By Brady Welch
Police Chief George Gascon held a press conference Feb 25th to discuss his desire to arm his officers with Conducted Energy Devices (known to you and me as Tasers or stun guns) -- and his comments demonstrated that the chief still doesn't get it.
Gascon is arguing that Tasers could prevent some deadly police shootings. But there’s a much larger issue that he seems to be ignoring.
On December 28, 2009, the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals right here in San Francisco affirmed the decision of a lower court that an unarmed man shot with a Taser can sue the city of Coronado, just outside San Diego. The zapping caused Carl Bryan to fall face first into the pavement, thus knocking out his four front teeth. To add insult to injury, one of the Taser probes lodged in the man’s flesh, requiring a doctor's scalpel to remove it.
And what was this citizen's crime? Getting upset with himself for being pulled over twice in the same day for routine traffic infractions. According to court records, the 21-year-old Bryan was driving home on a Sunday morning after a long night with friends and got pulled over for speeding. Later that same morning, he got stopped again, this time for not wearing a seat belt (which he forgot to put back on after initially getting stopped).
Bryan pulled to the curb and started punching the steering wheel, shouting expletives at himself for being so careless. He then got out of the car “yelling gibberish and hitting his thighs,” the court decision reports. The officer yelled at Bryan to get back in the car, but Bryan apparently didn’t hear him. Then the cop, without warning, shot the kid with his Taser gun.
Bryan didn’t die. He also wasn't on drugs (Tasers are particularly dangerous to people under the influence of stimulants). But he was hurt -- and at least according to the court files, there’s good grounds to argue that he should never have been zapped in the first place.
Gascon acknowledged that Tasers can be dangerous, although he offered a somewhat morbid justification of taser-implicated deaths—loosely paraphrased, he suggested that if you ask a crackhead to run around the block, that person would probably suffer cardiac arrest anyway. And he talked about special training to avoid police Tasing of drug-addled and mentally ill people.
But what he’s missing -- and what has a lot of community activists concerned -- is the situation in Coronado: The Taser shooting of someone who should never have been shot with anything. Two police commissioners, Petra DeJesus and Vincent Pan, have expressed concerns over whether people can trust a San Francisco police department armed with semi-lethal weapons that officers might feel inclined to used in decidedly less than semi-lethal situations. The Ninth Circuit's opinion is only the most recent and ballyhooed case.
What was particularly galling during the chief's press conference was when Taser-supporting commissioners Tom Mazzucco and Jim Hammer came forward to plead the case for using Tasers on the mentally ill -- as opposed to real bullets -- almost as if to say, Certainly, we can all agree on this.
Well, maybe not. Here’s what the Ninth Circuit had to say:
A mentally ill individual is in need of a doctor, not a jail cell, and in the usual case—where such an individual is neither a threat to himself nor to anyone else—the government's interests in deploying force to detain him is not as substantial as its interest in deploying that force to apprehend a dangerous criminal. Moreover, the purpose of detaining a mentally ill individual is not to punish him, but to help him. The government has an important interest in providing assistance to a person in need of psychiatric care; thus, the use of force that may be justified by that interest necessarily differs both in degree and in kind from the use of force that would be justified against a person who has committed a crime or who poses a threat to the community.
In other words: Cops shouldn’t be shooting mentally ill people anyway, with Tasers or with pistols.
And if you give the cops Tasers, it’s almost certain that they’ll zap a whole lot of people who were, as one critic put it, “guilty of nothing more than mouthing off to a cop on the bus.”
BTW, there’s an interesting Amnesty International report on Tasers here