Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Working towards non-proliferation of Taser weapons

by Larry Geller

The term “proliferation” is most often used in the context of nuclear proliferation or non-proliferation, and is most easily understood in that context. A Wikipedia discussion of the “three pillars” of a nuclear non-proliferation treaty, non-proliferation, disarmament, and peaceful use, would apply equally well to a national policy on the use of Taser weapons by law enforcement.

Just as there is a clear social value to limiting the number of nuclear weapons out there simply because sooner or later some of them could be used, with disastrous effect, similarly there is a social value in limiting the number of Tasers in the hands of law enforcement. Just as national leaders cannot be expected to always act rationally, the police are increasingly demonstrating that they are quite willing and able to act outside the law. And just as there are vanishingly few cases in which heads of state are held accountable for their actions, it is rare for a police officer to be held to account for using a weapon.

So it makes sense to try to limit the proliferation of these weapons, remove them from police arsenals, and insist that those that remain deployed are used only in an appropriate manner.

So far, there is little success in halting the spread of Tasers. It seems that almost every police force wants to have them. Yet training remains spotty, and misuse is not punished. As government becomes increasingly unresponsive to and fearful of its own citizens, it’s unlikely that the number of Tasers in circulation will be reduced any time soon.

One potentially useful course of action is to bring as many lawsuits as possible against the individuals who misuse these weapons. One case just filed by the New York ACLU could serve as an example. The full title of the case is:

A.E., by his parent and natural guardian
JAMES STONE, in his individual and
official capacities; and OFFICER JAMES
MORRIS, in his individual and official

and the key to it may be the words “in his individual and official capacities.”

Police support other police, prosecutors fail to prosecute, and judges are lenient in sentencing the few cases that get that far. Still, if a sufficient number of police officers are held accountable in meaningful ways for their misuse of the weapons, perhaps it will reduce the over deployment and misuse that we are now witnessing..

The case just filed involves misuse of a Taser against a 15-year-old schoolboy. His life was endangered by an adult police officer packing a Taser weapon.

I’ll take the liberty of using the entire NYCLU press release here because it is a good account of the incident, and post also the complaint, which contains language that could be applicable to other incidents. For example,

The officers’ actions were also a result of the City of Syracuse’s failure, as a matter of policy and practice, to treat tasers as weapons capable of inflicting serious injury and even death. The Syracuse Police Department’s current policies and practices encourage officers to deploy tasers in a manner that poses undue risks to people, especially the students who are continuously monitored by Syracuse police officers in the schools.

The City of Syracuse’s failure, as described in this paragraph and in the complaint, is certainly not limited to just this one incident. If the plaintiff succeeds, it will make it easier to win the next, and the next, and the next, in Syracuse. Surely, this is the hard way to rein in Taser use, but it is one way, and it is the only way to bring justice and compensation to the victims.

Perhaps cases like these might eventually convince police departments to require officers sent to schools to leave their Tasers in the patrol car, at least.

NYCLU Files Lawsuit Challenging Officer’s Use of a Taser on a Student at Syracuse High School

December 21, 2010 – The New York Civil Liberties Union today filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court on behalf of a Syracuse student who was shot with a Taser by a police officer last year. The student, a ninth grader at the time, was attempting to stop a fight between two female classmates at Fowler High School at the time of the incident.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York, maintains that the police officers used excessive force and violated his constitutional rights. It names the city and the two police officers involved in the incident as defendants. 

“Tasers are dangerous, even deadly, weapons,” said Barrie Gewanter, director of the NYCLU’s Central New York Chapter. “The officers in this case were guided by policies and practices that may be suitable for fighting crime on the streets, but are completely inappropriate for working with children in a learning environment.” 

The plaintiff, A.E., was a 15-year-old ninth grader at the time of the incident and had recently moved to Syracuse from Michigan. On Sept. 28, 2009, A.E. was sitting on a school bus in front of the school when a female student asked to borrow his cell phone. A.E. lent the student his phone and followed her off the bus as she made a call. While outside, another female student attacked the student who had borrowed A.E.’s phone.

A.E. stepped between the students and attempted to break up the confrontation. Then several police officers arrived on the scene. Without warning, one of the officers fired a Taser. At least one of the weapon’s twin barbs lodged into A.E.’s left arm. A.E., who was not resisting any lawful order, suffered two extremely painful shocks that caused him to tense up and spin around in agony and confusion. The officers yelled at A.E to get on the ground. He was handcuffed and arrested with the Taser barb still in his arm. It was only his fifth day at his new school.    

Later A.E. was taken by ambulance to SUNY Upstate Medical University Hospital. At the hospital, a police officer told A.E.’s mother that the use of the Taser was a “mistake.” A.E. was never charged with any crime.

“I still don’t understand why I got tased; I was only trying to stop a fight,” A.E. said. “This is one of the scariest things I’ve ever been through. I don’t want any other kids to go through what I’ve been through.”

A.E. suffered continuous pain in his left arm for between three and four weeks after the incident. More than a year later, he still experiences recurring pain. The incident deeply embarrassed A.E. in front of a large group of his new classmates. He has been the butt of rumors and jokes about it.

The lawsuit maintains that the incident was the inevitable result of the city’s policies and practices governing the deployment of armed police officers in the public schools, officers who are trained for patrolling the city’s streets and not adequately trained to patrol the hallways and playgrounds of its schools. Furthermore, the Police Department’s policy on Tasers makes no distinctions between using the weapon on an adult or a child. Nor does it differentiate between using a Taser in schools or on the streets, and it does not require an officer to issue a warning before firing the weapon.

“Monitoring children in a learning environment is much different than patrolling the streets and the Police Department’s policies should address that distinction,” said NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney and Upstate Litigation Coordinator Corey Stoughton, lead counsel on the case. “Otherwise, more students will suffer frightening and unnecessarily violent encounters with police officers.” 

The lawsuit asks the court to declare the officers’ actions against A.E. violated the U.S. Constitution and state law. It also requests compensatory damages for A.E.’s family, who incurred substantial medical bills as a result of the incident.      

To read the full complaint, visit http://www.nyclu.org/files/releases/Epps_Complaint_Final_12.21.10.pdf.


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