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Candide's Notebook

At The Mercy of Taser Torturers

Pierre Tristam

It's a morbid game. I Google "Taser," click on the tab that brings up the latest news articles featuring the word, and scroll through the insanity. It never fails. Every search produces case after case of sadism posing as policing.

Here's Friday's crop. In California, cops Tasered a 15-year-old autistic child who left his treatment center and was supposedly going to hurt himself for running into traffic (after walking 15 miles without a hitch). "If that were your son, would you want him Tasered or hit by a car?" a sheriff's spokesman said. If that was my son, I'd want you to stop traffic. Isn't that what cops can do with one hand raised and the other behind their back? Also in California on Friday, a cop Tasered a high school student to break up a fight.

In Warren, Ohio, an officer Tasered a woman because she was being unruly in his cruiser after an arrest. She slipped out of the cruiser to escape the shocks. He Tasered her again until he knocked her unconscious. She was in handcuffs the whole time. In Ocala, four officers are being investigated for Tasering a man who refused to drop his Quran. And, of course, nine days ago at the University of Florida, Andrew Meyer, a 21-year-old student who got long-winded with his questions to Sen. John Kerry during a public forum, was shoved away from the mike by campus police, pushed to the ground, pinned there by six officers (every cop wants a piece of the action) and electrocuted. Then he was told he was inciting a riot. If there ever was a case of cops inciting a riot., and deserving one, this was it. Still, they call this a "safe alternative."

But the stun gun, the single-most savage addition to police arsenals since the back-alley interrogation, has done the opposite of its intended purpose. Rather than lowering the level of violence necessary to subdue dangerous individuals, the stun-gun has lowered the threshold of excusable police violence by making the use of brutal force seem protective. Briefly electrocuting someone, the story goes, is better than shooting him. But before that choice between two brutalities, there was a choice between brutality and reason - between Rambo with a shield and good policing. A cop who'd never dream of unholstering a firearm against a lout or a big-mouthed student isn't hesitating to unholster the stun-gun and use it repeatedly under the guise of restoring control.

What a convenient perversion of reality: a 5-second torture session, often repeated many times, often unnecessary, overwhelmingly directed at non-violent individuals, is called "improving safety." For whom? Earlier this year the Houston Chronicle analyzed the Houston Department's use of Tasers since they were introduced two years ago to that same crock fanfare - "to reduce deadly police shootings." Since then, the paper found, "officers have shot, wounded and killed as many people as before the widespread use of the stun guns." Houston officers used their Tasers more than 1,000 times in the past two years, "but in 95 percent of those cases they were not used to defuse situations in which suspects wielded weapons and deadly force clearly would have been justified."


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Tasers, in other words, are instruments of punishment, not safety. They're enabling cops to be executioners rather than law enforcers, not just metaphorically. (By CBS News' count, 70 people have died after being Tasered, including 10 in August. An Amnesty International report had tallied up 70 deaths between 2001 and 2004 alone.)

I was reading a story the other day about Nalini Ghuman, the Welsh music professor who, after teaching 10 years at a university in California, was suddenly barred from reentering the country 13 months ago and offered a choice: jail or a plane back to Britain. She went back. What struck me about her time in an isolation cell at San Francisco airport is her immediate transformation into an assumed criminal. When this 34-year-old academic was groped, body-searched and interrogated, she was "warned that if she moved," as the New York Times described it, "she would be considered to be attacking her armed female searcher."

How familiar the warning. It's what police agencies down to their school contingents call protocol. The moment a cop appears on the scene and metes out orders, not following them can mean an immediate charge of resisting or battery if you so much as graze the cop's ego. Judging from public comments responding to incidents like the one at the University of Florida, that's what people want from their cops - uncompromising control. In a cop's presence, your job is to conform, submit, accept that you're guilty until proven otherwise. It's not brutality. It's protocol.

Pierre Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at or through his personal Web site at .

© 2007 Pierre Tristam

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