Friday, February 27, 2009

Potent Playthings for Plain People

Lest we fall into wondering how evolved humans are, consider whether we can differentiate between toys and tools. If our job lets us use the tools on and around others, are we reasonable and kind?

Taser® weapons (there are several other manufacturers of conducted energy devices) have been in the news for the past several years, but the because-I-have-it mentality was first clear to me during a chimney fire. We called the fire department when we heard the huge whoosh. When they arrived, four of Boston's biggest slicker wearers pushed into the house, each with a gigantic red ax.

They fairly giggled and salivated as they rubbed their hands on the wall of the stairs, the one where the chimney ran. When it got hot, they were ready to break it apart. Hell, they seemed to live for this moment.

Much to their obvious disappointment, the creosote buildup was not that severe. The fire burned intensely, then less so, and the wall never got hot. They were ready though.

Still caressing their axes, the guys left looking sad indeed. Another tool was wasted that evening.

We see a step up on this with the Jaws of Life® and similar hydraulic devices for car wrecks and the like. There are a few cases where these are misused on undamaged cars where the injured person could have safely and more quickly stepped out or even on the wrong car, but the rescuers just had to use the toy — and ruin the car body.

This tool though has a much better claim on saving lives than most such toys. Originally designed to save racetrack drivers where seconds really do count, the Jaws really are the best solution when the dashboard is crushing someone's legs or the doors are inaccessible and the roof is the only way in.

On the other hand, we not supposed to ask:
  • Did every second really count in this case?
  • Did the victim suffer longer and lie at greater risk while the rescuers retrieved, hooked up and used the machine instead of extracting the victim?
  • Does the shock of the grinding, metal peeling and removal through the jagged opening worsen the victim's state?
  • Most important, could the victim more safely and quickly been taken from the car manually?
It's hard to tell when overkill (and undertraining) come into play with Jaws. They are widely used by EMTs, firefighters and others, volunteer and professional, with varying degrees of tutoring and guidelines. We can be damned sure that some of them are like the firefighters with their axes. There are too many boring calls and not enough where they can use their toys.

I'm Shocked, Shocked

Surely the Taser is currently the worst. Other tool/toys as simple as a firefighter's ax share traits and trigger our reptilian brains. Yet, this carries its great power with our constabulary.

Search online for a string like taser excessive force and retrieve a frightening set of mayhem, lawsuits and death. Cops accused of abusing people with Tasers often escape civil and criminal punishment as they do for other accusations of brutality. Increasingly though eyewitness accounts and even the police video show differently.

Like James Bond, our cops are at least theoretically licensed to kill. With a badge and gun, they have the authority of law and use it wisely or poorly every day. Now with Taser weapons, some just can't seem to control themselves.

"Tasers are not the 'non-lethal' weapons they are portrayed to be," according to Angela Wright, Amnesty International researcher and author of a report on resulting abuses and deaths. "They can kill and should only be used as a last resort."

The report has data and conclusions from 98 Taser-case autopsies. Nine of 10 victims were unarmed and "many did not appear to present a serious threat." Many received repeated and prolonged shocks, far, far beyond the theoretical 5-second cycle.

"The problem with Tasers is that they are inherently open to abuse, as they are easy to carry and easy to use and can inflict severe pain at the push of a button, without leaving substantial marks," said Wright.

Here in Massachusetts, Taser use is getting overdue scrutiny too. According to the Boston Globe, we see the predictable disparity in use from one police department to another. Overall, there was a four times increase in Taser incidents September 2007 over 2008.

One department, Fall River far led in Taser use. The reaction of the chief there says much:
"I would credit the Taser with preventing injuries to officers, suspects, and innocent civilian bystanders," said Fall River police spokesman Sergeant Paul Gauvin. "I would also credit the Taser with bringing quick resolution to events as they escalate."

"In each and every one of these cases, the Taser was used appropriately," he said of his department's use.

In Fall River, police used the stun guns in 45 incidents in the latest 12-month reporting period, compared to eight in the previous 24 months. During the more recent 12 months, the Tasers were fired 117 times - indicating multiple shocks on several suspects.
He epitomizes the first-responder attitude, which includes:
  • Every second counts and is the difference between life and death!
  • If a single life is saved, this will be worth every penny!
  • How do you know this wasn't necessary to save a life?

They may have seen too many police and medical shows. Or they may suffer the same delusions as flight attendants. Daydreams, plus tools, plus authority equal the life of a petty superhero.

We undoubted live in a culture of cowboy cops. Taser technology did not create the culture and is not even its worst expression.

A truism is that we all want to feel safe. We want to be able to trust our police and not have to worry that one or two or five of them may flip out at a traffic stop or sidewalk encounter.

You can certainly understand how comforting a Taser may feel to a cop. The ability to down someone from up to 35 feet away (100 feet with the shotgun version) does sound like it would provide extra safety to police in threatening situations. However, and it's a big old but, how the hell can they get by with multiple, successive 50,000-volt charges on grounded and handcuffed suspects? How can their superiors and even judges let them slide when they so clearly let their emotions take over?

If legal history works here, we're likely to see local and state reviews of policies, regulations and laws. As more people or their estates win lawsuits or are successful in prosecution, the cop-is-always-right attitude will prevail less frequently in such cases.

Meanwhile, the question arises throughout the nation, who are you to second guess the police? In the face of obvious abuses, it our obligation to do so. A little oversight and some firm rules/consequences are in order. New toys cannot become new abuses.

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