photographs of the Pasadena Police Department document a very diverse and professional agency, during the height of the rock cocaine era in Southern California, doing an outstanding job trying to protect their community from a deadly combination of gangs and drugs. I didn't witness Police brutality, or racial profiling, or civil rights violations. The outrage I witnessed was the effect the drug dealers and gangs had on the law abiding population in northwest area of the city. The description of the exhibition seems like it is not positive towards law enforcement and our criminal justice system and that it may champion modern day anti-police activists, things I do not agree with.
I sent Kymberly Pinder, the Co-Curator and Museum Interim Director, a message with the following description of the above image because I know without any explanation some viewers might find Agent Baroni's actions inappropriate:
I know one of the prints in this exhibition is of Agent Lee Baroni using a carotid hold to subdue a man under the influence of PCP who attacked our Police car. It's too bad the full story of the Baroni image won't be known to most viewers, many will probably take the image out of context. The suspect was under the influence of PCP which most people have no idea how powerful the drug really is. The suspect was walking down the middle of this quiet residential street screaming when we came up on him. Lee stopped the patrol car and asked him if he was alright. The guy suddenly turned and bolted towards a yard. He dove on to the ivy in the front yard and started ripping it up while screaming incoherently. We couldn't get through on the radio to call for additional units because of radio traffic related to another incident. The suspect then got up and attacked the driver side of the Police car preventing Lee from getting out. I got out my side of the unit and sort of acted like a rodeo clown to get the guy to come at me so Lee could get out of the car. The suspect would not comply with any directions and eventually came at Lee. Lee tried pepper spray which did nothing, then he delivered one baton blow to the guys arm when he swung on Lee. Surprisingly the suspect dropped to the ground after that (most people under the influence of PCP are oblivious to pain and many are extremely violent). Lee quickly applied the carotid hold which caused the guy to pass out, I put the camera down, and we both quickly pinned the guy to the ground and handcuffed him before he came back around. We didn't have Tasers back then or stun bags or any other less lethal options. Lee handled the incident perfectly, and actually put himself at risk to get the guy in custody safely. The only injuries the suspect had was a bruise on his arm from the baton strike and a scuff from getting pinned down while we cuffed him. PCP influence was one of the scariest things I ever saw. I remember one case where Officers were trying to arrest a man who sold PCP to an undercover officer. They tried to control him by pinning him to the ground to handcuff him and the suspect did a push up and raised the entire pile of officers, his strength was amazing. Unfortunately most viewers will see this image and not have a clue about all the facts, its too bad.
Kymberly Pinder immediately responded and assured me the description of the image on file would accompany it in the exhibition and that both my photographs were chosen to highlight the issues of drug use not Police misconduct. I was satisfied with our conversation but I still do not know what the tone of the exhibition will be.
I thought it was important that I author this post and put it out there for anyone who might have seen the image and wanted to learn more about it. To make clear there is no misunderstanding, this photograph is of a Street Cop putting his life on the line taking on an extremely violent suspect and getting him to custody, and eventually medical treatment, in the safest manner possible. It is not Police brutality it is a Cop doing his job protecting his community with sound tactics.