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."
The Chicago Department of Aviation swiftly put the officer who removed Dao on leave, saying he had violated standard procedures and that the agency would not "tolerate that kind of action." Two more officers were suspended Wednesday. Officials have refused to say what procedures should have been followed.
The agency also said that its officers, who are not part of the Chicago Police Department, have "limited authority to make an arrest."
Officers could have asked themselves whether the airline had an option to reconsider its actions, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a group that has called for greater restraint from police officers. But the bottom line, he said, is that the airline put the police officers in a difficult situation by expecting them "to solve an issue that they had created."
"It was within their decision-making power to try someone else," Wexler said. "The real question is, at what point did the airline think this is no longer their problem and turns this over to the police? He could not solve this issue the way the airline could."
At the same time, police frequently overreact when someone defies an order, Bueermann said.
"They take the bait ... and you dig yourself in a deeper hole," Bueermann said, comparing the United situation to that of a South Carolina police officer seen on cellphone video in 2015 flipping a high school student backward in her desk-chair then dragging her across the classroom after she refused to leave.
"Everybody reaches a limit ... but police officers are paid in part to use their common sense to resolve a situation."