Henry Louis Gates is lucky Cambridge Police don’t use tasers. Anywhere else, it might have been different. Seriously, a quick Google News search of the last month alone reveals a barrage of police tasing incidents across the country one more barbaric than the other: grandmas, grandpas, the mentally ill, teens and even children. Some of these taser victims died. One (ok, in Australia) burst into flames, another was left with burns in his anus, and yet another, a 14-year-old girl, got it in the head — running away after a dispute with her mother over a cell phone (caution, graphic).
All — in varying degrees — needed to be “subdued” by police, and were. It is, after all, a most effective tool in that regard, especially when dealing with pregnant women, 16-year-olds with broken backs and 6-year-old boys. After reading news reports dating back to 2004 about the hyper-use of these 50,000-volt zap guns, it’s not difficult to imagine what might have happened if Gates were say, in Boise, and had hurled one more insult, used a few expletives, raised a hand or moved toward Officer James Crowley in a “threatening manner,” much like this guy, who was irate and scary, but nonetheless handcuffed and shackled, when he was Tasered in a Kentucky court on July 22.
When Reason wrote about Tasers in 2005, there were 6,000 law enforcement agencies employing Taser guns. The high-voltage weapons, according to the Amnesty International statistics in the report, “are used on unarmed suspects in 80 percent of the cases, for verbal non-compliance in 36 percent, and for cases involving ‘deadly assault’ only 3 percent of the time.” Today some 14,200 police departments use Tasers, along with countless school districts across the country. In Pennsylvania alone for example, Tasers were employed by police in 122 schools as of June.
So what does this mean?
According to police, who, as we’ve been reminded relentlessly over the last week face constant danger, Tasers are less lethal than guns and more effective at ending violent confrontations without serious injury. Furthermore, Tasers have been credited with shielding police officers from harm in the line of duty.
Maybe so. According to federal statistics, the number of police officers shot and killed in the line of duty is at an historic low. The nationwide number actually dropped 40 percent — from 68 in 2007 to 41 in 2008. The numbers have been on a downward trajectory for years, and Tasers are in part, credited. But there are other reasons, too, like the fact that overall violent crime is down, police wear super high-tech bullet-proof vests today and some 2.3 million Americans are incarcerated and off the streets.
Meanwhile, the stats on the number of American citizens police have killed in that timespan are much more elusive. According to this 2007 report (unverified), 9,500 people were killed by cops from 1980 through 2003, an average of 380 a year, one a day. These recent DOJ numbers jibe, with 1,540 killed by police from 2003-2006. Amnesty International says 351 people have died from police Tasers since 2001.
The police are poised to make their odds a whole lot better as Taser International on Tuesday revealed its newest model since 2003 — a weapon that can fire three rounds without reloading. In other words, it can hit three people, or fire three times at the same person without missing a beat. It can also fire from a farther distance — 35 feet instead of 15 feet. “Hundreds of law enforcement officers applauded after watching the two[demonstrators] fire rounds of barbed wire at metal targets,” according to The Associated Press.
Why not? If it helps subdue feisty 72-year-old great-grandmothers who “mouth off,” or 66-year-old ministers who make an unwise jokes in hospital wards (perhaps with three uninterrupted Taser jolts, the security guards could have bypassed the beat-down they gave this guy in front of his 6-year-old grandson).
Like I said Tuesday, any one of us might someday find ourselves in their places, given the right (wrong) circumstances. It’s a byproduct of police militarization, the “criminalization of almost everything” as Gene Healy calls it, and the transcendence of American police from neighborhood “peace officers” to gods, armed to the teeth and impervious but ultimately hostile towards criticism. They are largely unaccountable to the public officials and taxpayers who pay their salaries, and this can be seen in the myriad cases of abuse involving Tasers and other aggressive, over-the-top behaviors (like choking a paramedic while his patient is languishing inside the ambulance en route to the hospital).
Tasers are like cattle prods and we pray we never see the wrong end of one. Apparently they make police feel safer, but a lot of us are feeling more like animals these days. It would appear that Boston and Cambridge Police have so far resisted the Taser trend and should be commended for that. Gates dodged a 50,000-volt shock on July 16 – I’d bet a beer behind the Oval Office tastes much better.