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Hullabaloo


Sunday, June 05, 2005

 
You Gotta Ask Me Nicely, Danny

This pretty much ruined my day. (Goes directly to taser video --- not for the faint hearted.)

This woman was tasered with 50,000 volts by the police for not getting out of her car fast enough at a traffic stop. The officer waited less than 40 seconds before tasing her. Then she is tasered again for not responding properly after she fell out of the car and was writhing on the ground in pain.

I realize that police officers face a lot of danger. And this woman was driving with a suspended license. (They didn't know this when they jolted her, however.) All they knew was that she was talking to someone on the phone and narrating what was happening to her and did not respond immediately to the officer's demand that she get out of the car. She did not appear to pose any physical danger to them, only to their authority.

Evidently, because the officers had been tased in their training they believe that it isn't "that bad." (Someone needs to instuct them about pain threshholds and adrenaline and how it feels to fall from the open door of an SUV onto ashphalt with 50,000 volts coursing through your system and two angry cops pointing loaded guns at you.) Apparently, police credit the taser with preventing shootings, and perhaps they are right. But then so would simply bashing suspects over the head with a baton if they don't cooperate within 30 seconds. Or shooting them. It certainly does make the job easier if you don't have to evaluate the situation or try to talk sense into a young woman who is incooperative but instead can simply stun her into compliance like something out of a science fiction movie.

According to this series of reports by the Palm Beach Post, tasering is commonly used to shut up loudmouths. It's "safe" you see. Doesn't leave any marks and is considered perfectly legal.

The company that makes this convenient, lawful device is under intense scrutiny by authorities for securities violations as well as serious safety concerns:

Since the summer, reports in The Republic and the New York Times have brought to light contradictions about Taser's claims of safety.

For years, Taser maintained that its stun guns never caused a death or serious injury. As proof, Taser officials said no medical examiner had ever cited the weapon in an autopsy report.

But Taser did not have those autopsy reports and didn't start collecting them until April. Using computer searches, autopsy reports, police reports, media reports and Taser's own records, The Republic has identified 88 deaths after police Taser strikes in the United States and Canada since 1999.

Of those, 11 autopsy reports have linked deaths to the stun gun. Medical examiners cited Taser as a cause or contributing factor in eight deaths and could not rule it out as a cause in three others.

The Republic has also reported that several police officers have sustained career-ending injuries that they attribute to being shocked with Taser.

In reports to bolster safety claims, Taser officials have said more than 100,000 police officers have been shocked during training exercises without suffering a serious injury.

In October, Taser issued a press release saying a Department of Defense study, whose full results have not yet been released, found that its guns were safe. But The Times reported that the Air Force researchers who conducted the study actually found that the guns could be dangerous and that more data was needed to evaluate their risks.


Of course, whether or not tasers inflict permanent damage or death is beside the point. They clearly administer terrible pain to people who are officially only suspects or witnesses and it's clear that they are being used to simply make people behave in a docile manner when in the presence of police. It makes the policeman's job easier. But again, so would hitting them over the head.

From yesterday's Palm Beach Post editorial:

The review of three years' use by police from Boca Raton to Fort Pierce, starting in 2001 when the weapon arrived in South Florida, revealed that one of every four suspects zapped was not armed, violent or posing any immediate potential threat to anyone, including themselves. In at least 237 incidents, the stun gun was used to achieve compliance from passively resisting or fleeing suspects — who often were not even arrested.

Police agencies recognize that they have a problem in their widely varying policies for recording and tracking Taser use, which often require no explanation for why officers fired the weapon. The manufacturers' marketing also skates past questions about respiratory, cardiac, neurological, psychological and other effects, including the effect of being zapped multiple times.



There are reasons why it is a bad idea for police to be allowed to inflict pain on people who are uncooperative or disagreeable --- the most important being that this means police are sanctioned to commit violence on the public under color of law in instances where their safety is not at issue. That's one of the hallmarks of a police state not a free society. (And yes, I realize that Saddam pulled the legs off of puppies on Christmas morning and I'm damned lucky not to be living under that kind of hellish nightmare. But every lil' totalitarian has to start somewhere.)

It's not just Gitmo. Sophisticated torture techniques are becoming common policing and interrogation methods in America. I remember watching the excrutiating video of police meticulously applying q-tips dipped in pepper spray to the inside of logging protesters' eyelids when they refused to unchain themselves from one another. It was explained that because they weren't actually blinded or permanently harmed, this was really the humane way to get them to cooperate. The most chilling thing about this was the dry, benign way the police calmly went about methodically pulling the immobile protesters' heads back and then their eyelids, to carefully daub the painful chemicals directly into the eye as they screamed in agony. Don't ever think that the systematic "banality of evil" regime couldn't happen here. The police didn't seem to be enjoying themselves, nor were they bothered. It was just all in day's work.



(It should be noted that police had dealt with this form of protest -- in this case blocking a congressman's office -- many times before and had always simply cut the steel armbands with no ill effect. This was a method to force the protesters to willingly bend to the authorities' will.)

They sued and had two hung juries, the first of which had the judge stepping in after the mistrial with a verdict for the defendants ("no reasonable person could conclude that this was excessive force.") Many appeals followed, including the one that overturned that first judge's unbelievable ruling and removed him from the case for bias. Just last April, they finally won on the third try. (I wonder if Abu Ghraib may have had an influence?)

The common rationale for the torture regime is that policemen must have the right to inflict great pain (if not permanent damage) on the spot, at their discretion, to gain the cooperation of suspects or witnesses because they have a dangerous job. Tasers have made that call a little bit easier because they allegedly cause no lasting damage. I would imagine that many people instinctively think that is not such a big deal. Until they get pulled over by a cop in bad mood who goes from 0 to 60 in 30 seconds and determines for whatever reason that you must be physically subdued. Or maybe he just doesn't like your looks. After all it's "not that bad." No harm no foul. Why if it weren't for the Bill of Rights we wouldn't have to think about it at all.



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