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Taser Him?

The intermediate steps, and how they're determined

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, May 04, 2005.

In Boulder late yesterday morning, a chemically defective individual wandered Pearl St., alarming store owners and finally shoplifting an item. He was confronted by police and when he made a move towards an officer, he was tasered, apparently twice, and taken away. Well, big deal. No argument with this.

Tasers were a godsend to both police and those concerned about police brutality when they hit the market. They aren’t firearms, require no license, and they shoot two short needles into the flesh and power a large electrical charge into the individual, rendering him more compliant. They provided an intermediary step before deadly force, and in most cases have served exactly that purpose. Still, in conjunction with other changes in police attitudes, tasers have come to serve a reverse purpose. Where once there were narrow lines between no action, physical action, and deadly force, tasers were supposed to replace the bottom part of deadly force. To a large degree, they have, but they seem to have wiped the other alternative: physical attack and incapacitation by the police.

Police, not without reason, don’t like to engage physically without overwhelming force. No matter how old or weak, people can wield knives and can still bite, and these are the years of blood diseases and viruses to scare you to death. Maybe it’s just the press coverage, but it seems like police around the nation either don’t feel themselves capable of a one-on-one contested arrest because they have these equipment belts in the way containing weapons that can be used against the officer, or they’d rather risk the death of the suspect.

Just the other week, in Philadelphia, police were videoed beating the hell out of a suspect lying face down on the ground. Numerous cases of tasers killing the overweight, the chemically defective, though perhaps deserving. But if four officers are not capable of cuffing and incapacitating one man without doing a Rodney King field exercise, there is something very deficient in those officers, the department that employs them, the public that allows it.

Even though I’ve been arrested and taken to jail, I remain generally impressed with police. I could not, for example, retain temper like they have to, and I could not deal with obnoxious drunks whose sole if temporary goal, is to incite a reaction. While I realize that it’s tough and thankless, I remain adamant that there is something wrong in emerging attitudes within law enforcement. As well, the public’s attitude that elected officials impart to the police. This requires a recitation of some old clichés I’ve harped on.

First, American military and police are in the process of shifting self-images because the demands of the job have changed. The American military is of necessity becoming more police-like, nation building and providing civil order since few if any armies can stand up to ours at present. In the local police, they move away from neighborhood copper to SWAT team, commandos whose attitudes and tactics are more in keeping with the SEALS than Precinct 43. Both have reasons, and often good ones, for these changes, but in the police it has fostered a forgiving attitude to their own actions that is dangerous.

One long discussed military issue is the projection of certain types of force into an area to accomplish a goal or interaction and discovering the force can only defend itself and not accomplish its mission, or forcing a retreat that has done little more than incite the locals against them. This was the internal conflict in the United States in the Navy about carrier task forces in a war with the Soviets, and it’s operative in Iraq today. The projected force can often do no more than protect itself, and not justify its presence by accomplishing the mission.

When police patrol a dangerous neighborhood, much the same attitude develops. Once in, they may or may not have sufficient firepower or time to risk an actual fight while they talk someone down. Domestic disturbances lead to the deaths of more police than any other type of call, and they now react accordingly. It was a domestic disturbance call that led a local cop to slip in a back window and end up shooting an utter innocent in his own bed in error last year.

So much time and scar tissue has layered upon the topic, we need to start fresh and ask ourselves what we want law enforcement to accomplish: keep the peace or social engineering or both and in what proportion. Does it make sense to put punks in prison with accomplished prisoners and allow them to be physically trained to buffhood, train them in behavior repugnant to all, allow them to network, and then release them? It’s what we do now.

That’s one of the issues behind objections to the new Denver jail, soon to be built after yesterday’s election. We spend more money training the behavior that predictably guarantees recidivism than we do on preventive measures. Everyone likes to see punks take one on the chin, get publicly humiliated, and dragged away. Unless you kill him, though, what are you going to do to lessen his threat to the public when he’s released?

Taser him?