Are you shocked?

[cross-posted from Lotus - Surviving a Dark Time]

Everybody, it seems, is talking about the incident at the University of Florida when a student named Andrew Meyer who was aggressively questioning speaker John Kerry was arrested and tasered.

About half of the focus has been on the student and about half on the cops with some room left over to sneer at Kerry for what more than one called "sonorously droning on" as the incident unfolded. Dealing with those in reverse order and so getting to my real concern last (wait for it), I first want to offer a mild defense of John Kerry.

There are a number of news accounts of the incident, but they tend to start at different points and so some things get lost. One is that when Meyer first went to the mike - and apparently he did push to the head of the line - he vocally complained that members of the audience did not have enough time to question Kerry, which may well have been true: After Kerry spoke for 45 minutes, there was a time of, if you will, official questions from one person, leaving the audience no more than 25 minutes for Q&A. At that point, campus police went to remove Meyer but Kerry intervened, saying he should be allowed his question. He answered a question from across the hall and then went back to Meyer.

Meyer asked three questions - why did Kerry concede the 2004 election in the face of evidence of foul electoral play (referring to Greg Palast's noteworthy book Armed Madhouse), why is there no move to impeach Bush to prevent an attack on Iran, and was Kerry in the Skull & Bones Society at Yale along with Bush - but did so at considerable length and even at that point seemed in no mood to relinquish the mike. His mike was cut off, campus police moved in on him, and the struggle began. At that point, Kerry can be heard on various videos saying "It's all right, let me answer his question."

Now, what Kerry should have done at that point is gone down off the stage, up to the cops, and said "I said it was all right!" and insist they let Meyer go - and then he should have said to Meyer that he will answer his questions but in return Meyer had to agree to surrender the mike when he, Kerry, was done.

He didn't. But he did enable the questions to be asked at all and did at least make some objection to the police action by saying that it was okay and he would answer them. He indicated later that "I believe I could have handled the situation without interruption," which at least implies he thinks the police overreacted.

One other thing: Some have written about Kerry "droning on" (he was actually answering the question about the 2004 election) while Meyer was "screaming in pain." Okay, but remember that the videos are taken just feet from Meyer. Kerry, who was using a sound system, can barely be heard in the background. What makes anyone think that Meyer's cries were any more noticeable or intelligible where Kerry was than Kerry's voice was where Meyer was?

Enough of that. There has also been some commentary about Meyer himself. Some of it, as Jon Swift astutely pointed out, came from conservatives denouncing the Left's suppression of free speech until it sank in that Meyer is to the left of Kerry, at which point all bets were off and all of the commentary from all sources, it seems, was intended to label him just a troublemaker who got what he deserved. Well, yes, he was an obnoxious loudmouth - the screaming for help that began when the cops tried to hustle him out of the hall, i.e., even before he was actually arrested, and the subsequent appeals to onlookers to follow the cops because otherwise they'd kill him made him look particularly boorish to me - but no, no way did he get what he deserved or deserve what he got. The police acted hastily, stepped in unnecessarily, were overly aggressive and violent, and bottom line were responsible for creating an incident where there need not have been one.

On Countdown, Rachel Maddow was asked if upon first seeing the video, she thought "overzealous campus police who went too far or loudmouthed activist looking to make trouble who was dealt with?" She answered "Yes." That's exactly my take on it, which is why my real focus, my real concern, is one one particular point:

The taser.

The damned em-effing taser.

Once again we see the police whipping out a taser like some cliché old-West gunslinger to intimidate and punish rather than to protect. There is no doubt from the multiple videos that Meyer was first threated with being, and then was, tasered for nothing more than failure to cooperate. In fact, while it's hard to be certain, this video seems to show that he was already handcuffed when he was tasered; clearly he was on his stomach with his hands behind his back. He was handcuffed and shocked despite his clear statement that if released we would leave quietly (which getting him to do was the original point, supposedly). They tasered him not because they had to but because they could.

But maybe they couldn't. According to the Ocala Star-Banner's account, University Police Department Captain Jeff Holcomb

said there would be an investigation into whether the officers used force appropriately, adding that employing a Taser gun would only be justified in a case where there was a threat of physical harm to officers.
Which there very clearly was not. He was very painfully shocked with 50,000 volts not because he was a threat, not because of any danger he presented to the six campus police on him, but because he refused to actively cooperate, meekly and submissively, with police demands. This was the deliberate infliction of physical pain not in self-defense but as punishment for resistance. And frankly if it was up to me the cops responsible would not only be fired, they would be prosecuted for criminal assault. Perhaps we can at least hope for some kind of reprimand, although the University may be trying to fashion an out: One report which I can't locate now (so no link) said one cop was injured - so we may well be treated to a claim that the six of them feared for their safety in the face of this one kid lying face down on the floor.

It's far from the first such case where tasers have been used in such a way. Sold by the manufacturers on the grounds that they offer an alternative to potentially lethal violence, they have from the beginning been something else. They very first time I mentioned them on my own blog, 3-1/2 years ago, I declared that

[w]ith the increasing availability of tasers ... will come the increasing temptation to use them routinely, no longer in lieu of lethal force but in lieu of persuasion and patience, no longer against someone posing a physical threat but against someone giving "a hard time," no longer for protection but for dominance.
That is, they would become weapons not of protection but of convenience, used not to save lives but to save effort, to secure not public order but passive obedience. And that, in fact, is exactly what they have become, as incident after incident after incident has shown.

From AP last month:

In a confrontation captured on videotape, a hospital security guard fired a stun gun to stop a defiant father from taking home his newborn, sending both man and child crashing to the floor. ...

"I've got to wonder what kind of moron would Tase an adult holding a baby," said George Kirkham, a former police officer and criminologist at Florida State University. "It doesn't take rocket science to realize the baby is going to fall."

[William] Lewis, 30, said the April 13 episode began after he and his wife felt mistreated by staff at the Woman's Hospital of Texas and they decided to leave. Hospital employees told him doctors would not allow it, but Lewis picked up the baby and strode to a bank of elevators.

He was confronted by security guards, one of who, within 40 seconds of the encounter, prepared to use his taser. The hospital defended the guards, claiming Lewis "became verbally abusive by using vulgar expletives," behavior it called "threatening." Yes, oh my gosh, he used vulgar expletives

And, as it all too typical in this case, who got charged? Lewis, of course, charged with endangering a child, I assume by dropping it when he was tasered. That was so bogus that a grand jury refused to indict him.

More recently, this is from the New York Daily News for Monday (via AmericaBlog):

A retired 20-year veteran of the NYPD said yesterday that cops used excessive force against his son when they zapped him four times with a Taser, hit him 15 times with a nightstick and put him in a choke hold.

Retired Lt. Alexander Lombard said his son, Alexander Lombard 3rd, 17, was beaten by cops after they arrived at a "community sponsored" barbecue at 126th St. and Park Ave. last month. ...

But Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Browne said in a statement that a police sergeant "employed a Taser against the suspect's ankle" to subdue him after responding to a large disturbance at about 3:30 a.m.

Which is curious since the photo accompanying the story shows what sure as hell looks like taser burns on Lombard's side. If the cop didn't know the difference between Lombard's ankle and side, I strongly suspect there are two other more traditionally-compared parts of his own body about which he is equally confused.
[Noel] Leader, [co-founder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care,] who went with the father and son to file a complaint with the Internal Affairs Bureau, pointed out that disorderly conduct was the sole charge against Lombard.

"The mere fact that he was hit with a Taser four times," Leader said, "and there's no resisting arrest charge, no criminal possession of a weapons charge - it's evident to me that this incident did not justify use of a stun gun."

An amazing number of them don't. Far, far too many. Tasers have become (if they were not always) exactly what I predicted from the start they would be: Weapons not of last resort save guns, but of first resort, weapons used not for self-protection but for securing passive obedience, weapons of control and cruelty that express not a cop's concern for their safety but their inability to control their own frustration. They should be banned.

Footnote: Under the heading Frontiers of Free Enterprise comes a website (to which I will not link) that the day after the incident at the University of Florida was hawking "shirts, hats, buttons, stickers and more" reading "Don't Tase Me, Bro'" and "What Did I Do?"

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  • Display: Sort:
    Force... (none / 0) (#1)
    by Michael Gass on Thu Sep 20, 2007 at 09:25:58 PM EST
    First, we had guns.  Law enforcement officers in the United States (which at that time was still forming) from the time Mr. Colt produced his pistol carried a gun.  No clubs.  Just guns.  What was the "use of force"?  The Texas Rangers could hit you with their fist, anything they could pick up to club you with, or shoot you.

    That seemed a bit "extreme"...

    Then, we got nightsticks.  Instead of merely shooting you (dead, I might add), law enforcement officers would just whip out their club and beat you.

    That seemed a bit "extreme"...

    So, nightsticks were redesigned over the years from the old wooden club, to the PR-24, to the ASP baton that can be "folded" so it doesn't look so "intimidating".  

    But that was still too extreme...

    So, we moved to pepper spray.  Instead of shooting you or beating you, law enforcement just "sprayed you".  But, even as "non-lethal" as that was, law enforcement as "too quick" to rely on it.

    Yep, you got it... it was too extreme!

    So, law enforcement went to the taser.  Instead of shooting you, beating you, or spraying you... you got a jolt of electricity.

    And now... yep... it is too extreme.

    So... what DO you believe law enforcement should do to subdue a suspect who is combative, aggressive and refuses to allow themselves to be arrested?

    We are now at the point where we have gone from merely shooting you (Tennessee v Garner), beating you (pick where you will here), spraying you (respiratory problems), to jolting you with electricity (cardiovascular problems)... what is left?  

    This doesn't even get into the pain compliance techniques of PPCT... which seems to be all that is left... except it isn't.  Below that is "harsh words" and "firm tones of voice".

    I spent 6 years in law enforcement.  I was involved in car chases and foot chases.  I only had one person want to fight me because of how I treated the public and that fight didn't last very long.  But, I am also here to tell you that using "harsh words" instead of shooting you, beating you, spraying you, or tasering you, ALSO gets you complaints from a public that feels that even using HARSH LANGUAGE and FIRM TONES of voice were RUDE and showed an OUT-OF-CONTROL cop.  I have the complaints to prove it.

    I'll even tell you just how bad it has gotten.  I worked in a patrol area deep within my city.  One area had "gates" to block traffic from entering the area.  I was closing the gates to the inner street one day (patrol car blocking the road, blue lights activated) when a car went around my patrol car and almost ran over me... LITERALLY.  The driver stopped so close to my body (in UNIFORM) that his bumper was no more than 6" from my leg and my hand was on his bumper.  I could have shot him and been justified.  What he got was one of the most righteous words-of-prayer (I'd say the second most righteous) I'd ever given... and yes, I was "in control" when I did so.  I made the driver turn around and go back the other direction and go around.  Did he?  No.  He went straight to my department and filed a complaint against me because... get this... I WAS RUDE TO HIM.

    So, if law enforcement is not able to do ANYTHING... any of the above or even use FIRM TONES and HARSH LANGUAGE... what the (bleep) is left????????

    My solution..... (5.00 / 1) (#2)
    by kdog on Fri Sep 21, 2007 at 10:55:07 AM EST
    Repeal all the unnecessary criminal laws on the books so cops aren't harassing people over nonsense, and there will be less violent confrontations and less confrontations in general.

    People won't give law enforcement such a hard time when law enforcement stops giving the people such a hard time.  

    As usual, the problem is Congress and state legislatures.  Get rid of some dumb laws and half the problem goes away.


    I agree... but, what laws are not needed? (none / 0) (#3)
    by Michael Gass on Fri Sep 21, 2007 at 01:51:43 PM EST
    The number one instance of officer fatality was on traffic stops, so, do we then do away with all traffic laws?  The number one instance of officer assault was on domestic disturbance calls, so, do we then do away with all of the Criminal Domestic Violence laws?

    Human Rights Watch had this to say on police brutality.  I know that police brutality exists, and, it is a problem.  I do not deny, nor dispute, this fact.  But, there is a firm line between police brutality and police officers performing their duty as established through department guidelines and Supreme Court rulings.

    There are several problems that contribute here, in my opinion:

    1) Public perception that any situation that degrades into violence is automatically the fault of police officers.

    This is the very reason that police go for compliance instead of merely "attacking them" to put them in handcuffs.  What happens when officers forcibly handcuff individuals?  Usually, they get injured, or, aggravate a pre-existing injury.

         While the severity of the injury "also may be considered," the court acknowledged, a serious injury is not a prerequisite to recovery. Instead of focusing on whether the evidence was sufficient to show a "serious injury," the court said, they should have considered "only whether the officer's actions were unreasonably severe for the circumstances."

         Bastien v. Goddard, No. 00-2224, 279 F.3d 10 (1st Cir. 2002).

    So, many officers are trained to gain compliance before trying to handcuff an individual.  The problem then becomes; how do you gain compliance from an individual without injury?

    While this article on police pursuits seems unrelated, one of the statements stands for itself:

    There has always been the argument that it is the violator who chooses to flee and it is our obligation to apprehend them, and any damage or loss that occurs during their flight should be their liability. But most of us know that when it comes to liability issues related to pursuits, victims are not going to look toward the violator for compensation,

    And this, I believe is the second problem...

    2) Liability and compensation

    Law enforcement is granted qualified immunity for a reason.  They do not make the laws; merely enforce them.  But, immunity is not automatically granted, either.  It is ruled upon by court who can grant, or not grant, immunity for acts committed by officers during the performance of their duties.  

    The government successfully argued that qualified immunity is intended to protect officers from lawsuit unless they are incompetent or knowingly violate the law.

    In todays society, many people are looking for their easy payday.  They know they will not get a dime out of some poor criminal, but, the city (state, county, etc) has LOADS of it!  If they can only but goad an officer into something, get hurt, and get it on film... cha-ching!

    Again, this in no way defends officers who knowingly commit brutality.  But, it does bring about the problem to those officers who are merely performing their duties.  Anytime a person is injured, the officer runs the risk of being sued.

        The court did reject, however, a related claim that the officers engaged in an unreasonable delay in calling for emergency medical assistance once the arrestee's neck was broken. While the plaintiff and two of his witnesses claimed that 45 minutes passed after his injury before he left in an ambulance, dispatch records produced by the officers showed that only six minutes passed between the officers' report that they had arrived at the residence and their call for emergency medical services.

         Fultz v. Whittaker, 187 F. Supp. 2d 695 (W.D. Ky. 2001).

    3) Even if an officer wins a suit, they can be ruined financially:

    While police agencies are required to cover compensatory damages, punitive damages incurred as the result of a successful lawsuit may fall on the individual officer, bringing financial ruin.

    In the North Hollywood robbery shootout that spawned the movie 44 Minutes, the family sued the cops and financially bankrupted at least one of them (I know, we got the plea for financial help over NCIC).

    And this leads us back to the original premise... use of non-lethal weapons/force to gain compliance.

    This 1995 article examines in-custody deaths from the use of OC spray (or pepper spray).

    Many of the deaths that occurred were not due to the spray, but, the way that the persons were transported (hogtied), or, a combination of drugs/alcohol, physical condition, age, etc, and is supported by this study:

    The study of in-custody deaths, which follows a similar study conducted in 1994, concluded that exposure to pepper spray was a contributing cause of death in 2 of the 63 fatalities, and both cases involved people with asthma.  In the other 61 cases, death was judged to have resulted from the arrestee's use of drugs, disease, positional asphyxiation (which may occur when subjects are placed in a prone position, typically handcuffed behind the back, in which breathing becomes more difficult), or a combination of these factors.

    Yet, because deaths did occur, and rise, with the rising use of pepper spray, it caused the same outcry as the taser.

    We've now "evolved", mainly due to these outcries, to wooden dowels, rubber bullets and bean bag rounds, meaning, one again, you are getting shot.  But, there is an additional problem with these "non-lethal weapons"; it teaches cops to pull the trigger without consequence.

    This is about as good of a "comparison" as it gets AND shows just how "abusive" law enforcement can get when you teach them they can fire a gun without any consequence.