Shocking into Compliance: Why Tasers Aren’t the Answer to Police Shootings

Trigger warning: this post contains a discussion about police brutality, police killings, white supremacy and psychiatric violence.

taser

This article is about the use of electricity, specifically tasers, as a form of violence and means of controlling people. I argue that an interlocking analysis of oppression is necessary to fully understand the implementation and implications of tasers. Further, I demonstrate how, even though they can cause serious health issues or death, tasers are used as a tool of social control and not an appropriate substitute for guns.

Tasers have saturated American law enforcement agencies, with 98% of agencies using them. They shoot 50,000 volts of electricity into the body and are designed to incapacitate people with intensely painful muscle contractions.[1] They are increasingly being used in Canada. Some have called tasers torture devices because of the extreme pain they cause.[2] Tasers are supposedly non-lethal alternatives to the use of firearms. TASER International posts a warning on its products to “Avoid Known Pre-Existing Injury Areas.”[3] It acknowledges that tasers are “not risk free” because sometimes people fall down when they are tased, according to TASER founder Thomas Smith.[4] He also says “individual susceptibility” can lead to a “higher degree of risk.” [5] However, smith claims that tasers “save 70 lives for every life lost.” [6]

Tasers are reportedly intended to be used as alternatives to firearms but they are used much more commonly than guns would be. Through ‘usage creep’ tasers have gone from being an intended replacement for the use of guns to a go to weapon for anything from not dropping a beer to passive resistance. According to the Braidwood Commission “over time weapon use has expanded to include subduing subjects who exhibit behaviours that are clearly noncombative or who are not actively resisting” by the RCMP (indeed, some police departments permit taser use on people who are not responding to police demands.[7] This amounts to “evidence of ‘usage creep.’” [8] In the US, 60% of policing agencies allow tasering when someone tenses or pulls away while being handcuffed.[9] The year that San Jose issued tasers to its police officers saw the highest number of police shootings in the past five years and the second highest number of police shootings in the previous eleven years.[10] Further, a 2008 study by Amnesty International, found that 90% of those who died after being tasered were unarmed. This group includes people who were naked, engaged in political protest, in medical distress, restrainedor children.[11] When Sammy Yatim was killed by Toronto police recently, he was holding a 3” knife. He was shot several times and then tasered.[12] Frighteningly, tasers are being introduced into a number of hospital emergency rooms and schools to subdue unruly people. Using TASER’s voluntary self-reporting database, only 45% of tasings of people labelled as mentally ill involved a legally justified use of lethal force or prevention of imminent threat of suicide.[13] Tasers are clearly not limited to engaging armed individuals or only as a substitute for firearms. The claim that tasers reduce police shootings is a flimsy one – in several jurisdictions shootings went up or stayed the same when tasers were introduced.

In addition to concerns about use, there can be serious injuries caused by tasers. Estimates are as high as 900 deaths after being tasered in the US and Canada. In 2015, 49 people died in the US after being tasered by police.[14]

So, who is being tasered? Demographic data is often difficult to find, especially on a national scale. I could find no information about class, although I suspect it is poor people who are the most likely to be tasered. Nevertheless, with the data available, a disturbing and predictable pattern emerges: it is primarily men of color, especially Black men, and/or people labelled as mentally ill or emotionally disturbed who are disproportionately tasered. With respect to mental health, different terminology is applied in different places, contributing to dramatic variances with estimates as low as 23% of people tasered as being mentally ill or, in one city, 95% as being emotionally disturbed.[15]  In New York, 40% of taserings are conducted on high risk groups, including people considered mentally ill and 30% of all taserings involve a mental health call rather than a criminal one.[16]

I want to be clear that I am not arguing that, people labeled as emotionally disturbed/mentally ill are a distinct group from people of color. Unfortunately, most of the scholarly literature about tasers that addresses these issues focuses on mental health OR race, creating the illusion that these are unrelated issues. Indeed, people of colour are much more likely to be diagnosed with particular psychiatric conditions because of race bias.[17] Psychiatrization and racialization are interlocked processes which simultaneously legitimize and uphold each other. It is important to note, however, that in the US media reports about white people being tasered are much more likely to be described as mentally ill.[18] Another study found that white people are much more likely to be identified by police as emotionally disturbed when they are tased (93.5 percent) than Hispanic people (84.9 percent) or Black people (81.3 percent).[19]

I would like to suggest that the reason for this is because police use electricity to control the bodies of people whom they have marked as dangerous and/or report the threat of danger to legitimize their violence. Men of colour, especially Black men, when police encounter them, have already undergone the racist cultural process of being marked as dangerous.[20] Agamben describes “states of exemption” in which the state make the determination that particular bodies fall outside of law.[21]  Razack, drawing on this idea, argues people of colour occupy permanent “spaces of exemption” in which the rule of law does not apply evenly or, sometimes at all, to the states actions on these communities.[22] White people who are tasered, on the other hand, must undergo a process of marking when they interact with police. This is done, I would argue, by mapping madness or disability onto their bodies.

Marking white people as psychiatrically disabled, mentally ill or emotionally disturbed helps to construct them as violent and, therefore, as a threat even when no such threat is present. Despite cultural conceptions of people labeled as mentally ill, psychiatrized people are actually less violent than non-psychiatrized people.[23] Certain white men, then, can be brought into a space of exemption through this labelling process.

TASER International now recognizes that deploying tasers can lead to “death or serious injury.” TASER founder Thomas Smith also said that “individual susceptibility” can lead to a “higher degree of risk.” High risk groups include, according to TASER, people who are “pregnant, infirm, elderly, [have] low body-mass index… or [are] small child[ren]” although it does not provide definitions for these groups. According to TASER International, there have been no studies conducted on these ‘high risk’ groups.[24] Nevertheless, few police departments prohibit their applications to these groups. According to the US Justice Department, “Some 31 percent forbid [taser] use against clearly pregnant women, 25.9 percent against drivers of moving vehicles, 23.3 percent against handcuffed suspects, 23.2 percent against people in elevated areas and 10 percent against the elderly.” Similarly, TASER International acknowledges that chest shots can lead to cardiac issues; nevertheless, a New York study found that chest shots made up over 25% of tasings.[25] Warnings against multiple tasings and using it in drive stun mode, both of which increase risk of injury, also frequently go unheeded.

While I am suspicious of this claim, TASER International and its proponents assert that tasers are safe when applied to healthy individuals. In reading reports about the deaths of people after being tasered, one thing that is quite common is that the death is linked to an underlying heart condition. The other typically used explanation of death is ‘excited delerium’ a newly formed psychiatric diagnosis that is not recognized in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (which is impressive given the recent revisions that captured a number of previously non-medicalized behaviours and ways of being[26]). Both of these explanations root the problem – the death – in the body of the person who was killed rather than the taser which is views as contributory or, at times, unconnected.

So, what is happening, then is that tasers are being applied across the population even when it is recognized that it is harmful to certain people. Some of those people can  generally be easily identified: children, elders. But others really can’t be identified by looking at them: people with heart conditions, “the infirm,” certain pregnant people, people with mental health issues. Lennard Davis writes about the “tyranny of the norm” – how the bell curve is imposed on all of us and those that don’t fall within set parameters are deemed unworthy or without due consideration.[27] With respect to tasers, this has life and death consequences as non-disability is assumed. If this isn’t the case, it could be devastating. Safety shouldn’t be judged on norms, it should be judged on the impacts to diverse bodies in diverse situations.

Embedded within the notion that certain groups should not be tasered (or at least not tasered unless absolutely ‘necessary’) is that disability is visible and apparent – erasing the fluidity and hiddenness through which many people embody disability. Encounters with people who are deemed as “high risk” with respect to tasers are not rare. Rather, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, they are the norm.[28]

Black Lives Matter has, powerfully and significantly brought the issue of police killings of Black people to the forefront of media and public attention. The work that Black communities have done to combat both the criminalization of Black people and police violence is important and has had a significant social and political impact. In response to Black Lives Matter, a number of people (on both the right and left) have called for the use of tasers rather than guns.[29] It is true that far fewer people shot with tasers die than those shot with guns. But, tasers are not a solution to anti-Black police violence. There is lots of evidence that tasers get used by police for things that guns aren’t used for, including general compliance (although sometimes people are shot for that too). Tasers are also applied in a racist manner (as are bullets). But, there isn’t a lot of evidence that police shootings are meaningfully decreased with the use of tasers.

Tasers are not an appropriate solution to the shooting deaths of Black people, many of whom are labelled as mentally ill, and other racialized groups. What is needed is an end to the criminalization of Black people, the elimination of the hyper surveillance of Black communities, Indigenous communities and other communities of color and the elimination of white supremacy and all forms of police brutality.

Tasers are also not an appropriate solution to dealing with people labelled as being in mental health crisis. One study argues that: “deployment of less lethal weapons, such as the Taser, may be part of a solution to a significant public health problem.”[30] Violence and the infliction of pain are not appropriate approaches to public health issues. Tasers are painful and sometimes deadly. They are an immediate form of punishment, often for being a member of an oppressed group.

While pulling the plug, both literally and figuratively, on the use of electricity as a compliance or control tool is essential, stopping the flow of electricity does not destabilize the political process that allows these abuses to take place. It is necessary to not only fight for the eradication of electricity as control, but also work to eliminate the systems of power and domination which enable the othering or marking of certain bodies as requiring control and as controllable.

A version of this paper was presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Studies Association:The (Re)production of Misery and the Ways of Resistance, October 10, 2015. Toronto, Ontario.

Notes:

[1] Amnesty International, “‘Less Than Lethal’? The Uses of Stun Weapons in US Law Enforcement” (London: Amnesty International, 2008); Braidwood Commission on Conducted Energy Use, “Restoring Public Confidence: Restricting the Use of Conducted Energy Weapons in British Columbia” (Victoria: Government of British Columbia, 2009).

[2] Amnesty International, “‘Less Than Lethal’? The Uses of Stun Weapons in US Law Enforcement”; Michael D. White and Jessica Saunders, “Race, Bias, and Police Use of ThE TASER: Exploring Available Evidence,” in Race, Ethnicity and Policing: New and Essential Readings, ed. Stephen K. Rice and Michael D. White, Book, Section vols. (New York: New York University Press, 2010), 382–404.

[3] As quoted in Braidwood Commission on the Death of Robert Dziekanski, “Why?: The Robert Dziekanski Tragedy” (Victoria: Government of British Columbia, 2010).

[4] As quoted in Greg Joyce, “Tasers ‘Generally Safe,’ Company Head Tells Probe,” Toronto Star, May 12, 2008.

[5] As quoted in ibid.

[6] As quoted in ibid.

[7] Braidwood Commission on the Death of Robert Dziekanski, “Why?: The Robert Dziekanski Tragedy.”

[8] Amnesty International USA, “USA: Excessive and Lethal Force? Amnesty International’s Concerns about Deaths and Ill-Treatment Involving Police Use of Tasers” (Amnetsy International USA, 2004), 197,.

[9] National Institute of Justice, “Police Use of Force, Tasers and Other Less-Lethal Weapons” (Washington DC, 2011).

[10] Amnesty International USA, “USA: Excessive and Lethal Force? Amnesty International’s Concerns about Deaths and Ill-Treatment Involving Police Use of Tasers.”

[11] Amnesty International, “‘Less Than Lethal’? The Uses of Stun Weapons in US Law Enforcement” (London: Amnesty International, 2008)

[12] Sahar Fatima and Kathryn Blaze Carlson, “Police Chief Backs Expanded Use of Tasers,” Globe and Mail, 2013.

[13] Jeffrey D. Ho et al., “Impact of Conducted Electrical Weapons in a Mentally Ill Population: A Brief Report,” The American Journal of Emergency Medicine 25, no. 7 (September 2007): 780–85.

[14] Jon Swaine et al., “The Counted: People Killed by Police in the United States in 2015 – Interactive,” The Guardian, 2016.

[15] Ho et al., “Impact of Conducted Electrical Weapons in a Mentally Ill Population”; Michael D. White and Justin Ready, “The TASER as a Less Lethal Force Alternative: Findings on Use and Effectiveness in a Large Metropolitan Police Agency,” Police Quarterly 10, no. 2 (2007): 170–91.

[16] As quoted in New York Civil Liberties Union, “NYCLU Analysis Finds Misuse of Tasers by Police Across NY State,” 2011.

[17] Shankar Vedantam, “Racial Disparities Found in Pinpointing Mental Illness,” The Washington Post, 2005.

[18] White and Saunders, “Race, Bias, and Police Use of The TASER: Exploring Available Evidence.”

[19] Ibid.

[20] Carol Taylor and Francis Henry, Racial Profiling in Canada: Challenging the Myth of A Few Bad Apples, Book, Whole (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006).

[21] Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

[22] Sherene Razack, “Abandonment and the Dance of Race and Bureaucracy in Spaces of Exception,” in States of Race: Critical Race Feminism for the 21st Century, ed. Sherene Razack, Malinda Smith, and Sunera Thobani (Toronto: Between The Lines, 2010), 87.

[23] Erick Fabris, Tranquil Prisons: Chemical Incarceration Under Community Treatment Orders (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011).

[24] Taser International, “TASER Handheld CEW Warnings, Instructions, and Information: Law Enforcement,” 2013, 3.

[25] New York Civil Liberties Union, “NYCLU Analysis Finds Misuse of Tasers by Police Across NY State.”

[26] A. J. Withers, “Disabling Trans: Political Implications and Possibilities of Constructions of Trans as a Disability” (York University, 2013); American Psychiatric Association, “DSM-5 Overview: The Future Manual,” 2012; American Psychiatric Association, “Highlights of Changes from DSM-IV-TR to DSM-5” (Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

[27] Lennard J. Davis, Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness and the Body (New York: Verso, 1995), 29.

[28] As quoted in New York Civil Liberties Union, “NYCLU Analysis Finds Misuse of Tasers by Police Across NY State,” 8.

[29] Mary Boland, “Column: How We Nurture High-Crime Areas | PostIndependent.com,” Post Independent Citizen Telegram, September 18, 2015; Keith Boykin, “Commentary: What It Was Like in Ferguson for One Week,” BET, August 22, 2014; Hannah Wolfe, “Mental Illness Is Not a Crime,” SocialistWorker.org, November 5, 2013.

[30] Mark R. Munetz, Antonia Fitzgerald, and Michael Woody, “Police Use of the Taser with People with Mental Illness in Crisis,” Psychiatric Services 57, no. 6 (2006): 883.

Transformative Justice And/As Harm

front heart

Zine cover: broken heart fabric pin on red fabric

This is a zine I wrote about transformative justice in 2014 but have been shy to put it online until now.

If you are looking for a how-to or the answers to your questions, this isn’t it. How-to transformative justice guides do exist but I am very skeptical of them because there is no magic formula for this work. It also probably asks more questions that it answers. But I try to give a thoughtful critique of my own role in trying to do TJ work and my the ways that I have unintentionally caused harm while trying to create justice.

Also, this zine is really long and might be triggering to some people as it is mostly about sexual assault.

 

Click Here for Transformative Justice And/As Harm

Access: My computer died and I don’t have the original files. So, the one with the cover is a flat pdf and screen readers can’t read it. The other version doesn’t have a cover and the table of contents is obnoxious to read with a screen reader (sorry, I can’t figure out how to change it). But once you get to page 2, you are good to go.

Click here for Transformative Justice And/As Harm – screen reader version