Thursday, July 31, 2008

Tasers: Not As Simple As Black & White

I'm a little torn on the issue of taser use. I have a clear understanding of use-of-force issues from my experience in the God forsaken private security industry and from my college studies. The Taser was adopted as an alternative to pepper spray and the asp, or as sort of a middle ground between the two, designed to be a more effective means of controlling suspects. On one hand, the taser can be an effective law enforcement tool and has been shown to be safe in some studies. On the other hand, high profile deaths, and misuse by police officers have raised too many questions in the last few years.

Black bloggers have started a campaign of sorts against the use of tasers. They are looking at this problem through the narrow prism of race, as a Black/White issue. I take more of a middle ground. I have been in situations where I have had to fight & wrestle with suspects and I wished I had a taser. My life and well-being aren't worth putting at risk for the job.

I am glad they are raising this issue, although I may not agree with all of their conclusions. I know the problem of Taser abuse and misuse can't be completely separated from the wider problem of police misconduct and Race, but there have been plenty of people from all stripes who have been victims of taser misuse. Recently they have framed several deaths after police/taser encounters as racially motivated incidents where victims were "tasered to death". While I understand their frustration, these depictions may not be accurate. Framing this problem as a race issue doesn't move the discussion forward. Race will always dominate the discussion while issues of public policy, improving procedures, and finding solutions will be overshadowed.

There are three fundamental problems with how the issue of tasering is being viewed by some bloggers, Black bloggers in particular.

1. These cases are clumsily lumped together. But each tasering incident is different....they come with different facts and circumstances and should be looked at individually, free from bias and prejudgment.

2. In most cases, suspects do not die from the actual tasering, but they die from some other circumstance, such as known or unknown medical conditions, drugs, a form of trauma, or from a complication of the taser that is not yet well understood (I will come back to that later). But to say in blanket fashion that people are being "tasered to death" is probably inaccurate. In years past, there have actually been more injuries from asps and batons. In fact, a Canadian study found just that- more injuries from batons than from Tasers. This is a fact that is often missed in the discussion.... many of those who are looking at this issue and who are critical about tasers don't have this important point of reference and therefore many of the discussions lack the proper perspective.

3. Many don't consider the acts of the suspects. What events led to the tasering? In most cases, critics are reading newspaper articles or they are getting information from one side. Video may not be available in all cases. Bloggers may be too quick to take the side of the suspect. Critics are not at every scene where a taser is employed, and video is not always sufficient. They are not at these events, yet they make blanket statements as if they were eye witnesses. And they also bring their bias to each event.... (and I point back to item #1... look at the merits of each individual case.).

Woman tasered multiple times

Austin Officer Thomas O'Connor's Misuse of Taser

With all that being said, I believe that there is a serious problem with tasers. A few years ago, I thought that tasers were a great tool that would end confrontations quickly and more safely. However, it is pretty clear that taser misuse is a growing problem (seems to be growing as more police departments are getting these devices). One of the biggest problems that I see is the problem of stupid police officers. How do you fix that? That seems to be a problem that is systemic and institutional. Add to that a lack of training, and lack of national guidelines on taser use, and you have the mess that we are seeing now. The taser is simply a toy to the police officer who always wanted to shoot his gun on duty, but could not. With a taser, he/she is, in a way, given a green light to play Cowboys and Indians on the job. The lack of common sense seems to be widespread. Now I understand that there are some cases where officers may not know (and cannot possibly know) the complete medical history of a suspect...or know if every female suspect is pregnant, particularly in the first few months of pregnancy. They don't have time to do a pregnancy test when they are attempting to arrest an unruly suspect. Whenever you read the newspaper reports, the headlines usually read, "police taser pregnant woman". All of the other facts surrounding the incident that may provide perspective always seem to be missing. And responsibility never rests with a pregnant suspect who should not be involved in activity that may put herself at risk. I have seen plenty of pregnant women who commit crimes, shopliftings, assaults, and will fight when approached by police or security. Who's fault is that?

But there are other cases where Police have clearly acted in an irrational, unprofessional manner, often violating their own policy on taser use. One case that is a perfect example of improper taser use, is the case of Phillip McDuffy, who was tased on an overpass in Columbia Missouri, while clearly at risk of falling. The McDuffy case showed a complete lack of common sense on the part of police. The second shot from the taser (as well as McDuffy walking out onto the edge of the overpass) led him to fall more than 15 feet, causing serious injury. Or the case like the one above where the male officer tases a female suspect repeatedly, despite the fact that she is putting up minimal resistance, and he probably outweighs her by close to 200 pounds. One other thing I noticed from that particular video is they way that he is telling her to put her hands behind her she is being electrocuted. Barney clearly did not understand that she did not have control over her motor skills at that point and could not possibly comply. It was his job to place her in handcuffs after the first or second shot from the taser. Then there is Eugene Snelling and his encounter with Austin Police Officer Thomas O'Conner on Thanksgiving Day 2006. Even O'Conner's fellow police officers agreed that the use of the taser was inappropriate. O'Conner received a suspension and reprimand for the incident.

Possible Solutions

1. There is a need for more robust and more frequent medical studies on the consequences of taser use on the body. How does it affect the heart, the Central Nervous System, breathing, etc.... Can it knock the heart out of rhythm?

2. There needs to be clear national guidelines on taser use. Currently, there are different policies from State to State, County to County, and from police department to police department. One blogger, The Villager, was nice enough to post the Use-o-Force Continuum...a Universal guide for Use of Force in the United States. But even this seems inadequate. There have been too many cases where the Use of Force standards have been ignored. The problem seems to run deeper than Use of Force guidelines and the lack of adherence to them. There must be specific rules and laws for the use of tasers. The Use-of-Force Continuum is simply a framework for how officers can control a situation. Officers are given a long leash regarding how they want to use that framework. That's why most departments who use the taser had to create additional policies, specifically for taser use.

But there needs to be a national standard. Once a clear national standard is in place, it will be easier for victims of taser misuse to hold officers and departments legally liable. This alone will have a certain deterrent effect against officers who may want to misuse the taser.

3. Limit the number of police officers who can carry a taser. Only senior officers and Supervisors who have the proper training & good judgment should carry these devices.

4. Increase police officer training. It is clear that officers know how to use this device, but many don't seem to understand when & under what circumstances they should use it.

5. Only Police Departments that have reached a certain standard (as a department) should be allowed to have tasers. Why? If you allow any Mayberry Police Department to have tasers and they don't have adequate hiring standards and training standards... they should be nowhere near a taser. Even if they can train their officers on how to use it, the hiring standards may be so bad that the weapon will be placed in the hands of someone who does not have the proper judgment to have possession of it in the first place.

6. Taser use by police should be given nearly the same oversight as gun use. The use of the Taser should be subject to some of the same review procedures as a police shooting, and conversely, the administrative (and sometimes legal) penalties for improper use should be just as serious. The officer should not be in an environment where he/she is second guessed every minute, but they must be able to justify the use of this device, each and every time.

7. A ban on the use of these devices on women should be considered. Officers often have no way of knowing whether a female suspect is pregnant or not, especially if she is in the first trimester. More medical studies are needed regarding the impact of tasers on pregnant women.

The issue of taser use is not as simple as Black & White, both in terms of its complexity as an issue, and in terms of the racial perspective. Each case has to be looked at individually, and the proper perspective must be given. I can recall all of the problems surrounding the use of Pepper Spray. People died from that too...or they died as an indirect result of being sprayed, especially suspects who had heart conditions, Asthma or other respiratory problems. And the asp and nightstick sometimes left broken bones.

I believe the taser issue has become a particularly big issue because of the "I-Report", "Caught on Camera" culture that we live in today. There are cameras everywhere... they have pretty much become standard on cellphones now. This was not the case 20, 15 or even 10 years ago. The same goes with the cameras in police vehicles. We are in a Big Brother culture now. But it also may be creating a situation of distorted perspectives. Cameras have highlighted the few bad cases of taser use, the few that are shaping public opinion, while the majority of cases, which have been safe and justified are ignored.

On the other hand, there are clearly problems with the way these devices are used. And these problems go beyond just tasers.... they have to do with hiring standards, training, legal and administrative oversight, common sense, and judgment, as well as a lack of a national standard for taser use.


Problems with Wake Forest Study?
(which is why more research is needed)

Another Post on Tasering, including several incidents of misuse

From Purple Zoe

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You may be interested in reading the article, No Taser Deaths In USA, found here that discusses the experiences of a man who attended a Citizens Police School as part of his local police department's community outreach program. His account of the course, which led him to conclude,"It is very clear that at the training level, Police officers are being encouraged to harbor an "Us vs Them" mentality towards criminals and civilians alike. The line has been seriously blurred to the point of not really existing anymore. All of this taken together strongly suggests that we are moving inexorably toward a police state." is compelling reading. He was also told -completely contradicting a great deal of evidence - that there have been no deaths by taser in the USA!
Thanks for your post.