Editorial: Police too quick to use Tasers
While we have supported the concept of electronic stun guns — Tasers — being used by police as an alternative to deadly force, we’ve expressed concern that the devices might be pressed into service too frequently as a way of expeditiously restraining unruly but not particularly dangerous people. Based on some recent anecdotal evidence at the Schenectady Police Department, as well as a new report by the New York Civil Liberties Union, those fears were apparently not unfounded.
We’ll start with Schenectady: On Oct. 10, police zapped the passenger in a car involved in an Albany Street traffic stop after he jumped out of the car, ran, and resisted arrest when police finally caught up to him. Three days later, they did it again to a woman who’d interfered with their attempt to interrogate a crime suspect, then assaulted one of the interrogating officers. While the woman subsequently bit the cop, at no time did she appear to pose the kind of deadly physical threat that might justify their application of a 50,000-volt electronic shock. Ditto the fleeing car passenger.
(Police, on the other hand, would have been entirely justified in shocking — rather than shooting — the knife-wielding intruder at the Gazette building Oct. 8. Unfortunately, the cops who initially responded to the call weren’t carrying Tasers, and while they were waiting for a backup patrol unit to bring one, Elvis Norwood allegedly charged at them with his knife.)
The NYCLU analysis questions the use of stun guns in fully 60 percent of the 851 incidents it investigated, involving eight police departments. More often than not, the report’s author told the Gazette, the weapon was being used more as a “compliance tool” than as a way to protect the cop using it.
But even when there is risk of physical injury, unless the risk is of serious injury or death, it seems there are better ways to restrain an uncooperative customer. Cops should only be using these devices, which are torture-like in their intensity and have proven lethal in rare instances, as a last resort — after attempts to physically restrain someone have failed and after less-nasty measures like pepper spray or a nightstick have been tried and failed.
Police administrators need to do a better job instructing their personnel on the proper use of the weapons, and following up by requiring detailed reports of incidents in which they are used.
Groups like the NYCLU have generally been wary of Tasers, so its report is not altogether surprising. But there have also been enough local incidents — including the aforementioned ones in Schenectady, as well as the one in April in which Rotterdam police zapped an unruly 13-year-old boy on his way out of Rollarama — to convince us that more judicious oversight of this enforcement tool is necessary.