Penn Political Review

Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Taser?

Michael Soyfer December 8, 2011 Soapbox Blog Comments Off on Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Taser?

In an upcoming interview with Laurie Robinson — a former Penn professor and the Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs — you’ll read her response to a question about “less lethal weapons.” Her answer is fascinating, but I think that concept deserves some context and explanation. In clearing out the “Occupy” protests and encampments, police departments have had to use these technologies, with varying degrees of success and appropriateness.

Police use of force ranges along a continuum from a simple verbal command to lethal force. The DOJ’s Community Oriented Policing Services office has a neat little guide on the subject. Appropriate, justified force is the amount of force needed to force an unwilling suspect to comply with (appropriate) police orders. In some cases, this might involve a sharp, verbal command. In others, it may involve bullets or tasers. It depends on the degree of danger and the suspect’s actions. For much of history, the “fleeing felon rule,” which allowed police officers to shoot any fleeing felon. The Supreme Court decided in Tennessee v. Garner that that represented a “warrantless seizure” and was illegal under the fourth amendment.

A later case, Graham v. Connor, established the “objective reasonableness” rule governing the use of force. Generally, most departments have their own policies and mandate that the force used to induce compliance must be roughly equivalent to the force used to assist legitimate police actions. Some brief research indicates that most don’t publish these online, though I managed to find an excerpt from the NYPD’s on PBS’s website. Force ranges along a continuum: mere presence of police → persuasion → commands → firm grips → pain compliance → impact devices → deadly force. (Pain compliance typically involves some delightful sort of hold that generates so much pain through defiance that the suspect is forced to comply. This can be as simple as folding someone’s pinky back.) The vast majority of police contacts do not involve any force. When police use of force actually does result in an injury, the majority of injuries tend to be minor: about fifty percent are simply bruises or abrasions.

The continuum isn’t exactly linear, though. It’s often difficult to decide when force is truly justified and when to use it. To apply this concretely to current events: if police officers are attempting to fulfill a legitimate order to clear a public area and meet resistance, they are justified to use force. First, they show up. Then, commands; then, they try to gently shove and herd people away; then, they grab and physically remove people; then, they make arrests. They might skip actual physical contact and proceed directly to arrests, in order to avoid the appearance of using force. Officers do receive training, but it’s typically very brief. When facing off against a crowd of protesters, they’re understandably nervous — for a number of reasons. Departments were once well-equipped to deal with protests — albeit violently. Law enforcement agencies infiltrated groups of protesters, bought SWAT and riot gear, some even invested in tanks and submarines… Charles Ramsey, Philadelphia Police Commissioner, recently appeared on NPR’s Talk of the Nation to discuss how his department planned to handle protesters.

In dispersing the “Occupy” protests, PDs have made frequent use of less lethal weapons. This includes not only tasers, pepper spray, and batons, but also flash bangs, stink bombs, and various loud-noise devices. The National Institute of Justice helped develop and promulgate many of these technologies. But less lethal technologies have an up-side and down. “Less lethal” does not mean “non-lethal.” There are deaths associated with pepper spray. Notice I say “associated with.” It’s difficult to establish such deaths to the pepper spray itself. More often it’s an interaction with something else — particularly asthma. Sometimes, it’s useful to remember that “post hoc ergo propter hoc” is a logical fallacy and not Caesar’s last words. (Excuse the snark.) The NIJ has reported that stun guns and tasers constitute a low-risk to individuals’ health. But if an individual is tased/shocked repeatedly or for a long time, or has a heart or medical condition, then they become a great deal less safe. Further, after any incident in which a less-lethal weapon was used, police are required to ensure that arrestees receive proper medical care. That’s pretty important.

Police officers have to realize that these weapons are still dangerous. They’re less dangerous than guns, but still quite painful and potentially even deadly. It might seem trifling to go about spraying some orange-colored substance into the eyes of a group of students sitting Indian-style on the grass, but it’s not. And you should absolutely try grabbing them by their ears and hauling them away before you get too trigger-happy.

The upside, of course, is that we’re watching UC Davis and not Kent State. Police officers who are frightened, ruthless, ignorant, or some combination of all of the above, break up protests with cans of pepper spray these days and not rifles. And, in other instances, they can subdue dangerous suspects without having to kill them, and, potentially, reduce the risk to themselves in situations where they don’t feel that deadly force is justified but would certainly get injured without some sort of weapon. The NRA loves to say, “Guns don’t kill people — people do.” Don’t play the technology, blame the user. Less lethal weapons are an incredible development in policing technologies, but officers have to when, how, and why to use them.

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About The Author

A Criminology major and Philadelphia native, Michael Soyfer hopes to one day escape the city walls and run off to DC to work somewhere in this crazy, labyrinthine government of ours.

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