OnPoint by Keith Ng

Tasers: You think they'd be funny...

Let's start with the funny, then. Big burly bear of a cop takes one for the team and pretends to get nuts on another cop right before he's being shot with a Taser. His expression: Somewhere between Wile E Coyote with an anvil on his head and McCully Culkin in Home Alone. Much profanity ensues. Hilarious.

Also in the "Comedy" section of YouTube: Drama Queen Gets Tasered by Cops. Not so hilarious. (Warning: It's not graphic, but it's real, and most definitely disturbing.)

In the clip, Victoria Goodwin is pulled over by Officer Rich McNevin for going 51mph in a 35mph zone (that's about 80km/h in a 50km/h zone). She's pretty pissed off and proceeds to give McNevin an earful while he's getting dispatch to run a check on her vehicle.

McNevin hears back from dispatch - aside from the speeding, driving with a broken windshield, broken brake lights and no seat-belt, it turns out that Goodwin is also a disqualified driver.

McNevin approaches the car, tells her to put out the cigarette, put down the phone and get out of the car. She refuses. McNevin tries to pull her out, she resists. After a brief tussle, McNevin pulls out his Taser.

"Get out of the car now, or I'm going to tase you. Get out of the car now, or I'm going to tase you. I'm going to tell you one more time: Get out of the car. Get out of the car, or I'm going to tase you."

Goodwin refuses to get out of the car and continues phone call to her brother, informing him that she is being arrested.

You can't say he didn't warn her.


Much screaming ensues. As Goodwin squirms on the ground alternating between screaming and whimpering, McNevin orders her to get on her stomach and put her hands behind her back. She can't, she says - probably because of the paralysis or the shock. With the electrodes from the Taser still attached, McNevin zaps her again. More screaming ensues.

The Palm Beach Post reports the story, including an interview with McNevin's partner, Sergent Sedrick Aiken, who explains why McNevin acted as he did. I'd actually say this one was a marginal call, but there's a TV Guide's worth of American police brutality on YouTube.

This clip from Fox shows a man in an armchair getting tasered. This one has a protester being tasered while on the ground. And this utterly inexcusable one: A prisoner in an interrogation room is tasered for refusing to stand up (after he's fried, he's ordered to sit down).

Finally, in this one, 31-year-old Frederick Williams is tasered five times in a row while half a dozen cops hold him down. He dies. (Warning, warning, warning: Do not view this clip. Just don't.) Here is the news story explaining what happened.

This, awkwardly enough, is where I state that I'm not against the trialing of the Taser, and I'm firmly unconvinced by the Greens' argument, namely, that we don't know that the Taser is safe and that we need "a more thorough investigation into Tasers and their effects".

We're not talking about waffle-makers here. This is supposed to be a weapon that can instantly neutralise potentially dangerous persons. It fires metal darts that deliver excruciating, paralysis-causing, 50,000-volt electric shocks. Being on the receiving end of such a device is, obviously, not "safe".

According to an Amnesty International report, more than 150 people in America have died after being struck with a Taser since June 2001. The report also notes that only in "at least 23 cases" have the coroner listed the Taser as a cause of contributory factor to the death. "Most of those who died were agitated and/or under the influence of drugs and most were also subjected to multiple or prolonged electro-shocks... Many of the deaths have also continued to involve the application of physical restraint and/or pepper spray," says the report.

Taser International says that all the deaths were caused by pre-existing heart conditions or drug use. Ahem. Astoundingly, they back this up with a University of Missouri study where they shocked a dog 236 times (!) with a Taser. This study found that the “risk of inducing ventricular fibrillation by the normal use of these Tasers in healthy humans is very small".

Of course, the Taser folks are generally full of shit (check it out - it reads like something out of Lord of War or the very excellent Thank You for Smoking). However, all Amnesty has to go on is correlation. 150 people died "after being struck with a Taser", but not necessarily because of it. When you factor in other force used during the arrest, drug-use, pre-existing medical conditions and general violence against prisoners (by police or otherwise), it's very hard to swallow the 150 figure. It's not as if the coroners in those cases were unaware of the Taser use, they were aware of it and did not consider it to be a contributing factor in the majority of cases.

There's no reason to doubt the 23 coroners' who found that the Taser *was* a contributing factor, though. But to put it into perspective, the United States had around 2,000 cases of justifiable homicide by police officers during the same period. That is, around 2,000 people were killed by on-duty cops (nearly all with firearms), and this is not even counting deaths in custody, manslaughter, all the accidents and the "accidents" that happen to suspects.

So, if it has the potential to kill, why use it?

The Taser is a "less-than-lethal weapon". It's primary purpose is to quickly and effectively neutralise a target; not killing the target is secondary (important, but still secondary). When does it come in handy? Here are the other YouTube clips that I've been saving.

This drunk driver starts attacking a cop.

This guy is making a break for it.

This suspect is fleeing the scene of a shooting, possibly armed.

They are dangerous, they get tasered, they become incapacitated. If there is a risk associated with the Taser, it needs to be weighed against the danger a suspect poses to the rest of the community, and it needs to be weighed up against the dangers associated with neutralising the suspect with another method (danger to suspect as well as the police).

Where a suspect is dangerous, that clearly outweighs the risks; and while Tasers have the potential to kill, so does a baton or a fist.

The problem, as demonstrated by some of the earlier YouTube clips, is when the Tasers is used to "induce compliance". The interrogation room clip, for example, was absolutely disgusting. The prisoner posed no threat, but the cop used a Taser as a pain-on-demand device to "induce compliance" for a trivial command.

In Frederick Williams' example, the cops used the Taser senselessly and ceaselessly.

Sick puppies like Frank Haden say that "most people will be glad that he [the generic criminal] has been made to feel pain, and humiliated by being heard yelling" - but fuck him, for us sane folks, this is certainly not about causing pain for the hell of it. There is a genuine role for the Taser as a tactical weapon; these examples of abuse are not it.

The difference between the good and the bad is not in the hardware, but in the situation. Tasers don't come with carte blanche; they come with a strict policy on when and how they can be used, and police officers will be accountable when they use it.

The danger, says Campaign Against the Taser's Marie Dyhrberg, is that Tasers will replace pepper spray and the baton rather than the gun. That is, she is afraid that the Taser will become a low-threshold weapon that the police use at the first sign of trouble.

Well, for their part, the police have said that pepper spray will continue to be "the main means of personal protection for front line officers". And as for the baton being safer than the Taser, that's a dubious claim that nobody except for Dyhrberg seems to be making (okay, she's implying it rather than claiming it).

If the use of Tasers in mundane cases is the problem, then the solution should be to strictly limit their use on dangerous individuals and where other methods are not viable - i.e. *Make* it a weapon of (second to) last resort.

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