Digby on Tasers, Guns and the Next Wave of Police Militarization

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A law enforcement officer chases down Steve Consalvi, who ran on to the field before the eighth inning of a baseball game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the St. Louis Cardinals, Monday, May 3, 2010, in Philadelphia. St. Louis won 6-3. The officer used a Taser gun to apprehend Consalvi. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
An officer chases Steve Consalvi, who ran on to the field before the eighth inning of a baseball game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the St. Louis Cardinals, Monday, May 3, 2010. The officer used a Taser gun to apprehend Consalvi. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Ten days after a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, killed Michael Brown another young African-American man was shot dead a few miles away in St. Louis.

The circumstances around the death of Kajieme Powell were markedly different from those in Ferguson. Powell, who may have suffered from mental health issues, had a knife, and shouted, “Shoot me now… kill me now,” at responding officers.

But there is one thing that the two shootings have in common: both incidents left many observers believing that police didn’t have to end these young men’s lives in order to protect themselves or members of the public.

Heather Parton, better known as the blogger “Digby,” has been writing about poli ce officers’ use of force for years – both at her blog Hullabaloo, and as a columnist at Salon. BillMoyers.com spoke with Parton about the killings in Ferguson and St. Louis, and new technologies being developed to control crowds of protesters. Below is a transcript of our discussion that has been edited for length and clarity.

Joshua Holland: Kajieme Powell’s killing will almost certainly be ruled a justifiable shooting under the law. He had a knife and it was reportedly a case of “suicide by cop.” But people are angry about it nonetheless. Your thoughts?

Heather “Digby” Parton: People who have read my work know that one of my big issues is the use of the Taser by police officers. I’ve written a lot of criticism of Tasers. But if I were to say that there is a situation where the Taser is warranted, this seems like it would be the one.

You have a mentally ill man — although the police had no way of knowing at that point that he was mentally ill. But nonetheless, he was yelling at them, “Shoot me, shoot me,” which seems to be an obvious tipoff that you’re not dealing with a healthy person. And he had a knife in his hand. And when Tasers were first introduced, the idea was that they were going to replace lethal force in situations just like that.

You can understand a cop firing at someone who’s holding a gun and refuses to put it down, because that’s a lethal weapon that can be used from a distance. A knife is different. So the police officers could have used a Taser.

Now, people are saying, “They couldn’t use a Taser because there’s no guarantee that it would’ve stopped him.” Well, that means Tasers are useless. Because of course there’s no guarantee that anything can stop a person except a bullet through the head or the heart. That’s the only way to guarantee stopping someone who is approaching you. And my understanding is that we, as a society, had decided that that was not going to be necessary in cases where a Taser could potentially stop someone.

Yes, there’s a risk there, but cops use Tasers all the time in those situations. I collect all these stories — there are endless accounts of police officers stopping a knife-wielding suspect with a Taser. Those St. Louis officers were armed with Tasers. They had them on their belts, they just didn’t use them.

I have been very reluctant to say we should ban the Taser outright because there are times when it really could save a life, particularly of a mentally ill person like this guy was. Suicide by cop is one of the obvious situations where you’d want to use that alternative. So if they don’t want to use them in these situations because it’s not guaranteed to work, then Tasers should be banned, because the only other reason for police to have them is to torture noncompliant suspects. That’s un-American. Cops should not use torture devices to get their way with the public.

So if you could use a Taser instead of killing someone, then logically a civilized society would want police to have them. But I see no reason for Tasers to even be in the hands of cops if that’s the way they’re going to look at it.

Holland: This incident was all caught on video. The video does not match the police account of what happened. And the thing that stands out for many is that they approached with their guns out, and were on the scene for literally seconds before pumping him full of bullets. How could they have fully evaluated the situation in that time?

Digby: Yes. They rolled up quickly and got out of their cars with their guns drawn. And that’s the part that I think was the big mistake. They knew he had a knife. He was not reported to have a gun. So they could have retreated to a greater distance if he was looking agitated. They could have approached the situation differently. Especially since there were no bystanders in Powell’s immediate vicinity. Certainly, they could’ve tried to talk to him, which they did not do. They came out with the guns and it escalated in an instant into a confrontation, and that was the end of it.

I watch this stuff happen all the time here in LA. There are some mean streets here, and it’s very obvious to me that cops have taken on a siege mentality. And there are plenty of great cops out there who are doing really good work on the streets — who are not paranoid and not just out there trying to get their rocks off dressed up in battle gear. But the “us versus them” mindset is something that we really need to address, I think, because it’s creating an awful lot of carnage where there needn’t be.

You have cops with a mindset that what they’re dealing with is an enemy on the streets of America — which is what this militarization encourages and enables. They’re getting out of their cars with their guns drawn facing an enemy, not a sick person or someone who is a citizen or a human being just like themselves. And when you see yourself as being at war, you’re not going to use a Taser. You’re going to use a gun.

Holland: Yet they will use Tasers on troubled children. Just this month, a family filed a lawsuit against police in Pierre, South Dakota. They say their daughter was traumatized after being tased by police. She was eight years old at the time, and weighed 70 pounds. She had a small paring knife in her hand. Her babysitter called the police and this is how they responded. Four trained police officers were on the scene, and none of them thought of grabbing the little girl’s wrist.

Let me ask you this: just how non-lethal are these devices? And does the widespread perception that they don’t do serious damage lead police to use them in situations where they wouldn’t use a different weapon — like on a 70-pound little girl?

Digby: Tasers were designed to be used in place of lethal force to subdue somebody who isn’t armed with a gun or posing a lethal threat. And what we found out recently is that police protocol now says that if you feel any kind of a threat you should use a gun, because only a gun is a hundred percent. So yes, over the years I’ve documented hundreds of cases of Tasers being used against children — it happens all the time, which I find absolutely appalling. Elderly people in bed have been tased — there was one very famous case where the police were called in to deal with an elderly man in his nineties who was suffering from dementia. He was lying in bed couldn’t walk and he had a knife in his hand. And the cop tased him and of course he died because he was 90-something years old. He got hit with electroshock and that was the end of that.

There’s a lot of death as a result of Tasers and it’s gotten to the point where Taser International, which is the manufacturer of the Taser that they use in the United States, has actually invented a disease that they call “excited delirium.” The Toronto Star did a huge exposé of this. Taser International put on a fancy junket where they brought medical examiners and persuaded them that this disease could be a cause of death rather than homicide by Taser. They’re saying that someone who is in police custody becomes very agitated and when they’re hit with a Taser they have a heart attack and die.

Being arrested is never a calming experience. So this is something that the police are not held liable for. It doesn’t show up in homicide statistics. But a lot of people are dying.

Holland: You recently had a piece at Salon about new crowd control devices that are currently in development.

Digby: One of them is already deployed. In Ferguson, they used the LRAD, which is a sound cannon that has been used in a number of situations around the country. It’s designed to be so unpleasant that it will make people disperse. In Ferguson they used it pretty responsibly. They didn’t put it at full blast, which can cause hearing damage and can be very, very painful to someone who has sensitive ears.

And Taser has a number of big weapons on the agenda, one of which is called ShockWave and it’s like a Taser machine gun, or grenade — it fires many, many darts. It would be mounted on top of these paramilitary vehicles that they have, and it’s going to be pretty indiscriminate. The company’s marketing video opens with the question: “What if you could drop everyone in a given area to the ground with the push of a button?”

And then they have another one called the XREP, which is a Taser dart that can be fired at a distance from a real gun. And it gives off 20 seconds of electroshock. That will kill people; right now the electroshock impulses in handheld Tasers last for about 5 seconds. If you put 20 seconds worth of electricity into people, some are going to die.

And then finally, there is this really awful new weapon called “the active denial system” which is being developed by the military. Interestingly enough, 60 Minutes did a story on it a couple of years back and it showed exercises they were doing with this weapon and a crowd that was carrying signs that said, “Peace Now,” or “World Peace” — these were soldiers playing a part in a war game but they were dressed up as hippies. That doesn’t sound like something that they’re just planning to use in the Middle East. It’s a terrible weapon that actually streams a beam of heat out into the crowd that raises the surface temperature of your skin to 130 degrees. They claim that no one will get hurt, but there have been a couple of accidents where people got burned.

They’re also developing a flying Taser — a small drone with a Taser attached to it. So police won’t even have to be on-scene to disperse a crowd.

Holland: This is a large and growing industry, and you note that this technology is being developed for both the military to use abroad and for domestic law enforcement. Do you have a sense of what the primary market may be?

Digby: The military does some crowd control operations, but it seems to me that this industry really began to grow with the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle. It’s about dispersing large crowds of protesters. And it isn’t just an American thing. “Less lethal” weapons are being developed around the world.

Holland: The police seem to believe that if a few people throw objects at them, it’s then OK to deploy these weapons against hundreds of peaceful protesters who are simply standing nearby. But it’s their job to protect peaceful citizens who are exercising their right to assemble. If there are a half dozen or a dozen hardcore trouble makers, why would they no longer have a responsibility to serve those thousand other people? It makes no sense.

It doesn’t, especially given the head-to-toe body armor they wear in these protest situations. It hardly seems that a bottle is a real threat to police officers when they’re dressed up in this “Robocop” riot gear. And I think we know the answer to why they react that way: the real reason is to disperse the crowd.

There was a great article in Harper’s a few years back by a reporter named Ando Arike. He put it very well when he wrote, “[These] weapons are intended primarily for use against unarmed or primitively armed civilians; they are designed to control crowds, clear buildings and streets, subdue and restrain individuals, and secure borders. The result is what appears to be the first arms race in which the opponent is the general population.”

Joshua Holland was a senior digital producer for BillMoyers.com and now writes for The Nation. He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter: @JoshuaHol.
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