Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Are Taser Users the Problem?

When Steve Consalvi got Tasered after running out onto the baseball field during a Philadelphia Phillies home game, he got the attention he sought, but maybe not the type. Attention from fans and the media focused not on the stupidity of teenaged Consalvi’s stunt, but on the fact that security officers at the game used a Taser to bring him down. Popular opinion thought the security officers had over-reacted.

This past week, city officials in Fort Worth, Texas, decided to take the easy way out and approved a $2 million settlement with the family of a mentally-disturbed man who died after being Tasered by a cop during a family dispute.

Sometimes it seems that law enforcement gets no breaks from the public or the press, doesn’t it? Cops that thought Tasers would be a kinder, less-lethal method for subduing troublemakers are now under the gun to prove they aren’t making these situations worse.

In the Fort Worth case, the family of Michael Jacobs called 911 to report that their son was acting uncontrollably. When they arrived, police discovered that he hadn’t been taking his psychiatric medicine and had a history of mental illness. When officers believed Jacobs’ violent behavior was escalating, they Tasered him. Tragically, Jacobs died soon thereafter.

I have to admit my sympathies for the Fort Worth cops and the security personnel in Philadelphia. These officers have been introduced to challenging situations without having been able to read the resumes of the participants, knowing the extent of their behavioral background, or being able to determine their thought processes. Yes, law enforcement professionals should be trained in how to react and apply logic in fast-moving, volatile, and dangerous situations, but don’t forget that their lives may also be on the line.

Also, what is the extent to which we should expect first responders to readily give up their own life at the hands of what looks like a maniac? Aren't cops usually only called out when societal norms and rules for lawful behavior have been violated? Not that I'm suggesting cops should shoot to death motorists pulled over for speeding. But isn't it usually true in these types of cases that hindsight really is 20/20?

Alternatively, do we want our law enforcement officers to be trained so rigorously that their humanity gets erased and they become gun-toting androids? How much safer would our society be if cops had all of their intrinsic safety fears scrubbed away, or they methodically entered life-threatening situations presuming the "alleged" perpetrator's life was worth more than theirs, meaning self-defense was inappropriate? Especially as our society continues to atrophy, and our police inevitably encounter increasingly complex criminal environments?

In Consalvi’s case, his defenders say he was just a kid behaving badly at a baseball game, and security officers unnecessarily Tasered him. But I agree with a number of other people who brought up the fact that security officers had no idea whether Consalvi was a terrorist or not. When you’re chasing a belligerent person who's displaying anti-social behavior around a stadium's outfield, with tens of thousands of people in close proximity, should you be running a racial profile check on the guy? OK, no long beard, no turban – he must be just some silly suburban goofball.

Hmmm… just like the Times Square bomber was, right?

Racial Profiling in Philly

Consalvi’s defenders may not realize it, but they’re playing the race/ethnicity card when they say cops should be able to tell by the color of a person’s skin or type of clothing whether or not the perpetrator is simply being foolish or posing an actual danger to the public. If Consalvi had been an Arab teenager, or black, would they be so forgiving of Consalvi and angry with the officers? Or would they be saying, “Oh yeah, with an Arab running around the field, who knows what would have happened. Those guys shouldn’t have Tasered him, they should have shot him.”

Jacobs’ case, while a bit more complicated, still paints cops unfairly. Jacobs died after an officer held the trigger, activating the shock mechanism for 54 seconds. The officer claims that in the tension of the moment, she forgot that the Taser doesn’t give just one quick jolt, no matter how long one depresses the trigger. The Taser’s darts also hit close to Jacobs’s chest, which probably contributed to his death.

I was not privy to the grand jury hearings on this incident, where the jurors declined to indict the police officer on any charges. The officer was also cleared by an internal affairs investigation by the police department, although the medical examiner ruled Jacobs’ death a homicide. It would be understandable if the subject officer was sent back to Taser class to have a refresher on how to handle the device, but it’s not clear if the Fort Worth Police Department has done so.

The Cops Are There; We Aren't

What people forget, however, is that police were called to a scene in which Jacobs had been threatening his family and had turned his aggression to the officers. When they learned that Jacobs hadn’t been taking his psychiatric medicine, the cops probably figured all bets were off concerning how rational his behavior was going to be. And how logical an assumption is that to make in that type of situation? How na├»ve is it to second-guess the officers’ Taser use when you’re not there with them, having this large, mentally-unstable man violently compromising the safety of everyone around him?

I have never been a cop, nor do I have any close friends or family members who serve in law enforcement at this time. I don’t own stock in or work for the company that manufactures Tasers. I simply don’t think that anybody who is acting properly and civilly has anything to fear from police or security officers carrying Tasers. People who do trigger the reaction of law enforcement personnel, however, should be wary of the possible consequences.

Including an inability of responding officers to read your mind.

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