I participated in a TV program recently in which we pundits were shown disturbing video clips of police officers and court personnel using powerful Taser guns against people who didn’t look as though they deserved a 50 thousand volt jolt for their behavior. We were then asked to comment on what we saw.
There were two videos, in particular, that really disturbed me. One showed a man stopped for a routine traffic violation who didn’t produce his license quickly enough and was Tasered. He fell into the highway, into the path of on-coming traffic. The other video was from a courtroom and showed a middle aged man acting as his own attorney, clearly out of his element. When the judge interrupted his lengthy soliloquy to ask a question the man muttered, “This is bull —t!” And in a blink of an eye a bailiff stepped forward and Tasered him. As he fell like a limp rag doll he struck his head and began to moan and bleed uncontrollably.
I thought to myself, “Misuse of authority – plain and simple.”
Tasers literally shut down a person’s central nervous system for at least thirty seconds or more. They are also said to cause an immediate burst of pain throughout one’s body.
A quick internet check reveals many Taser horror stories. There’s one about a Houston man, also captured on videotape, seen leaving a hospital with his wife and newborn baby against doctor’s advice. Dad was Tasered and dropped the newborn.
Then there was the Ohio police officer who Taser-gunned a clearly intoxicated woman seven times – even after she was handcuffed and in the back of the squad car.
And in Florida a young black man was twice shot with a stun gun while strapped to a hospital bed because he refused to supply a urine sample for a drug test.
Okay, so that’s the ugly side of the Taser story. For the other side I called Darren White, the Sheriff in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I chose him because a recent FBI report revealed New Mexico is at the top of the list for assaults against police officers. This lawman insists Tasers save lives, the lives of both criminal suspects and officers who operate every day in the line of fire.
“More and more thugs are not going quietly,” Sheriff White says. “The Taser has changed the way we conduct business – for the better. I can’t think of anything introduced into law enforcement that has been so effective.” Every day, Sheriff White says, his men face hardened criminals, drug addicts, psychotics and others with mental illness and those who seek suicide-by-cop. Every year he makes it a point to purchase as many Tasers as his budget will allow.
“The use of Tasers has changed the outcome of many situations. We never want to take a life. It’s a great tool – I don’t care what anyone says.”
He knows of what he speaks. Sheriff White was a television reporter in a former professional life and he once agreed to be shot with a Taser while cameras rolled. What did it feel like?
“Like being electrocuted,” he said with a shudder in his voice. “You can’t move, you’re completely paralyzed but it hurts too. You make a sound from the depths of your guts that you’ve never heard before. I can vividly remember (thinking) ‘I would do anything anyone asked me right now just to make it not happen again.’”
But is that cruel and unusual punishment? That’s how Amnesty International described it when it called on America and authorities in more than 40 other countries to discontinue using Tasers.
Sheriff White disagrees. “After the officer is able to restrain the perp with handcuffs – it’s over. There are no trembling aftershocks, no heart palpitations. Everything is back to normal … and the bad guy is in custody.”
There are 18 thousand law enforcement departments across the country and according to Taser maker’s statistics a full twelve thousand of them have bought these modernized stun guns. Four thousand departments have outfitted every single officer with a Taser gun. At a special cost to law enforcement the tasers cost about 600 dollars each, roughly the same price as a gun.
And it’s not just sworn officers who buy the so-called ECD’s – electronic control devices. In addition to the military and private security firms at least 160 thousand private citizens have turned to Tasers as their self-protection weapon of choice. They now come in a variety of designs, sizes and colors and the smaller pink model is touted on one website with the slogan, “Love her? Protect her.” Just in time for Valentine’s Day gift giving!
I’ve spoken to law enforcement sources from California to New York and states in between and not one person would trade in their Taser. They stress that any officer who is issued one also gets extensive training now, which may not have occurred in the past and which may account for some of the abuses we see caught on videotape.
Detective Vic Alvarez, a 29 year veteran of the Santa Barbara County, California Sheriff’s Department says he got the training and as a result he learned that just showing a suspect the weapon is enough.
“I have never discharged my Taser … But my partner has on 3 occasions. It was very effective in subduing the suspect. If we had not had a Taser we probably would have gone hand-to-hand (with a baton) or used pepper spray.”
Experts say either of those self-defense tactics exposes the officer to physical harm. “In the case of tear gas or pepper spray, remember,” one told me, “The cop often gets just as much of the spray as the suspect!”
Sheriff White makes no excuses for those who have misused Tasers. “You always have situations where people don’t utilize their training and equipment in a proper manner,” he said. During his six year tenure as Sheriff of Bernalillo County, New Mexico White has had to discipline officers with Taser infractions only “a couple of times” and that was early in his administration.
“When I see something like that (the videos) I’m upset,” White admitted. “We all should be outraged when we see people in law enforcement abusing their position. But, there are hundreds of thousands of cases out there that don’t get any attention because the situation was de-escalated with a Taser.”
That is the other side of the Taser story.
The people we entrust to protect us say these weapons save lives.
I say those who want them banned are leaving a threatened officer no choice but to react with deadly force. And that would be a shame.