My weekend plans don’t include arguing with a cop, creating a public disturbance, resisting arrest or exercising bad editorial judgment in numerous other ways that might bring down the force of law on my head.
However, if in some overcaffeinated, twangy-nerved, glassy eyed state I should lose it and run screaming nude down Innes Street, here’s my pre-emptive request to the cops: Give me a shock before you shoot. I’ll take a hot buzz over a bullet any day.
The Taser debate flared up again recently following four deaths nationwide involving subjects who were tasered by police. That included a Charlotte man whose July death prompted the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department to suspend use of Tasers. Cincinnati police also suspended Taser use following a death last month. Earlier in August, suspects in Wisconsin and Manassas, Va., died after being Tasered.
Nationwide between 2001 and 2008, according to Amnesty International, 351 deaths were linked to Tasers, which use an electric current to immobilize suspects.
Such statistics are often cited as evidence that Tasers are inherently flawed devices, wielded by officers all too eager to administer a stiff jolt or two.
But hold on. Here’s another interesting statistic: Medical experts estimate that between 300 and 400 people die each year in the United States because of allergic reactions to penicillin. Yet when was the last time you heard anyone calling for a ban on penicillin or suggesting that those hundreds of deaths are evidence of shot-happy doctors just waiting for a chance to push the plunger on the syringe?
More likely, you weigh those statistics against the countless lives penicillin has saved and take some comfort in the calculation, as well as ongoing efforts to reduce the accidental mortality rate.
Yes, 351 deaths possibly related to Taser use in a seven-year period is disturbing. But consider: Between 1990 and 2008, according to federal transportation officials, more than 290 deaths resulted from frontal airbag inflation in low-speed crashes. The majority of those accidental deaths were children and infants. Should we focus on the deaths that have resulted from unnecessary airbag deployments — or the estimated 28,000 lives that may have been saved because airbags protected vehicle occupants during high-speed frontal crashes?
It seems to me there’s a double-standard at work here, one in which we’re far too prone to buy into the stereotype of a trigger-happy cop treating a powerful stungun as if it were a child’s hand buzzer. Yet any consideration of the protocols that accompany Taser use should dispel that notion. Officers go through training that often involves being zapped themselves. Incidents involving police Taser use undergo the same scrutiny as other uses of force. Departments also keep abreast of ongoing research to reduce Taser risks.
Certainly, those risks are there. The Taser company has faced numerous lawsuits — some resulting in damages — related to the safety of its products. But the fact that a jury believes a Taser contributed to a wrongful death in a specific instance isn’t grounds for blanket condemnation. If that were the case, McDonalds would have to stop serving hot coffee and Ford Motor Co. would have to stop selling SUVs.
What the statistics can’t tell us, unfortunately, is how many lives have been saved and serious injuries prevented by the use of Tasers — officers’ lives, especially, but suspects and innocent bystanders, too. The naive assumption behind Taser criticisms is that these volatile situations would have ended peacefully if an officer hadn’t employed a stun gun. To reach that resolution, however, you need a suspect who’s acting rationally — and rational people don’t resist arrest, spit at cops, hurl obscenities or challenge them to an impromptu wrestling match.
Rather than a quick and clean take down, you have the possibility of an officer forced to engage in close-quarter combat with a deranged drunk or berserk drug addict. As for the Tasering of “unarmed” suspects, that can’t be determined unless the suspect consents to a search. Even if a suspect isn’t packing a gun, he can go for an officer’s weapon or suddenly produce a box-cutter or ice pick — easily concealed and highly lethal.
Given the weaponry available to criminals who don’t care about gun laws, officers don’t know what they may encounter on today’s mean streets. Serving a routine warrant can turn into an ambush, as we’ve seen in too many cases. In 2010, 59 officers died of gunshot wounds nationwide; this year’s gunshot toll already stands at 50, with almost five months left.
Taser use needs to be limited and controlled, obviously, but we shouldn’t take away tools that can help officers defuse violent situations.
As a law-abiding citizen, I don’t plan on going off the deep end. But if I do, and the police need to take me down in order to take me in, here’s my saner self’s request:
Please Taser me, bro.
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Chris Verner is opinion page editor of the Salisbury Post. Email: email@example.com