UPDATE: Speaking of the devil, here's a front-page CNN story on Taser deaths. Good timing, Ed.
By now we've all seen the video and read the news about the unarmed Polish immigrant tasered to death by the RCMP up north. Sad, alarming, and so on. What bothers me is not so much this isolated incident (and let's be honest, it is rare for people to die from a taser) but the shocking willingness of police to use what are antiseptically called "less lethal" (formerly "non-lethal") weapons.
I do not like cops. Sorry. I realize that many cops are good, decent people. Many more of them are not. I wholeheartedly subscribe to the generalization that they are adult incarnations of junior high bullies who overcompensate for mediocrity with authority. Beyond that, the attitude that their actions are above reproach (especially by those of us who haven't walked in their shoes and don't know what it's like**) coupled with a monolithic bunker mentality is enough to make me puke pure bile. So now that my biases are out of the way…
The average cop in the post-Reagan, War On Drugs, COPS, kicking through doors, smashing through windows, militarization of law enforcement era needs boundaries. For the most part I believe those boundaries are provided by the law. They understand that they are being watched and videotaped, and that we know what is and is not acceptable behavior. Unfortunately I believe that the use of pepper spray, tasers, less-lethal projectiles (beanbags, rubber bullets), CS gas, and the like are an area in which no real boundaries exist. And I do not trust cops to "use their judgment" to effectively restrain themselves.
The problem lies with the original nomenclature: "non-lethal" means. We've played a neat little semantic game and re-named them "less lethal" since, well, the non-lethal weapons were killing a lot of people. But I believe the damage has been done. The police and their apologists (the kind of people who bend over backwards to excuse every video of 5 cops wailing on a black guy or shooting an unarmed immigrant 41 times) have so thoroughly convinced themselves that pepper spray and tasers are "harmless" or no big deal that cops' restraint is approaching zero.
A taser is just like a little electric shock! Stun guns only give victims "an owie." Pepper spray causes a little bit of burning for a few minutes – no biggie. Rubber bullets only leave a tiny welt and can't kill. Yes, all these things are so unbelievably insignificant that….well, there's just no harm at all in using them. Why not just approach every suspect with the pepper spray in hand? If he gives you any lip, empty it in his face. Since it's "temporary" and "minor pain" and "less lethal" and all those other things, why not? Why not disperse every crowd with some flying beanbags and tear gas? No lasting harm done, right?
Most police – and I mean 99.99999% of them – realize that they can't respond to any and all threats by whipping out the pistol and plugging away. I doubt many of them feel the same way about their "less lethal" methods. High profile incidents like the UCLA library taser incident or the now-infamous "don't tase me, bro!" video show that using weapons (and remember, less lethal items are exactly that) is no longer a last option for the police. I'd say it's a second or third option these days. Ask yourself, in either of those two campus incidents, why the police did not simply pick up the suspect and carry him out of the room. I understand the concept of resisting arrest, but I'm pretty confident that 8 cops can carry a 180-pound sophomore – even a struggling one. Why bother? It's so much easier to whip out the taser and zap away.
Well, unfortunately "less lethal" tends to be Pretty Lethal when used repeatedly. Incidents of people dying from pepper spray are not common by the percentages, but when the sample size is dramatically increased…..well, the raw numbers start to be consequential regardless of the probability. We see people dying to celebrate the World Series. You have almost 100 people being given an impromptu death sentence since 1990 by police who douse them in pepper spray regardless of how insignificant their offenses were (see here or here, or just as your friend Google about pepper spray deaths).
The fact is that the status of these weapons as non-lethal or less-lethal is probably already too ingrained in the minds of law enforcement (and a pitifully large percentage of the public) to do anything about it now. There are too many excuses about "isolated incidents" and phony internal reviews in which police departments investigate themselves and determine (shockingly) that the deaths were due to other factors. But the poor, poor police are just so badly overmatched by pissy college kids. Under such circumstances we should be downright thrilled to be tased.
**(This is why people like Bill O'Reilly would never criticize college professors. They understand that, not having been professors, they cannot possibly pass judgment on the profession)