Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Against Tasers

Via Drudge comes a story of our time, of Scott O’Neil, a cop in Mount Sterling, Ohio dealing with an arrest of a 9 year old boy for skipping school. That premise alone may sound ridiculous, but bear with me.
[O'Neil] went to the boy’s S. Market Street home about 8:30 a.m. to serve a complaint filed against Jared for truancy.
Jared — listed on the report as between 5-foot-5 and 5-foot-8 inches tall and between 200 and 250 pounds — refused to cooperate. He begged his mother to let him go to school rather than with the officer, but Perry told her son it was too late.
O’Neil wrote that after repeated warnings, he pulled Jared from the couch, but he “dropped to the floor and became dead weight ... flailing around,” and the boy lay on his hands to prevent being handcuffed.
So what do we have so far? We're using a police officer to deal with the problem of a kid skipping school. The kid seems pretty hefty, and isn't going along with the officer. It seems like the officer might have to actually grapple with the kid to get his arms free and handcuffed. 

That's what you'd think would happen, right?
O’Neil demonstrated the electrical current from the Taser into the air “as a show of force.” Then, he wrote, Perry told her son to do as O’Neil said or he would be shocked. 
So you threatened to taser a non-violent 9 year old child. Strong words, but perhaps the threat might have been useful. But surely you weren't actually planning on tasering a kid who may or may not be of sufficient age for criminal responsibility ?
The report indicates that after being shocked once, Jared still didn’t cooperate and was shocked a second time. An ambulance was called, but Jared had no sign of injury; Perry signed a waiver for medical treatment. Jared was taken to the sheriff’s office, and a delinquency count of resisting arrest was added to his truancy charge.
Let's all give a round of applause to Officer Scott O'Neil for the 'pathetic cowardice in the line of duty' award! You sure showed that child what for! Without the thin blue line standing with tasers at the ready, why we might have all sorts of children not turning up to school.

This is the problem with tasers. They were brought in, as far as I understand, to give cops a means to apply force that is unlikely (but not impossible) to be fatal.

So without the taser, the cop has the following options:

Cost to perp: Fatal
Cost to cop: High - psychological trauma of killing someone, mandatory review of their actions, possible career implications. Has the benefit of guaranteeing the cop's safety in a violent confrontation.

Physical Altercation:
Cost to perp: Low. You'll get resisting arrest and might get a violent handcuffing, but you'll live.
Cost to cop: Medium - physically taxing, might get hit, and runs the risk that confrontation could turn nasty if the perp tries to grab your gun, or pull a knife etc.

But now, we introduce into the mix the taser:

Cost to perp: Low to medium - guarantees a 'resisting arrest' charge, painful but medical complications are rare
Cost to cop: Zero. Nobody gets hassled for tasing someone. Guarantees the cop's safety about as well as a pistol.

The idea was that the taser was meant to be a substitute for the use of lethal force as a way of ending violent confrontations - instead of reaching for your pistol to kill a subject, you can tase him instead. Since nobody wants more perps to be shot than strictly necessary, this is a benefit. It also stops cops having to go straight to the threat of using a pistol as an escalation of physical confrontation. And this is an improvement too - you don't want to have loaded pistols pointed at yelling and violent suspects any more often than necessary, because they have a tendency to go off in the heat of the moment.

And to this end, the taser is useful. Although frankly, I'm not sure how often this really happens - if the cop truly fears for their life, I imagine they're still going to reach for their pistol, as their main priority is stopping you killing them at all costs.

But what the policy guys didn't seem to take into account is the other substitution - that tasers would be used as a substitute for any kind of physical altercation. 

And this has happened way, way more than the substitution of tasers for pistols, in part because situations that might call for a physical altercation are far more common than situations that might require somebody being shot. 

Cops tend to view tasers as magic button they can press to enforce compliance from people. It's actually a lower cost to the cop than risking a punch in the face, and as long as you come up with some story about the person being threatening, your superiors will go along with it. Good news for the cop.

But it's bad news for everybody else, because the end result is exactly the kind of story above. You threaten the subject with a taser for anything less than full compliance. Subject doesn't comply. You tase them.

Face it - the only thing that makes the story above newsworthy is that the kid was 9 years old. If the kid had been 17, this would be a complete 'dog bites man' story.

But is that what we want? Someone lying on the ground gets tased instead of having their hands grabbed and cuffed?

I want the use of physical force against civilians to be personally costly for the police. That forces the cop to work harder to avoid inflicting harm on the person they're arresting. 

With a taser, there is no incentive at all to wrestle with a suspect - just zap them for anything short of complete compliance.

If you're pissed off at the current story, you should recognise that it's just the logical end point of the current policy. We may end up with fewer fatal shootings, but we end up with a lot more cop-on-civilian violence overall.

We have the law enforcement equivalent of the battlefield nuclear weapon - the good news is that when you nuke the enemy, fewer people will be killed. Hurrah!

But battlefield nukes are actually very dangerous in a different sense, because they increase the risk that nuclear weapons will actually be used. The incredibly negative consequences of nukes are a feature, not a bug - they force countries to think very seriously about whether to fire them.

We've given all our battlefield commanders the availability of small, no-questions-asked nukes, and then we act surprised when the commanders start using nukes to deal with minor border skirmishes.

In foreign policy, nobody would be stupid enough to implement a policy like that. 

But that's exactly what we've done with law enforcement.

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