Shock and Law: can the cops be trusted with Tasers?

When the notion was first floated to include Tasers among the tools available to law enforcement, the pitch was both simple and appealing: “a non-lethal alternative to lethal force.”  The idea was that Tasers would provide law enforcement with a means of safely incapacitating subjects in circumstances where the only alternative would be to use deadly force.  The reality has been anything but.  Google “Cops Taser Abuse” and you get over 2 million hits.  In fact, abuse has become the norm, and instances of appropriate Taser use are the exception.

Taser abuse is any situation in which Tasers are employed where deadly force otherwise would not have been.  While most police agencies don’t define it this way, that’s simply the result of police forces forgetting how they sold the use of Tasers to the public in the first place.  Tasers were always pitched as non-lethal alternatives to deadly force, and the fact that their actual use has been expanded to “any situation where a cop gets annoyed” notwithstanding, the only proper use of a Taser is one where the alternative would have been to shoot the suspect.  Good luck finding that on YouTube; there aren’t a lot of examples of proper use to choose from.  On the other hand, finding instances of police officers using their Tasers egregiously as instruments of unnecessary torture is easy.  You can find pretty much any walk of life that has ever encountered a police officer getting abused with a Taser.  Just a short list of examples:  A 72 year old grandmother, a deaf and mentally handicapped man, an guy not complying with instructions, a guy complying with instructions, a guy sitting on his porch, A mom in front of her kids, a teenage girl, an incapacitated teenager with a broken back, a college student heckling a speaker, a Baptist pastor, a mentally handicapped teenager, a guy for no reason whatsoever.  What these examples all have in common is that they are both remarkably easy to find, and not one entails a situation where the alternative response would have been to shoot the person.  In fairness to the guy who Tasered the grandmother, she looked pretty dangerous, so I can see why he was so frightened.

This isn’t just a matter of a little harmless, sadistic torture.  Contrary to their billing, Tasers aren’t 100% non-lethal; there is always the possibility of killing someone, and over 500 people have died in just over a decade of their use.  In one of the most egregious examples, Oscar Grant was shot to death by a police officer whose defense was that he only intended to torture the guy, but accidentally pulled out his kill stick instead of the pain stick, because that totally makes sense.  While a lot of debate has been around whether or not it is possible to mistake a Taser for a pistol, the fact of the matter is that even if the officer did make that mistake, it wouldn’t have happened if police officers were using their Tasers properly in the first place, which would preclude firing 50,000 volts into a suspect who is face down and already subdued.

I like the idea of Tasers, insofar as the idea of a non-lethal alternative to deadly force seems like a great idea on paper.  Unfortunately, the reality is it has become abundantly clear that you just can’t hand police officers something that causes people a great deal of pain and tell them it’s harmless, because they will go right out and electrocute a pregnant woman simply for hurting their feelings.  Either police policies across the country need to tighten up and restrict the use of Tasers to their proper, “alternative to deadly force” use, or we have to collectively admit that handing police yet another torture toy was a bad idea and take it away from them.  Oscar Grant was just a warning, and one that received far too little attention–all of it focused on the wrong aspects of the case.  It should be noted that, during the trial, Officer Johannes Mehserle’s attorney pointed out that, prior to Mehserle killing Grant, there had been six previous instances of officers firing guns when they meant to fire Tasers.  Six.  Previous.  Instances.  Presumably, the defense’s point was hey, it was inevitable someone was gonna get offed by mistake this way, and Mehserle was just the guy standing when the music stopped.  I suppose when your client was videotaped shooting his victim in the back while the guy was face down on the ground, any argument is worth a shot try.

Sooner or later the wrong person is going to die from one of these things–a movie star, a famous athlete, a politician’s niece or nephew, a child.  The reckless use of Tasers is going to kill someone that captures the public eye, and we’ll finally start to question the irresponsible policies of unchecked Taser abuse, and ask if maybe we shouldn’t be placing some restrictions on who, why, and when it’s appropriate to fire 250 times more voltage into a person than it takes to power a clothes dryer.  How many people are going to die in the meantime?

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Shock and Law: can the cops be trusted with Tasers? — 1 Comment

  1. One of these days I’m going to come on here and find *something* I disagree with. Meanwhile, do you follow Digby’s Taser stories? Taser deaths are a hot issue for her. Great post.