CommunityPam's House Blend

It's a Taser-happy police state

This piece was bumped from my day subbing for Glenn at Salon because it was quite similar to a piece by Monday subber Digby (I hadn’t seen her post). However, you all get to kick it around. 🙂

As you all know, I frequently blog about the rollback of civil liberties, specifically when it comes to police brutality and the misuse of the Taser, an electroshock device designed as a non-lethal alternative to using a firearm. A Taser delivers 50,000 volts into its target, causing strong involuntary muscle contractions. While there is no doubt that Taser International's controversial device has resulted in calls for a ban on the use of it, the fact is we're talking about a tool, training, and misuse. It takes a human being with badge to shoot one of these things off at a suspect (um, well not anymore, but we'll get to that later).

Police officers, who put their lives on the line every day protecting and serving communities around the country, are now dealing with a host of thugs bad apples in their midst who seemingly have: 1) lost the capacity to communicate effectively with agitated unarmed people to defuse tense situations; 2) fail to understand the concept of the Taser as the last resort before using a gun; 3) an inability to judge a life-threatening situation from an annoying one; and 4) so few interpersonal skills and patience that they see the Taser as a weapon to make a person submit to their will or instantly comply as a time-saving measure. Unfortunately, the Taser has been deployed in instances that have resulted in a subject expiring, or as Electrocuted While Black refers to it, "pre-trial, extra-judicial electrocutions and executions."

The abuse of this device is disproportionately deployed against minorities (surprised, no?). In Houston, an audit found incredible statistics:

Black officers are less likely to use Tasers, but black suspects are more likely to be jolted with the weapons, according to the first city audit of Taser use by Houston Police officers, KPRC Local 2 reported.

…The audit of 2.8 million calls to police from January 2000 to June 30, 2007, found black suspects make up 66.9 percent of all people zapped with the device, despite making up 46 percent of the total incidents and comprising 24.7 percent of the Houston population.

…The report spells out that most officers have only used their Taser one time, but one officer has used his on 13 people, another used it on 12 people. Two officers had shocked nine people each, and four officers had eight Taser incidents each.

From "Tightening Taser Deployment Standards" at the non-partisan Roosevelt Institution:

• Over 7,000 law enforcement employ more than 140,000 Tasers in the United States
• In a 6-year period, Amnesty International reports over 290 deaths from police Taser usage in the USA and Canada
• Use-of-force policies provide guidance for police officers to follow during specific scenarios
• Two Department of Homeland divisions rejected its use altogether.

Questionable Taser usage on suspects, such as non-violent or previously restrained suspects, damages community perception of law enforcement personnel. Shocking and provocative videos circulate at rapid speed on Youtube depicting questionable Taser usage and are seen not just by members of a single community, but are viewed by millions around the world.

In April a group of black bloggers called for a federal investigation and hearings on the misuse and abuse of the device.

We call on our Congress to speak out and organize public hearings on the systemic human rights violations occurring with Federal funding against black, Latino, Native American and other Americans.

While there continues to be considerable media and congressional attention to torture in Guantanamo, there is comparatively little attention to the mounting evidence of human rights violations in the streets of America by a number of police departments across America, including torture and killings of black children, women and men through-out the United States through the use and abuse of Tasers.

…We believe most Americans would favor Congressional hearings as to whether our own U.S. police, policing policies and actions violate Federal and International laws prohibiting human rights violators. Evidence of widespread police abuse of tasers is more than enough to warrant our concern and justify a congressional inquiry.

One has to walk away from that thinking that a few of those officers are, to be charitable, electro-trigger happy against minorities. The natural follow up question is what, aside from bias, motivated those officers to Taser first more often than their colleagues and what training might have reduced those numbers.

Honestly, from the numerous Taser abuse stories I monitor each month, the buckwild brutes with badges seem to leave no demographic untouched. Witness these incidents:

* In Manassas, Virginia, a 55-year-old Bible study teacher and a mother were Tased three times in rapid succession, on his own property where a child's baptism party was being held, seen by a yard full of children and family members. The police were called because of a noise complaint. Video.

More below the fold.

* Mobile, Alabama: cops Tase and pepper spray deaf and mentally disabled man who was in a Dollar General bathroom for too long. A spokesman for the Mobile Police Department said the officers' actions were justified because the man was armed with a potential weapon – an umbrella. Video.

A 72-year-old great-grandmother dares officer to Tase her; he takes her up on it. Again, a cop is caught using a Taser not in the place of a gun, but as a device to ensure compliance from a belligerent person who is not a threat to the Austin law enforcement officer. Video.

* In the I'm not sh*tting you category of police state brutality, an Idaho police officer sodomizes a suspect with a Taser, and gets off with only disciplinary action. Audio.

A Boise, Idaho, police officer who pushed a Taser inside a man’s buttocks and threatened to “Taser his balls” violated use-of-force policy, but didn’t break the law, an ombudsman has found.

* How about this — Oregon: Tasered while cycling. A Portland, Oregon cop sent 50K volts into the body of a bicyclist because he didn't have a light on the front of his bike.

* And our neighbors to the north are not immune from the sadism — 82-year old heart patient Tased in hospital bed. Three Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers apparently couldn't subdue an elderly patient.

* A 56-year-old wheelchair-bound black woman died after being tasered 10 times. "My aunt was basically tortured like an animal or something." said Delafield's nephew, Ryan. Transcript of audio recording.

* In Vermont, Lawrence Fairbrother, 56, was tased in the back by state troopers while in a grand mal seizure. Your blood will run cold when you read what happened:

They found Fairbrother, who had suffered seizures for years, underneath a parked truck, flailing. His medication lay on the ground and Fairbrother, 56, was clawing at the dirt and pulling himself farther under the vehicle. Troopers repeatedly asked Fairbrother to come out from under the pickup, but Fairbrother did not emerge. Troopers dragged him out by his feet and, while he was lying down and seizing, ordered him to put his hands behind his back.

They pulled his left arm behind his back, but when Fairbrother, still shaking, did not respond to an order to move his right arm, Trooper Hugh O'Donnell shot him between the shoulder blades with a Taser stun gun.

"What did I do?" Fairbrother asked, according to court documents.

"That's what we're going to find out," one of the troopers replied.

It goes on and on. What do the good folks at Taser International think about all of this? Well, the company has been riding high for a long time, with legal judgments going its way until recently – the winning streak for the stun-gun manufacturer ended last year when a San Jose, California, jury said Taser did not warn Salinas police that prolonged exposure to the 50K volt shock from the device poses a risk of cardiac arrest.

In one infamous 2008 promotional video for its proof-of-concept TASER-equipped PackBot device, created in partnership with iRobot (the manufacturer of the Roomba vacuum) there wasn't much left to the imagination as TASER International proudly featured an actual demonstration of its weapon of nervous system assault on a big black brother. I sh*t you not.

If you think that was outrageous, imagine how Taser International’s crowd control device will be popular with patience-free rogue police departments.

I'm quite interested in what you have to say — "non-lethal" technology has obviously outpaced common sense. It has led to a sense of complacency in some law enforcement departments and sends the message that communication skills are unnecessary and that all civilians regardless of age, size, or mobility are considered life-threatening adversaries at the drop of a hat. What does the Obama administration, which has found itself thrust into the issue of racial profiling, have to say about the rampant abuse of Tasers on suspects — and people accused of no crime at all — around the country?

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding