The police love their tasers. They all want them. They want to carry them on their sides like six-guns, ready to whip them out at the slightest indication of agitation or disobedience. Even after a confused Polish man at the Vancouver airport was tasered to death, Fabulous Fantino, Commissar of the Ontario Provincial Police, decreed that we shouldn't hasten to restrain them based on one little incident.
Robert Dziekanski died after RCMP officers, four of them-- big guys-- arrived on the scene and took a whole 25 seconds to decide that lives were in danger and this guy needed to be electrocuted. After all, he had hurled a computer keyboard to the ground. And even though he stopped when a woman asked him to... well, who knows what might have happened next. Perhaps he would have run away. And unlike American air marshals, we don't just shoot guys like that. We taser them.
The police want you to wait and wait and wait. You haven't heard the whole story. The video is only one piece of evidence. The other pieces of evidence, I presume, will come from the testimony of the four police officers who will all amazingly agree that Dziekanski was actually moving away from the police officers only so that he could hurl himself at them in a frenzy of deadly karate chops and whirling elbows and leg kicks, and that's why they had to pile onto him and electrocute a man, without even attempting to arrest him.
If charges are ever laid, their lawyers will file motion after motion after motion to delay proceedings as long as possible. (The police officers involved haven't even been suspended as of yet. When they are suspended-- if ever-- it will be with pay.) They will delay and obfuscate and seek all manner of reprieve until, they hope, we will have been refreshed with other scandals, or some new scare story about a potential viral epidemic that never seems to come, or a new threat from Al Qaeda, and we will once again flee willingly into their electric arms.
Eighteen people have died after being tasered in Canada so far. More than 280 have died in the U.S. That's not an insignificant number.
The odd thing about the taser is that the police seem to believe-- or want the public to believe-- that they are harmless. Fabulous Fantino asks, would you rather be shot or tasered? Gosh, yes, please taser me then. The CBC was tediously compliant and didn't bother to rephrase the question: Mr. Fantino, if you were upset with something, would you rather be electrocuted or approached cautiously and asked, "what's the problem?" How much time would you give yourself? 30 Seconds?
The police present the issue as gun versus taser. Well, by all means, let's use the taser, because, in most cases, it doesn't kill. It's nice to know the police go out there expecting to either shoot or taser people. If you were to believe part of what Fantino says, we really should take away all of the guns and only arm the police with tasers. Think they will go for that?
No one should forget or minimize the fact that the police in Vancouver lied about the circumstances of Robert Dziekanski's death. They lied. Yes, they lied. They described him as violent and threatening and stated that even after he had been tasered, he continued to threaten the officers. The video shows the opposite. They show him backing away. They show him helpless on the ground when they tasered him a second time. They show four large, strong, officers clad in bullet-proof vests aggressively assaulting a man who gave the appearance of being confused and frustrated but who had not made any threatening gestures to any person before or after the police arrived.
So how is the taser different from a fist? Suppose the officers had arrived without tasers and simply jumped the man and started punching and kicking him? That is what a taser does: it electronically punches and kicks its victim. It causes excruciating, debilitating pain. It's supposed to be temporary, but there have always been questions about what it might do to an individual with known or unknown heart condition.
We should answer the question of police use of tasers exactly the same as we would answer the question of police use of fists and boots. In fact, if we take away their tasers I have a feeling we will see more fists and boots. There is never any point in making something that is illegal more illegal. That's not the problem. The problem is attitude. The problem was perfectly defined in that Freudian moment when Mayor Richard Daley informed the media that the police, in Chicago in 1968, were not there to cause disorder: they were there to preserve disorder. The police approached Robert Dziekanski as someone to be subdued, not someone to be assisted. Fabulous Fantino would tell you that the police need to take control of the situation before they even understand what is happening. No they don't-- because the police definition of "control" includes the idea of occasionally electrocuting someone they think might be "out of control".
I suppose the police might argue that some day a man looking like Robert Dziekanski did on October 14th at the Vancouver airport might actually have a gun. Do you think the police are going to try to use the taser on a man who really does have a gun? Do you think the police even believe that a man with a gun should be confronted with a mere taser?
What we really need to do is figure out why the police can be so monumentally stupid and aggressive in situations that call for calm and measured, thoughtful strategies. Then we need to make sure there are real consequences when the police lie about what happened.
The taser is probably useless in situations where the police argue it might actually save the life of a cop: when a suspect has a gun, or a car, and is fleeing police custody, or is holed up in a bank with hostages. The police are going to use it primarily to subdue people they just happen to get angry with, whether they are a real threat or not.