Sunday, November 20, 2011

Mental Illness Still Earning Death by Taser

The less-publicized aspect of the paramilitary force a few big cities are using against the Occupy protesters is that throughout the country police are still managing to kill innocent, unthreatening citizens with tasers.

Digby, on a case from San Bernadino:

The use of tasers on the mentally ill is one sub-category of this controversy that really needs investigation. People who are in a delusional state cannot be expected to understand the orders that they comply. Indeed, they very likely will feel the horrible pain and struggle all the harder to get away from it. It's counterproductive to the alleged purpose of the intervention.

Here you have a situation in which there is no public safety issue. They could have called in mental health professionals to deal with it. Using pepper spray and electrical shocks on an already agitated schizophrenic was stupid. And it killed him.

I guess we are just supposed to see this as more "collateral damage" in the ongoing war against crime. And that's a direct result of the militarization of our police departments. Ex police chief Joseph McNamara addressed this dynamic in this op-ed:

Simply put, the police culture in our country has changed. An emphasis on "officer safety" and paramilitary training pervades today's policing, in contrast to the older culture, which held that cops didn't shoot until they were about to be shot or stabbed. Police in large cities formerly carried revolvers holding six .38-caliber rounds. Nowadays, police carry semi-automatic pistols with 16 high-caliber rounds, shotguns and military assault rifles, weapons once relegated to SWAT teams facing extraordinary circumstances. Concern about such firepower in densely populated areas hitting innocent citizens has given way to an attitude that the police are fighting a war against drugs and crime and must be heavily armed.

Yes, police work is dangerous, and the police see a lot of violence. On the other hand, 51 officers were slain in the line of duty last year, out of some 700,000 to 800,000 American cops. That is far fewer than the police fatalities occurring when I patrolled New York's highest crime precincts, when the total number of cops in the country was half that of today. Each of these police deaths and numerous other police injuries is a tragedy and we owe support to those who protect us. On the other hand, this isn't Iraq. The need to give our officers what they require to protect themselves and us has to be balanced against the fact that the fundamental duty of the police is to protect human life and that law officers are only justified in taking a life as a last resort.

"Officer safety" is the excuse for tasers --- even on elderly women at traffic stops and unruly children having tantrums. In fact, it's commonly used so that the officers can demand instant compliance from the citizens regardless of the circumstances. I'm certainly sympathetic to the idea that policing is a dangerous job. But the pursuit of officer safety to the exclusion of everything else is to create a world in which the bill of rights is an anachronistic abstraction.

Being a cop in a free society is a tough gig. I think they deserve all the early pensions and great benefits they get for doing it. Anyone would burn out early from a job like that. But giving them carte blanche to use pain devices on the citizens in order to gain instant compliance and avoid any kind of physical altercation can't be right. Over time that war on crime morphs into a war on citizens.

Read the whole thing.

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