Thursday, July 31, 2008


Don't tase me: more police excess

We have another case of police using a Taser unnecessarily and to excess, at least as things appear:

By the time officers arrived, the teen was off the 30-foot overpass, lying on the shoulder below along U.S. 65, with no good explanation as to how he got there.

“According to the doctors, all injuries are consistent with a fall,” said his aunt, Samantha.


“They tested his system. He was clean of drugs and alcohol. We don’t know why unless just being in shock and the whole thing in itself caused him to forget everything,” said Hutchinson.

His aunt says he is undergoing major surgery for a broken back and broken heel. While he was lying on the ground, she wonders why Ozark police used an electric stun gun on him up to 19 times.

“I’m not an officer, but i don’t see the reason for ‘Tasering’ somebody laying there with a broken back. I don’t consider that a threat,”

I’m not an officer either, and we don’t have all the information about what happened here. But, given the information we do have, I, too, don’t see the reason for using a Taser in this situation. The police do, however, and here’s what they say about it:

“He refused to comply with the officers and so the officers had to deploy their Tasers in order to subdue him. He is making incoherent statements; he’s also making statements such as, ‘Shoot cops, kill cops,’ things like that. So there was cause for concern to the officers,” said Ozark Police Capt. Thomas Rousset.

Police say although there are several unanswered questions; the reason for the use of a stun gun is not one of them.

With the information to hand, I find the police’s statement appalling. Mace Hutchinson appears to have been physically incapacitated. That he was “making statements”, whatever the statements were, isn’t relevant. Trained police officers have the responsibility to assess threats, and a young man who’s on the ground with a broken back is not likely to be a threat unless he has a gun. No one has made any claim that the officers thought he had a gun.

That he also “refused to comply” might make things more difficult for the officers, but isn’t cause for use of a Taser even once, much less multiple times. Let me repeat that, because it’s important: A Taser is an alternative to deadly force. Refusal to comply is not a reason to use a Taser, any more than it would have been a reason to shoot him in the head.

Too often, the police are using Tasers as an alternative to negotiation, as a demonstration of power, as a means of intimidation, or, worst, as a mechanism for punishment. He’s not cooperating with me, so I’ll torture him with the Taser until he does. Step out of the car, or I will use the Taser. Get up off the ground, or I will use the Taser. Tell me the name of your pal who ran away, or I will use the Taser. We can see where this is going, yes?

Unfortunately, we don’t have a video in this situation, nor do we have non-police witnesses. And in cases where the victim doesn’t have a broken back, we can’t usually easily refute the officers’ claim that they were responding to an attack. Very often, the police can get away with seriously misusing Tasers, and that must stop.[1]

Police departments must be serious about limiting Taser use to situations involving real threats. Officers must be trained in appropriate use and must know that they’ll be held accountable for abuse. Automatic records must be kept of Taser use — video records, when possible — and departments must aggressively and thoroughly investigate all Taser firings. The use of a Taser must be treated as seriously as the use of a gun.

[1] There’s also a question, in this case, of whether the use of the Taser harmed Mr Hutchinson, and delayed his medical care. That speaks to the fact that Tasers might be more dangerous than some think they are, but isn’t relevant to what I’m arguing here. The restrictions on Taser use that I’m arguing for apply regardless of whether the victim is seriously harmed by it.


Thomas J. Brown said...

According to this article, "The ‘Tasering’ increased his white blood cell count and caused him to have a temperature so they could not go into the operation."

So there ya go.

W.M. Irwin said...

Amnesty International has a very informative section about Tasering in the United States. Just go to:

Select "USA" from the country list and click on the "TASER Abuse" link on the left side of the page (about halfway down). It's pretty sobering stuff, especially the revelation of more than 290 deaths due to Tasering by police in the U.S. since June 2001!