Incidents spark doubt about safety of Tasers

Hours after police shot a UCLA student with an electroshock gun, or Taser, students across the country watched the YouTube video in which Mostafa Tabatabainejad shrieked and writhed on the ground. “This is your Patriot Act. This is your … abuse of power,” he cried, as the police shot him several more times. Tabatabainejad’s crime was not showing his ID card in the library.

The UCLA incident made news just days after New Haven’s Deadly Force Task Force announced that Tasers are coming to New Haven as part of a trial program. New Haven is buying 50 of the stun guns to be used by 100 officers. Alderman Yusuf Shah, the chairman of the task force, said the trial period would last two to three years, though the New Haven Independent reported it would last only a year.

TASER International’s slogan is “Saving lives every day,” but In These Times magazine reported this month that nearly 200 people have died after being shot by Tasers. The Justice Department announced in June that it would investigate these deaths. I argue that New Haven should look for alternative ways of reducing police violence. The introduction of Tasers is likely to do the opposite.

At first look, so-called “less than lethal” technology seems like a great idea. The police will inevitably use force in some situations, so we might as well make force less deadly. Armed with this reasoning, communities angry about police shootings are increasingly turning to Tasers and other technologies. Tasers are designed to keep a record of the precise time they are fired, which could help communities hold police accountable for the use of their weapons. The problem is that Tasers seem in some cases to have killed people.

I asked Alderman Shah what he thought about the 200 Taser-linked deaths. He insisted that trying out Tasers is “a reasonable attempt” at curbing the use of excessive force by police. “We don’t have any real evidence that the Tasers caused those people’s deaths,” he said, noting that a nightstick can also be deadly if used the wrong way.

I share Alderman Shah’s desire both to fight crime and to make the police less violent, but I disagree with his logic. We do not have the kind of definitive scientific studies on the deadliness of Tasers that we need. What we do know is that almost 200 people have died after being shot with the guns. Giving Tasers to part of the New Haven police force for three years will not clear up the underlying medical and social questions.

One question is whether Tasers will be used as an alternative to guns, or whether they will simply be an addition to the police arsenal. The Independent reported that Police Chief Francisco Ortiz answered this question at the task force’s most recent meeting, saying that a Taser would not replace a gun if a suspect were carrying a deadly weapon. “If someone pulls out a knife, an officer is not going to pull out a Taser,” Chief Ortiz said, adding that “in communities that have these [Tasers], it increases the use of force.”

The New Haven chief of police, then, fueled my suspicion that stun guns have the opposite of their intended effect. Tasers are marketed as an alternate method of subduing the toughest and most dangerous criminals, but in reality they lower the threshold at which it is acceptable to use violence. The perception that Tasers are safe means that they are more likely to be used than guns. Among the first “dangerous criminals” subject to Taser shocks were the protesters at the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. The UCLA campus police certainly felt they were within their bounds to shoot up to 50,000 volts of electricity into Mostafa Tabatabainejad. In August, 22-year-old Ryan Wilson of Lafayette, Colo., died after police shot him with a Taser. In October, In These Times reports, the coroner ruled that the shock was the cause of death. Wilson’s crime? Suspected marijuana possession.

Those in our society who are already stigmatized or vulnerable are most likely to be affected by police violence. Human-rights groups such as Amnesty International have already highlighted the use of Tasers on prisoners and clients in psychiatric hospitals. This problem also crops up along racial, political and religious lines. Mostafa Tabatabainejad is an Iranian-American and a Muslim. As students, we must be keenly aware of these issues as these new weapons enter our community. “We do not feel safe on this campus,” said Sabiha Ameen, president of UCLA’s Muslim Students Association. The climate of fear and distrust at UCLA shows the dark implications of the misuse of such force.

Jared Malsin is a senior in Berkeley College. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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