Special Report

50,000 Volts for Your Thoughts

The non-lethal weapons craze is bad for freedom -- and children.

By 12.22.04

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While I was waiting in line to be processed after my arrest at the Republican National Convention, a NYPD officer walking alongside sneered at an obnoxious, verbally abusive protester, "Remember, we're the heroes." It does nothing to denigrate the very real risks these officers take to say there was nothing heroic about arresting hundreds of people for standing more than four abreast on the sidewalk.

In other words, heroism one day does nothing to dismiss a misdeed the next. There are no little yellow "get out of jail free" cards outside of Monopoly. The power that comes with a badge demands respect, but it also requires responsibility. It is useful to remind ourselves as we honor the selfless sacrifice of those who enforce our laws that it also is imperative that someone watch the watchers. And now is as good a time as any to say plainly that it is high time Florida police answer for their gleefully excessive misuse of Taser stun guns these last few months.

A Taser looks something like a gun, but is in reality a non-lethal weapon that delivers 50,000 volts of electricity, which completely incapacitates suspects. Certainly, it cannot be suggested that police are misusing these weapons in every instance, or that Florida police are the only offenders, but since the introduction of Tasers barely a year ago use-of-force reports have gone through the roof in the Sunshine State. Reports show Tasers being routinely and, often dubiously, used on children, the mentally ill, fleeing suspects, as well as cuffed suspects and -- yes, further -- cuffed suspects locked in the back of police cruisers.

This week Florida police continued this stellar record by plugging 50,000 volts into a wheelchair-bound man brandishing a pair of scissors.

"Even if you're wheelchair-bound, it doesn't make you less of a threat," Miami Police spokesman Willie Moreno said. "If you want to fight, there are ways you can hurt an officer."

I'm sorry, Mr. Moreno, and apologies to our paralyzed brothers and sisters, but any rational person will concede that being in a wheelchair makes one significantly less of a threat. It would certainly be a different story if the suspect were wielding a gun. But scissors in the hands of a man who cannot walk warrants not physical violence, but rather some sort of obstacle and a patient police force.

It may be uncouth to say it, but is not very comforting when the police officers we expect to protect us from the worst of the worst in our society are willing to announce publicly that they so tremble before a wheelchair-bound man that they feel there is no choice but to resort to high-tech weaponry.

At the same time, what else can you expect from a force that has excused the zapping of a six-year-old boy who threatened police with a thin shard of glass? A generation ago, a school custodian would have put on some work gloves and taken care of that business. Today a police officer stands six feet away and pumps a young body full of electricity, because the boy had given himself two very minor cuts. And yet, no one has even bothered to figure out exactly what damage such a blast of electricity does to such a small body.

A few days before Florida police tagged a fleeing 12-year-old girl with the magic electric wand. She was suspected of skipping school and trespassing. Lying on the ground twitching and drooling, she had I'm sure plenty of time to think about her offense. Not long after, Pinellas County police zapped a 14-year-old girl in the back seat of a cruiser whose crime was disrupting class and throwing a fit in the back of the police car. Not content to let the girl tire herself, police hit her with 50,000 volts.

SO WHY DOES THIS keep happening? First of all, few seem willing to take any sort of stand on the issue. I saw a Miami "community activist" on CNN shortly after the incident, arguing not for the cessation of this violence, especially against non-violent children, but rather the typical modern armchair activism. "I think there needs to be more in depth studies on using Tasers on children," she said. Yes, by all means, let's bring together a Blue Ribbon Panel to figure out if shocking a young girl with an obscene amount of electricity for skipping school is warranted or not.

And, pray tell, what demented parent is going to sign their kid up for that study? (Picture it: "Well, the good news, Mrs. Smith, is your son helped us determine the exact moment when the voltage causes soiling of the pants. He's in the bathroom right now vomiting blood. Thanks for participating in our study!") I don't know what's worse: the fact that Miami police are attempting to defend something so deplorable or that Florida's so-called activists are so morally ambiguous.

"At the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, Tampa Police Department and Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, an officer can use the Taser if the suspect is offering 'passive physical resistance,'" Stephen Thompson writes in the Tampa Tribune. "The suspect does not have to pose a threat to anyone; he may be making an officer's job more difficult by staying put when he is asked to move or bracing his arms when officers are trying to handcuff him."

Further, Thompson reports, Tasers have been used at least twice when suspects looked as if they might be about to run, even though official police reports say suspects had not moved at all beforehand. Apparently, police officers just somehow read these men's minds and took action. I believe that's what they call in literary circles a Thought Crime.

Since Pinellas County police have gotten Tasers their use-of-force reports have jumped 34 percent. In at least 14 of the 121 reported episodes, suspects were already handcuffed when they were zapped. Likewise, the Clearwater Police Department's use-of-force has increased 58 percent, with 49 handcuffed suspects getting the electric treatment.

"In only one case among the 164 had an armed suspect approached a Clearwater police officer, and in that case the weapon was a beer bottle," Thompson writes.

That's what's passing for protecting and serving these days in Florida. Unsurprisingly, the police who are indulging themselves so frequently in their newest toy are telling us all this is for our own good. Police constantly defend the use of Tasers as a good alternative to a shot from a 9mm, as if they would shoot someone for being drunk and disorderly or skipping school.

"Would you rather be hit by a piece of pipe or a Taser?" Florida Sheriff David Gee said. "The Taser only lasts a few seconds. The pipe can break your arm."

Well, by all means, give us the Taser, O Benevolent Ones. And thanks for not breaking our arms. I knew there was a benefit to living in a free society.

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