In the San Francisco Bay Area, there is renewed discussion about Tasers. Police departments, including BART police, are contemplating making Tasers standard equipment for officers. Of course, this has re-opened the incident that never really closed – the shooting of Oscar Grant by BART police officer, Johannes Mehserle.
The following is a re-posting of what I wrote following the sentencing of former officer Mehserle. It once again seems relevant.
Oscar Grant: Overkill
The shooting of Oscar Grant was the result of the de-facto policy of many police officers: the practice of using so-called non-lethal force as a form of punishment. If you believe that officer Mehserle did in fact pull his firearm by mistake, then that is an admission that he intended to taser a suspect that had already been subdued and was clearly complying.
Grant may not have been in compliance all along (although he was certainly not violent), but the minute the other officer put his knee on his neck, Grant put his arms and legs back into a submissive position. His body language said, “OK, you’re really hurting my neck, so I’m going to cooperate.” It was only then that officer Mehserle pulled his weapon. This was all clearly visible in several of the videos taken by bystanders. This can be seen here:
We have seen this repeated, although with lesser consequences, many times, thanks to citizen videos. Many police officers seem to have a nonchalant attitude when it comes to their tasers. But what would have been Mehserle’s sentence if he had actually tasered Grant, who then died of a heart attack? Under the law, this is an outcome that could be foreseen by a reasonable person – tasers cause a strong physiological reaction. Therefore, using a taser is an action that requires strong justification. And in fact, over 250 people have died in the United States from the Taser.
So, the issue would not have been whether or not the gun was used by accident, but WHY did Mehserle decide to use his taser under these conditions?
The job of a police officer is certainly one of the most difficult in modern society. Each day, an officer walks a thin, jagged line between levels of enforcement that are either too lax or overzealous. However, the function of the police is never to punish offenders, but to apprehend them using the least amount of force necessary.
The issue of the inappropriate use of force, whether lethal or non-lethal, has been overshadowed by the accident question and the race issue. But the more important question should be: Under what circumstances should the police use harmful or even potentially lethal force at all?
Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.
Tom also posts on thrustblog.blogspot.com