Don’t Tase Me Bro. Seriously, I Might Die
The Taser: it’s become a household name. We typically think of it as a highly effective tool that police can use to subdue unruly suspects, without causing any permanent injury. Basically, the device works by pressing it against the body of the person you want to incapacitate, and pushing a button. There are also models that can be used at longer range, and work by shooting metal barbs into the body of the target. The barbs are trailed by thin metal wires, though which the electrical current travels.
Over the last few years, however, there has been an apparent increase in the number of high-profile incidents involving Tasers, which have raised questions about the devices’ safety, and possible overuse.
In one case (for a more detailed but less snarky account, click here), police responded after a man called 911 to report that his 86-year-old grandmother was having an apparent medical emergency. Because I’m writing about it here, you can guess where this is going: the “confrontation” ended with her getting Tased, of course. Apparently, the police arrived before the paramedics, entered the house, and found the grandmother, bedridden. Confused and perhaps somewhat incensed at the unexpected intrusion, demanded that they leave. Apparently being told to leave a private home by its 86-year-old resident is a serious threat to a police officer’s safety.
In another case, the nephew of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas claims to have been Tased after trying to leave a hospital. You know, that thing you have every right to do, even if it’s against medical advice? That’s a tasing.
It’s important to point out that a healthy adult who is shocked with a Taser is unlikely to suffer any serious injury. However, there have been cases where people have died after being Tased.
So, what does all this mean? It seems to me that Tasers are being used far more often than they need to be.
The weapons police officers use most often cover a wide spectrum of lethality and painfulness. At the low end, there’s the old-fashioned nightstick. At the high end, there’s the gun. Perhaps somewhere in the middle is pepper spray. Police departments seem to operate on a sliding scale when setting rules for the use of these weapons: the least dangerous ones can be used more often, and in situations where the threat to the officer’s safety is relatively minor. The more deadly the weapon, the bigger the threat to the officer has to be in order to justify its use, and, therefore, the less common its use.
So, where should the Taser fall in this spectrum? Police officers seem to think it falls at the low end and can be used whenever, if the stories above are any indication. However, given the fact that deaths can and sometimes do stem from the use of Tasers, they should probably be placed closer to the gun.
One of the big problems associated with frivolous use of Tasers is public perception of the issue. When someone gets tased, many people think it’s funny. If you ever watched Reno 911!, you know that the use of a Taser, in itself, can sometimes serve as a punch line. Even in USA Today, a recent story involving a police officer who tased a female officer in the behind “as a joke” was reported in the “offbeat” section, and the article was written in a pretty light tone. “Ha-ha, a police officer got tased for absolutely no reason! How funny is that?”
I’m sure if the offending officer had walked up behind the other officer, and hit her in the back of the legs with a nightstick, the reaction would be quite different, even though a nightstick serves the exact same purpose as a Taser, and (in that case, at least) would actually have less potential to cause a serious injury. But listen to the funny noises a person makes when they’re tased!
And, of course, there’s the infamous “Don’t tase me, bro!” incident, which became a running gag on the Internet that has lasted for years, inspiring parodies and remixes of the clip. Some of them, admittedly, were pretty funny, at least for those of us totally removed from the incident.
The fact remains, however, that Tasers can kill people, and getting shocked with a Taser isn’t very funny to the victim.
There are signs that the attitude towards Taser use is changing, however. Lawsuits against police departments for unjustified use of Tasers seem to be increasing in number, or at least getting more press. In one recent case, a man sued the Santa Paula, CA police department because he was Tased in jail. The jury apparently found that the police acted inappropriately, because they found in the plaintiff’s favor. This turned out to be something of a hollow victory, however, because they only awarded the plaintiff $1. No, that number isn’t missing any zeroes. That’s one dollar. Apparently, the jury found that the police acted inappropriately, but didn’t cause any significant injury to the plaintiff that warranted compensation. The article does note, however, that a few years ago, that same police department did pay $250,000 to a woman who suffered severe back injuries after being repeatedly shocked with a Taser, having already been wrestled to the ground.
So, what should we take away from all of this? First of all, if you don’t want to get tased, you should never resist arrest, even if you’re innocent. Police officers have every right to defend themselves, and if they perceive a physical threat, they will respond to it.
However, it’s also important for people to know their rights. Police do not have a blank check to engage in violence. It’s possible that, until recently, people haven’t really viewed tasing as an act of violence. But given the pain it causes, and the risks to physical safety it creates, viewing it as anything else is disingenuous.
Every person who is tased without justification should at least consult with a lawyer to see if they have a case for police brutality. And these lawsuits should not be characterized as opportunities for criminals to collect a fat check from the police department that arrested them, even though many commentators will probably do so. People all over the country bring lawsuits for police brutality, and most of them are dismissed early on, because most of them simply lack merit. It’s safe to assume that if one of these lawsuits makes it to trial, one can assume that there’s a significant amount of evidence to back them up.
Finally, a series of lawsuits (both winning and losing) on the use of Tasers would give police departments some guidance on when their use is legal, and allow them to come up with appropriate guidelines on their use. And one of the best ways to avoid abuse of a particular law enforcement tool is to make it perfectly clear to officers in the field when that tool can be used.