04 June 2005

"[T]he taser has been used as a general tool rather then a less lethal form of firearm"

Over at Confutatis Maledictis Tom points out a page with video of an officer tasing a woman he is arresting at a traffic stop. The woman is refusing to put her cell phone down and get out of the car so she can be arrested for driving on a suspended license. Tom thinks it's an acceptable use of the taser.

At the blog where Tom found the video, The Special Constable, a British officer opines that it was more violence than needed. His is the quote which headlines this post. He goes further to comment: "If there is going to be misuse, this is where it will be prevalent."

I spent some time watching the videos and listening to the commentary from a training officer who was interviewed about this incident. Here's basically what happened:

The officer tells belligerent lady to put the phone down and get out of the car. She refuses, the training officer describes this as passive resistance (I think correctly) but she takes no act against the officer. At this point I think the officer is within bounds when he escalates to get her out of the car. He places a hand on her and she pulls away. His backup then scoots around to the passenger side of the car; at the same time the primary officer draws his taser and points it at the driver. He tells her to get out of the car or he's going to tase her.

His backup goes around to the other side of the car. It's difficult to make out but he appears to open the door and lean into the car. Driver is on the phone telling her mother where she is. Primary officer repeats several times "Get out or I'm going to tase you." There is an abrupt end to the phone conversation and then the officer tases her. Talking to her afterward, the officer goes out of his way to say she swung at the secondary officer after he grabbed the phone. You cannot see this on the video. The driver tumbles out of the car onto the ground. When she doesn't roll over to get handcuffed (she is screaming and wailing hysterically) the primary officer tases her again. Then they both descend upon her and cuff her.

I think the primary officer went too far when he pulled the taser. It would have been more appropriate to grab her arm and snatch her out of that car. The interviewed training officer even stated that this would have been appropriate but explained that the reason this would be avoided was because the driver could be hurt while being pulled out (could hit her head, etc.). This is not very convincing as hitting someone with 50,000 volts is going to cause a body's muscles to spasm; after all, it made this woman fall out of her car. The training officer - almost sheepishly - also tacks on an explanation that physically removing her could get the officer injured; this, of course, is the only logical reason for the taser's use.

However, I think this officer is within the margin of error (at least in the first use). It's easy to look at this with 20/20 hindsight and realize this was an inappropriate to pull the taser in a case wherein there is no indication of a physical threat and the "crime" is driving suspended. The officer was faced with a belligerent driver who jerked away from him. He then draws the taser but doesn't fire; that's an over reaction. When the secondary officer grabbed the phone I'm sure she either went to strike him or (more likely) instinctively grabbed to hold onto the phone. At this point another officer was in potential danger and he was correct to use the taser.

My question is: What the heck did the secondary officer think he was doing? Going to the other side of the car where he can observe and react to the driver seems obviously correct. Opening the door makes sense because it gives him the option of using his taser or capstun as opposed to having only a pistol which could penetrate from the car's exterior. But then he gets into the car. This makes absolutely no sense. It takes him out of a backup, observation and support role and puts him into danger for no reason. He puts himself into the vehicle with her where all sorts of things could go wrong. And then he grabs her phone. Why? Is this in some way meant to defuse the situation or get her out of the car? I don't see how that could in any way be helpful. This guy seems to have really screwed up.

What started me thinking about this is the fact that the training officer totally avoided all of the secondary officer's actions and the reaction of the primary officer in firing the taser. Why avoid the obvious justification for using the taser? Another officer in danger is a more convincing argument than "she wouldn't get out of the car." And it's not something he could have missed in the tape. The primary officer seems to be intent on making sure that the tape has the information as to why he shot her; he says it to her when they're all standing in front of the camera and then keeps the tape running when he calls his sergeant and tells him the same story.

Yes, this lady was a royal pain in the @@@. Yes, the officer who fired the taser appears to have been correct at that moment (assuming she moved toward the secondary officer). But the situation appears to have been, as a whole, a massive screw up.

If there are any officers who read this blog, I invite you to comment. I'm a lawyer, not an officer. I don't know police procedure. I'd really be interested in any explanation of the second officer's actions.

9 comments:

Lennie Briscoe said...

Just stumbled apon your blog. Intersting.

FYI I received an email about my Tazer comment and have responded to it.

Light Saber? I've Got a Taser - Comment & Response

markm said...

"Less lethal" is a much better description of the Taser than "nonlethal". People have died from Tasers.

So, suppose this woman had died and I was sitting on a jury viewing that videotape. I don't think that I would agree that either officer was in significant danger. Physically subduing drunk, insane, and otherwise obstreperous suspects has always been part of the job. The driver might have made a move that could have looked like an attempt to punch the second officer, but if you can't take a punch, you don't belong on the police force. Hauling the woman out of the car could have turned into a messy wrestling match in a confined space, but I cannot see using a potentially lethal weapon just to avoid a few bruises and scratches.

Also, from your narrative I see no reason that the police could not simply have stayed out of the car and waited a few minutes for the woman to hang up her phone and come out. These cops appear to have been trained to think they are better than the rest of us, and their orders, legitimate or not, are to be instantly followed. As someone who values our American tradition of freedom, it's appalling that such arrogance is not even questioned.

The driver did not initiate violence - the second cop did that in grabbing the cell phone. And I rather suspect that the real reason the first officer fired the Taser was as punishment for ignoring his orders - as a torture device.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't go so far as to say this was a torture case - people need to be careful about that word. It is being bandied about far too much.

Anyone with any training in conflict resolution can spot the fact that the cops screwed up here. The question is whether the cops want proper conflict resolution, or want to have a rep for over-reaction, thus (the theory goes) enforcing compliance on the margin.

I'm not a cop, but a close friend is. His take is that cops who intentionally overreact are being shortsighted. Sure, being a badass is great and all, but it is better if people respect, rather than fear, you.

I have to say, I agree. I grew up in a small town, and I respected the cops there. I never had an "incident" with them, but they drove me home when my car broke down and they found me walking down the road, etc. Now I live in Brooklyn, and I fear the cops. Again, never had an incident, but a friend was beaten by a cop recently - basically a wrong time, wrong place situation. After 48 hours in jail, the judge dismissed the charges.

I fear the local cops, but I don't respect them (with one exception.)

TWM said...

The officers don't have to think they are better than you for them to expect you to follow their orders.

The fact is you should follow the orders of an officer even if you feel they are not totally legtimate. If the officer is doing something illegal the time to argue that point is after -- in court -- with your attorney at your side. Not during the situation where you are just going to get yourself and possibly the officers hurt.

I have taught my sons to obey an officer's commands and be respectful because to do othewise is simply to invite arrest and additional charges.

If the officer is wrong then I will be hiring someone like Ken.

Tom McKenna said...

The point is, the officers were justified in using force at the moment their four (repeat:four) verbal commands failed to obtain compliance.

Instead of using an "arm bar" or other pain compliance technique (all designed to inflict pain but no physical damage) the officer used a Taser, which inflicts pain but no physical damage. Some people are reacting because it looks "worse" than the arm bar or compliance blow to the forehead.

It was an appropriate use of non-lethal force in a situation where the subject had left the officer with no choice but to use physical means to extract her from the car.

I'm glad the officer did not have to get close to her to do his job, where she could have hurt him (and if you don't think women can hit/claw/stab/bite/shoot a cop, you haven't been or spoken with a cop).

Anonymous said...

If Tom were serious he would have provided the standard that police are supposed to used before electronically shocking people. Since he is a prosecutor, he was capable of providing specific citations to either 1) police department regulations (in his jurisdiction); 2) statutes; and 3) the relevant caselaw. He didn’t. He didn’t because he thinks that somehow he is doing his duty by always arguing that the police are unconstrained by anything and can go about inflicting pain on anyone.

Therefore, you would have to be crazy to take Tom's constitutional analysis seriously.

Ken Lammers said...

That's not a fair characterization of Tom.

I've known and worked with Tom for some time now and seen him walk over to police officers and tell them he's not going forward on bogus charges. I've also talked with him about various constitutional issues. I know that he has some views which would not endear him to some die hards on his side of the bar. However, I don't expect him to put that out on his blog - unlike me he has a boss (an elected boss, no less) to whom he must answer if a news paper quotes him.

When he puts something in writing I trust that he believes it. That doesn't mean that I think he's right but it does mean I don't think he's trying to play fast and loose with anything.

Anonymous said...

I've got to say that in my limited experience, some police officers look to escalate situations intentionally and may even be trained to do so in some jurisdictions. I had a Virginia State Police officer get into my face and accuse me of failing to provide a "legal signature" on a speeding ticket. I was absolutely mortified, I signed it like I sign everything else from my Passport on down. I had been yes sirring this guy out the wazoo and had not acted the least bit flippant toward him, so his assertaion frightened and confused me. He looked so angry I thought I was going to be hauled off to jail. I went to court on the ticket and asked every official looking person I could find to look at the signature and tell me what the heck he was talking about (after the disposition of the case, of course). They had no idea!
In retrospect, I think that he was trying to provoke me into talking back because there was no traffic and he was bored and looking for a good excuse to detain me and search my vehicle (I had long hair at the time and this was Amherst County).

Andy the gr8 said...

I completely agree with what the officers did. When a cop pulls me over. It is yessir, nossir what ever you say. I love how people get all up in arms when cops beat some a$$. They always fail to notice the spitting, flailing, high speed chase, running that was done right before being roughed up. I notice a growing general dissrespect for authority in this country, and unfortunately it needs to be dealth with an iron fist. If I had done the same thing, I would fully expect to be dealt with the same way.