Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Tase First, Ask Questions Later

Dear Mister/Ms Police Officer,

If I get pulled over for speeding in the future and I seem a little nervous, please understand—I’m not hiding anything—I’m only worried that you might stun me for no reason other than that you are lazy and incompetent.

This is because you have complete authority. And you don’t have to do any work, anymore. Open my mouth (you know you don’t have to take any lip from me) and –ZAP!

How does that power feel?

Yours Truly, John Q. Public

The Taser is shaped like a gun and is battery operated. It fires two fishhook like barbs into a person’s skin, discharging between 50k and 1000k volts of electricity, disrupting a person’s muscle control. The darts have a range of up to 21 feet. The tool can also be pressed directly against a person’s body to use in stun mode. About 6,000 agencies use the device.

That’s the technical scoop.

But here’s the real deal—the pain caused by the electricity is excruciating and freezes you on the spot. And it keeps you frozen, until someone hits the “off” switch.

And the troubling part of this story is that it is now the preferred method of resolving any issues between police and the community. No one is immune from the TASER. This includes people who don’t pose any serious threat, such as unruly school children, pregnant women, a 6 year old mentally disturbed boy in Miami, a handcuffed 9 year old girl in Arizona, along with the elderly (including a legally blind 71 year old woman in Portland).

And get this—69 people have died nationwide after being shocked by Tasers. Many of which were due to the “rush to tase and ask questions later,” according to Sheley Secrest of the NAACP Seattle chapter.

Those tased who were fortunate enough not to have been killed by the devise, includes a deaf man who couldn’t hear deputies ordering him to stop, and a teenager who ran after not paying a $1.25 bus fare.

In my day--kids were taken home to their parents and made to account for themselves.

Now we all know the reason Tasers were introduced to law enforcement. They could potentially end violent standoffs and subdue suicidal people. But, as they have become as ubiquitous as the handcuff, they are being routinely used in far less threatening situations.

Amnesty International has released a report saying that police nationwide are abusing the stun gun. They advocate that officers stop using the device until independent tests prove they’re safe (The company that builds them insists they are). Some studies have indicated that not enough scientific data is available to determine whether Tasers are safe for use in all circumstances.

Several chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union have urged police to use Tasers only in the most serious situations. This is because there are no rules and standards that apply to their use. There are only suggestions. And some police departments are starting to clamp down on abuses by their officers. The Las Vegas Police Department recently had to ban the use of Tasers on handcuffed people and “discouraged” multiple shockings.

According to Amnesty International, Taser use has been followed by death in 277 cases. They are concerned that the weapons are being used on unarmed people, where there is no imminent threat to the officer or other people in the situation.

Only recently, I was channel surfing the old television, and came across the beginning of a new police reality series, featuring female officers in Broward county, Florida. One of the officers said something about how much she enjoyed stunning people with her trusty Taser, as an introduction to her character. It was sadistic and perverse. She thought that it was funny.

Tell that to the 15 year old boy in Michigan, who shortly after a Taser was used on him Tuesday, died. And of course, I wonder how funny those three officers in Laredo, Texas, think it is after the death of man they shocked with a Taser gun. They are on administrative leave, pending an investigation. My money is on a slap on the wrist and they’ll be back to abusing their authority very soon.

What I find particularly troubling about all this, is that there are no standards with something that can cause such harm. Our police are using the threat of excruciating pain to its citizens instead of civil discourse.

And this, in a democracy that touts its freedoms.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Scotland Yard Wants Your Stuff!

Recently, British police began combing an upscale London neighborhood. It was not to catch criminals though. It was to commit crimes themselves. They were in search of things to steal. They were checking for unlocked cars for items and taking them.

The rationale: to teach the owners a lesson to keep their doors locked, and their windows closed.

They were to “remove the property for safekeeping,” and a note would be left to explain what happened.

I guess that this type of thing could be referred to as the weird cousin of “focused deterrence.” Normally, the principle of this form of crime fighting is to force criminal activity to another jurisdiction. Criminologists refer to this as “displacement.” In Madison Wisconsin, campus police understand this fundament, and have been successful in deterring crime with their “bait bike” program. A GPS device is attached to such bikes. Since the program started, 18 people have taken the bait, ending in 16 arrests in two months. The police, in this situation, attempt to make the criminal evaluate the risk of apprehension; contemplate the seriousness of the expected punishment, along with their immediate need for criminal gain.

This has led to evidence of sizeable crime reduction on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Unfortunately, it did not shift crime to surrounding areas. But, it did put a dent in crime without putting a strain on police-community relations. I can only imagine the strain on police-community relations in London when the folks discovered that their valuables had actually been nicked by the police.

Perhaps the police in London have come to the conclusion that studies usually indicate that traditional crime deterrence programs, like that being employed in Madison, do not cause criminals to move to other areas. They resist movement to other sites, because of the natural tendency to stay with what is familiar. Movement would cause demand that they encounter new and less familiar conditions. Criminals simply change their methods in order to continue their activities without getting caught. So, instead the coppers focus their attention on the prospective victims by making them victims.

Yet, from where I come from, the state is responsible for maintaining order and preserving the common good through a system of laws—not the audacity to commit crimes in order to educate the populace about possible future crimes. The police in London need to achieve their objectives through policies that convince criminals (not victims) to desist from criminal activities, delay their actions, or simply avoid a particular target.

To do this, they must develop strategies which focus on future behaviors of criminals, and preventing them from engaging in such crimes by impacting rational decision making processes.

To put it another way—if criminals choose to continue their disruptive and threatening behavior, they deserve to be punished. The citizen, though, does not deserve to be punished (by having their property seized by the police) because of the activities of a few deviants.

As crime rates increase, police resources always are stretched and the certainty of apprehension decreases. Come on folks—let’s use our money more efficiently!