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Death by Police Taser
Millions of people were stunned and outraged by the videos that showed Oakland BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) cop Johannes Mehserle draw his gun and kill Oscar Grant. Mehserle quit his job 7 days after the killing to avoid giving any statement about what happened or why he did it. Now Mehserle’s lawyers are working hard to offer a plausible explanation to exonerate the cop for the killing. They say that contrary to what people might think, Mehserle had “no criminal intent” when he fired his gun into Grant’s back at point-blank range. They back up this outrageous statement by explaining their theory that this cop “may have mistakenly deployed his pistol rather than his taser” and did not mean to kill Oscar. He just meant to tase him.
Meanwhile, a little more than a month after Oscar Grant was killed in Oakland, another young man was killed by police taser, 40 miles away in San Jose. His name was Richard Lua, and police killed him in front of his own garage, during a “routine patrol.” Police murder has become so “routine” that many times an explanation is offered only as an afterthought. Like Oscar Grant, Richard Lua leaves behind a young daughter and a grieving, outraged family.
Taser use is so routine in San Jose that Lua’s is the 6th death by police taser there just since 2005. Death by police taser is on the increase, and in California these deaths are not even counted as part of the state attorney general’s official tally of “police involved homicides,” which numbers over 100 every year. Neither are deaths from police chokeholds or from asphyxiation through being maced or hog-tied. All of these weapons and methods are part of an ugly panorama of police brutality that is entrenched and endemic and an indispensable part of the function of police in this society.
Amnesty International reported in 2004 that the organization was “concerned by the growing number of fatalities involving police tasers. Since 2001, more than 70 people are reported to have died in the USA and Canada after being struck by M26 or X26 tasers, with the numbers rising each year.” In 2005, the ACLU issued a report saying that “Since 1999, at least 148 people in the United States and Canada have died after encounters with police who shocked them with Tasers.” A website put up by family and friends of Richard Bagnell, a Canadian man who died after being tasered, now lists 397 people killed in North America. And at least 8 people have been killed by tasers in only the first two months of 2009.
Ev’ry time I hear the crack of the whip
My blood runs cold
I remember on the slave ship
How they brutalized our very souls
—Bob Marley, “Slave Driver”
Tasers have replaced the slave driver’s whip and the prison guard’s cattle prod as one of the high-tech control device used by more than 12,000 police departments and in prisons worldwide.
Taser International claims that its products are a less lethal weapon than guns or even batons, and that tasers are "changing the world and saving lives everyday." But the new tasers deliver a staggering 50,000 volts of electricity. These electro-shock weapons can be used in “stun mode” or with darts. When in “dart” mode, the shocks cause total “momentary neuro-muscular incapacitation” (source: University of California, San Francisco press release), while the stun mode inflicts intense localized pain. Tasers are used extensively around the world, including in Iraq, most notoriously by the same U.S. military brigade accused of "sadistic, blatant and wanton" abuse in Abu Ghraib.
Along with guns, sticks, pepper spray and the choke-hold, tasers are part of an arsenal of weapons employed against the people to inflict terror and pain and even death. And, unlike firing his gun, in most places a cop needs only the slightest excuse to justify using his taser.
In the U.S., far from being used only on supposedly “violent suspects” the Amnesty International study says that tasers are often used against "passive resisters"—people who refuse to comply with police commands but do not interfere with an officer and pose no physical threat. Police use tasers on people who “mouth off,” or people who are distressed or mentally ill and who are not suspected of a crime. Amnesty reported that “at least 1,000 U.S. jails and prisons have adopted the new generation M26 or X26 Tasers, where they are deployed in both dart projectile and stun mode.” Amnesty documents cases of pregnant women having miscarriages after being tasered.
In 2006 millions of people reacted with shock at a brutal taser attack on a student in the UCLA library, but a less-known outrage is that there are hundreds of reported cases where cops have used taser guns on children. In Arizona a 13 year old was tased for throwing a book in a public library. In another Arizona case, a 9-year-old runaway girl who was sitting in the back of a police car, handcuffed, was tased because she was "screaming, kicking and flailing, and would not listen." Would not listen? The youngest reported victim of police tasing was in Miami, a boy who was only 6 years old. He was in the vice principal’s office where he had broken a picture frame, and was waving a piece of glass around. His outraged mother told CNN, "If there's three officers, it's nothing to tell a 6‑year‑old holding a glass, if you feel threatened, 'Hey, here's a piece of candy, hey, here's a toy. Let the glass go."
While some media have jumped on the taser confusion bandwagon and trotted out various “experts” to talk about how stressed out Mehserle must have been to mistake a taser for his gun, others have ridiculed this idea as preposterous and marshalled the cold facts. The X26 taser issued to BART cops is a plastic device that weighs only 7 ounces. The Sig Sauer that Mehserle shot Grant with is made of metal, weighing 30 ounces unloaded—more than 4 times as much as the taser. The taser was holstered on the opposite side as Mehserle’s gun, and looks and feels completely different.
But another question needs to be asked. Before he was shot, Oscar Grant was detained, lying on his stomach, with his hands behind his back and with an officer’s foot on his neck. What excuse was there to even tase the 22 year old? Perhaps Officer Mehserle only meant to torture him?
The ACLU and Amnesty International are not alone in condemning tasers. In 2007 the U.N. Committee Against Torture said the use of tasers could constitute a form of torture. This cruel punishment, a brutality carried out by police for the slightest offense, without charges or trial, is increasingly a part of American injustice and part of an international epidemic of state-sponsored violence and murder.
The outcome of the murder trial of Mehserle has great significance. If the cop happens to “mistake” his gun for a taser and kills that person, and if this cop is then judged in court to be devoid of “criminal intent,” then what is to stop any cop from killing anyone at any time for any reason? If intending to use an electro-shock weapon on a person lying face down with his hands behind his back can be categorized as following correct police procedure, then it will exonerate police brutality. What kind of legal precedent will that set and how much of this can people tolerate? Enough is enough.
“UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Excessive and lethal force? Amnesty International’s concerns about deaths and ill-treatment involving police use of tasers,” Amnesty International report, November 2004
“UN Compares Tasers to Torture,” CBS News, November 26, 2007
“Unregulated Use of Taser Stun Guns Threatens Lives, ACLU of Northern California Study Finds,” ACLU press release, 10/6/05
San Jose Mercury, 2/2/09, 2/3/09
“Did BART cop who killed Oscar Grant mistake gun for Taser? Plan 9 from BART police,” by Junya, San Francisco Bay View, January 6, 2009
“398+ Dead After Taser Use,” April 6, 2008, http://truthnottasers.blogspot.com/2008/04/what‑follows‑are‑names‑where‑known.html