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

Note: by tragic coincidence, just one hour after I put this post up on my website, El Cajon police shock and killed Alfred Olango.  Alfred was a Black Ugandan refugee with mental health issues.  He was in mental health crisis when his sister called 9-1-1 for help.  After 50 minutes, police arrived.  Police knew that Alfred was in crisis and had not called on the Psychiatric Emergency Response Team.

Most people by now have heard the heart wrenching recording of Alfred’s sister, reacting to the killing of her brother. She says: “I called you to help me, but you killed my brother.” Later, she pleads: “why couldn’t you tase him? Why couldn’t you guys tase him? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?”

I want to be clear, if someone I loved who was in mental health crisis was shot by the police that I would probably have the same response in that moment – I would ask why they used a gun instead of a taser.  As a white person, I’m far less likely to be in that situation than a person of color – especially a Black person. By no means is this article a critique of Alfred’s sister or commentary on his murder.  In that moment, when a police officer made the decision to shoot an unarmed Black man in mental health crisis, using the taser the other officer had would have been less likely to kill him – but it still could have. (It’s also important to note that the taser was used in this case. It’s unclear when the taser was fired and it’s possible it was fired at the same time as or after the gun was.) But, there are so many things leading up to that moment that should’ve been done differently. It never should have come to the point where two officers were pointing weapons at Alfred Olango. He should still be alive.  There needs to be meaningful, compassionate, free and non-punitive ways for people too access emergency support for their loved ones.  White supremacy which, among other things, criminalizes and demonizes Black bodies must end. Black lives matter.

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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.

Uniting Against Social Injustice

My speech at the Psychiatry Disrupted: Theorizing Resistance and Crafting the (R)evolution book launch.

My chapter is “Disability, Definitions, and Disablism: When Resisting Psychiatry is Oppressive.” I am disabled, queer and trans. I am calling on people involved in the consumer/survivor/ex-patient/anti-psychiatry movement(s) to actively support disability movements and adopt anti-oppressive practices and discourses. While I focus on issues of disablism, I think it’s essential for this and all social justice movements to also combat white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism, cisism, colonialism and capitalism.

I also want to be clear about what I am talking about when I talk about disability. Disability, like race and gender is a social construct – it is a political category that is imposed on people deemed deviant, abnormal, and/or un- or under-productive. While it is a social construct, disablism has real consequences.

Firstly, these movements often use disablist language. For instance, they describe psychiatric drugs or ECT as “brain-disabling,”1 “crippling”2 and they “disable and disempower through their unique and disabling effects.”3 Disability is considered entirely bad and in need of prevention. I would also argue that regardless of the authors’ intentions, the concept of disability and disabled people are inseparable.

People tend to use disability as a stand in for harm. But, I would implore people to address the harm rather than devaluing a marginalized group. For example, the recent Israeli attacks on Gaza have led to over 2,000 deaths and 11,000 Palestinian people being injured.4 Many of these people will be categorized or categorizable as disabled. An anti-oppressive social justice practice would require us to address the harm including the bombing of schools and apartment buildings and the ongoing apartheid system – not denigrating disabled Palestinians. The tragedy of Gaza isn’t the surviving disabled lives, it is the violence, murder and depravation.

There is also a tendency within these movements to argue that psychiatrized people are not disabled. Underlying this argument is often the sentiment that there is ‘nothing wrong’ with mad, crazy or psyciatrized people. But the implications of this assertion are that there is something wrong with disabled people. This belief reinforces problematic depictions of disabled people as flawed rather than understanding disability as an imposed identity. Indeed, many people in these movements regard psychiatric diagnoses as social constructs but fail to consider medicine itself as a social construct. This is especially troubling with regard to intellectual disability which is also classified within the DSM but many people in these movements distance themselves from and reinforce the oppression of this community.

The argument that disability is permanent and psychiatrized people can recover or become survivors also indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of disability and disabled people. Individuals move into and out of disability and definitions of disability have changed over time, depending on the needs of power.

Some people reject the categorization of disability because they don’t want an ‘additional’ stigma. This argument, however, does not represent a misunderstanding of disability inasmuch as it does a misunderstanding of stigma and privilege. Choosing to identify in a particular way is often irrelevant to how one is identified and, therefore, stigmatized by others.

Fighting among ourselves about who should get what stigma, about what kinds of medicalization are legitimate or about what kind of abnormal is okay is a waste of time. This is a practice that works to divide us rather than unite us. And, if we view it as a legitimate practice, is there any point when groups should stop dividing in pursuit of privilege? In the book I trace through how the mainstream gay rights movement worked to divide itself out from the category of mentally ill, reinforcing the stigma and oppression of those it left behind. This practice is an active one within the trans community right now. Max Zachs, the person who started the We are Trans* Not Sick petition to get being trans declassified as a disease which has more than 85,000 signatures, demonstrates this. He says “The whole point is we are perfectly healthy, there is nothing wrong with us, and we don’t need to be treated like nutters or pitied as physically afflicted.”5 So, for Zachs, the oppression that mad people and physically disabled people experience is okay but trans people should not be subjected to it.

I am arguing that psychiatrized and mad people are disabled not because there is something wrong with them but because it is a category imposed on us. But even if you reject that, you cannot reject that many psychiatrized people are otherwise disabled just like many queer or trans people are also mad or physically or intellectually disabled. Selling out these communities also means selling out your community. Social justice takes action so let’s fight together and fight win.


Footnotes

1. Dr. Peter Breggin uses this term a lot. For example: Breggin, P. (2008). Brain-Disabling Treatments in Psychiatry.
2. Mindfreedom Virginia. (2012). “What’s needed to improve mental health recovery rates?”
3. McCubbin, M., Weitz, D., Spindel, P., Cohen, D., Dallaire, B. & Morin, D. (2001). “Submissions for the President’s Consultation Regarding Community Mental Health Services,” Radical Psychology.
4. Palestine Chronicle. (2014, September 9). “Palestinian Girl, 5, Dies of Injuries Sustained in Gaza War. For more on this see my post about Gaza.
5. Morse, P. (2012) “‘Transgender People Aren’t Mentally Ill’: World Health Organsation Urged To Change Classification.” Huffington Post UK.