Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Cops Get Their Kicks, Tasering

Mission Creeps

by digby

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Torridjoe at Loaded Orygun is following the taser controversy and sees the same problem that I do with this weapon. He recounts this interesting story in the Portland Mercury about the city's use of tasers, which discusses at some length the data that shows the seemingly inevitable "mission creep" that overtakes police departments when they start using the weapon.

Torrid Joe writes:

Now, ordinarily I might not jump so quickly to allow Australia's empirical study to characterize the situation in Portland, especially without more precise data from our bureau on usage patterns. But the new head of the police union, Scott Westerman, does a bang-up job of reflecting exactly the kind of sentiment that would lead to a broader, more aggressive style of use:

"As more and more people mistakenly believe it's socially acceptable to publicly challenge the police, it creates an environment where people think that it is okay to ignore a uniformed police officer giving them commands," Westerman continues. "The environment in Portland allows this more frequently than in other cities."

I had to read that a couple of times to make sure he was saying what I thought he was saying, but he is: Westerman is telling us that Portland tases people because they're disrespectful punks who are insufficiently restrained by the city's social culture.

I frankly don't know what he's referring to when he talks about "social acceptability," other than the idea that Portland residents may actually better understand their legal rights to challenge police activity, and asserting that knowledge is more acceptable here than elsewhere. It is entirely legal to challenge police on their behavior regarding your rights, certainly until one is told they are under detention for some reason (not arrest, but detention--as in, when you ask "am I free to go," they say no.") Cops of course don't like to have their authority challenged, and Westerman is pretty clear that in his view, it's this permissiveness about boldly attempting to assert one's rights that's the problem--not, say, the fact that Portlanders tend to pose a more consistent threat to public safety, which would explain the tasings on a more rational-legal basis.

By giving this response to the question of changing usage patterns at PPB, Westerman not only implicitly admits that the focus has shifted from less-than-lethal to compliance circumstances--but pins that shift on cultural issues in the community, rather than those of the police bureau. In other words, if people would just shut up and do exactly as they're told without being rude or asking questions, they wouldn't be asking for the short sharp shock.

This is exactly right and that attitude is reflected by an awful lot of people, even those who appear in my comment section from time to time.

Yes, it's awful that Tasers can cause death and injury in some people. Clearly, they are much more dangerous than the manufacturers or the police will admit. But that isn't really the point. The fact is that Americans have a legal right not to comply with the police, and the police have no right to shoot them with electricity for having a "bad attitude."

A "little bit" of torture isn't any more legal than a whole lot of it. Pain that doesn't leave marks is still pain. And the police requiring the citizens of this country to comply or risk being tortured until they do is un-American.

It seems that juries (in Seattle) are starting to get the message:

Bonner, his wife, his daughter and 3-year-old granddaughter had been called to the department by Lievero, who was investigating allegations that Bonner's wife had physically abused the couple's grandchild. The allegations stemmed from a bitter custody battle involving Bonner's daughter and her former boyfriend. Bonner and his family came to the department to dispute the allegations, according to court documents.

Lievero took the family into an interview room, where things did not go well. Bonner said he was frustrated, at one point telling Lievero, "We know you are not an idiot, so why are you acting like one?" according to trial briefs.

The detective ended the interview and told Bonner to leave.

Bonner thought he might have better luck with Chief Rick Kieffer, whose office was just a few steps down the hallway from the interview room, but in the opposite direction from where he had come in, according to documents filed by Bonner's attorney, Jeffrey Needle.

Lievero told Bonner he couldn't leave that way. When Bonner said he wanted to talk to the chief, Lievero responded that he had to make an appointment with the receptionist and that he would be arrested if he didn't stop, the documents say.

"By the time Detective Lievero had finished making this statement, (Bonner) had arrived at Chief Rick Kieffer's door and had stopped walking," Needle wrote.

Kieffer was standing in the doorway, but before Bonner could speak, witnesses said Lievero grabbed Bonner's arm and forced it behind his back. Bonner complained to Kieffer that the detective was "out of control and shaking" as another officer joined Lievero, grabbed Bonner's other arm and began walking him back toward the reception area.

Bonner claims he did not resist, although the officers say otherwise. Lievero described Bonner as belligerent, and the city's attorneys said in court documents that he "stormed" the chief's office...

While Bonner was being escorted out of the station, Lievero delivered at least two jolts from his Taser, set on "touch-stun mode." Bonner said the first one knocked him to his knees. The second time, he was on his stomach while being handcuffed.

"Lievero testified that he Tased (Bonner) only after he observed (the other officer's) unsuccessful efforts to place plaintiff in a position to be handcuffed," according to Needle's trial brief.

The other officer, however, said in a deposition that Bonner "was under control."

[...]

The panel, after eight days of testimony, acquitted the detective of assault, but found that Lievero violated Bonner's civil rights by using excessive force during the arrest. It awarded him $35,000 in compensatory damages and, because the panel found Lievero's actions were "malicious ... oppressive, or in reckless disregard" of Bonner's rights, awarded him $25,000 more in punitive damages.

In defense of the police, it has to be said that they are told over and over again by the Taser manufacturers, the politicians and the public that it's no big deal if they inflict horrifying pain on the citizens of this country whenever they want to. We've turned "don't Tase me bro" into a national joke. They have no reason to think it's any worse than wrestling a suspect to the ground or screaming at them in an interrogation room.

But it is far worse. The intent, more often than not, is to incapacitate citizens by inflicting horrible pain and force their compliance with threats of more of that pain. Sometimes it's used as punishment for being disrespectful or uncooperative, as in the case above. Those are the methods of a police state, not a democracy.

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