Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Open Letter to St. Paul City Council: Reconsider Plan to Purchase 230 More Tasers

St. Paul City Council Members

Re: Agenda Item for Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Proposal for St. Paul Police Dept. to Purchase an Additional 230 Tasers

During these troubled economic times of recession and budget constraints, the St. Paul Police Department is asking the city for $210,000 to buy an additional 230 Tasers so every patrol officer in the city will have a stun gun. Tom Walsh, a spokesperson for the police department claims: "Using the Taser has allowed us to take people into custody without using deadly force, without using a degree of force that would cause a police officer to use a firearm or an additional force that would leave a person injured". "So we find them to be effective and probably safer for both the police officer and the person who's being arrested," Walsh said. (See MPR article of 2/18/08.)

At first blush, if Walsh's claims are in fact true, the logic sounds reasonable and $210,000 is a very small price to pay to save even one human life, be it an officer or a citizen they are attempting to subdue. Unfortunately, reality is never so simple and neat, especially when it comes to questions of expending the public's money on safety. Fear sells. The danger, however, is build it and they will come. Buy it and they will use it, too often and with disastrous, unintended consequences.

These devices, like Officer Walsh stated, are marketed as non-lethal alternatives to firearms. Had the marketing of these devices stopped there it would have been one thing, but as with the marketing exuberance that surrounds any product, uses for the products were promoted that far exceeded the concept of an absolute last chance alternative to the use of deadly force. Soon devices such as the Taser were promoted as a means of gaining quick, safe control over a situation that use to be done through verbal commands and calm and respectful reasoning. But the old ways didn't cost money and took time. Let's face it, low tech is boring.

In today's fast paced society, we have been conditioned to strive for efficient and economical methods of performing any task. We have all seen the controlled demonstrations of stun guns on t.v. where they would solicit a volunteer from the agency or organization they were marketing the product to and hit them one time with a jolt and the person is temporarily incapacitated, but recovers in a few minutes, no less for wear, or so it seems. Therefore the decision on behalf of law enforcement to escalate to the use of devices like the Taser is no big deal. Give every officer one of these devices and the risk of misuse multiplies.

The overwhelming anecdotal evidence is that when these devices are used on persons displaying erratic, agitated behavior, whether due to the influence of mood altering substances or organic mental illnesses, precisely the type of people the product is marketed for, the results have proved to be fatal in hundreds of cases.

Just last month, a Fridley man was on the way to pick up his parents at the airport, got into a fender bender and roadside confrontation. Although 5 state troopers responded to the accident scene and presumably, with that display of force, should have been able to control the situation. For reasons that remain unknown at this point due to an ongoing investigation, the troopers resorted to the use of a stun device and the man died.

Remember the news story from last year of the Polish immigrant who did not speak English and was lost at the Vancouver airport. He actions were viewed as suspicious and reported to the Canadian Mounties who immediately escalated to the use of the stun gun when they misconstrued his inability to communicate as resisting and the man died. Fortunately a passing tourist recorded the incident with a cell phone camera, which directly contradicted the Mounties version.

With a large immigrant population in St. Paul, do we really want to rely on the fortuity of passing citizens to keep law enforcement in line if every patrol officer has one of these devices?

Furthermore, once the industry learned of the mounting death toll as a result of the use of their device, did it act responsibly? Responsible as the tobacco industry. If you think I exaggerate, just see National Public Radio reporter Laura Sullivan's excellent two-part series from February 26 and 27, 2007 entitled
Death by Excited Delirium: Diagnosis or Cover-up? http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=7608386

Here is some food for thought from the attorney who established police takings liability in the state of Minnesota: you are opening the city up to potential liability that will make the expenditure of $210,000 look like pennies. Spend the money on training, mental health issues and more cops. It may be low tech and not very sexy, but at least you won't be raising taxes to pay millions in damages and attorney fees to people like me.

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