Monday, September 13, 2010

The Unbearable Lightness of Tasing


Avid followers of the Mehserle trial for the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant at the Fruitvale BART station may recall that his defense consisted of a mistake: Mehserle argued -- and the jury believed him -- that he had intended to use his taser, not his gun, on Grant. This defense argument places an emphasis on the taser as an instrument aimed to minimize the usage of more harmful force. However, we may ask ourselves whether adding this option to the array of devices available hasn't simply escalated law enforcement's response to violations and disorder, without diminishing the number of cases in which guns are used.

The latest installment with regard to these "lesser" devices comes from an NPR story about the usage of zapping devices at the Pitchess Detention Center north of Los Angeles.

"You know when they set their phasers to stun, they did that so they didn't kill people? Well, that's exactly what this is. It does stun you," says Mike Booen, a vice president of Raytheon Missile Systems. The company built the device for the Los Angeles County Jail, a scaled-down version of what it designed for the military.

"I don't care if you're the meanest, toughest person in the world," he says, "this will get your attention and make your brain focus on making it stop, rather than doing whatever you were planning on doing."

Riots are nothing new at this jail. The Pitchess Detention Center has a history of bloody inmate violence. In fact, the latest brawl between 200 inmates broke out two days after the Raytheon device was unveiled.

Dave Judge, the operation deputy for the sheriff's department, says the machine is more effective than their usual methods of firing rubber bullets and tear gas grenades.

"This is tame; this is mild," Judge says." This is a great way to intervene without causing any harm. The nice thing about this is it allows you to intervene at a distance."

With the remote-controlled device, he says, guards can focus on specific targets using a monitor and a joystick.

Whenever new techniques for order maintenance are introduced, the question is whether they might substitute the usage of lethal or otherwise harmful force, or substitute the usage of lesser options. If this is to be empirically assessed, what we need is to examine a number of incidents and count the frequency in which guns, tasers, and less intrusive techniques were used. Calculating the percentages would not be a perfect measure, because each riot and situation is somewhat different; but it would provide us with some measure as to whether the introduction of tasers is ameliorating, or exacerbating, the use of force in the detention context.

Props to Colin Wood for alerting me to the story.

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