BART was slow to respond to public outcries for investigation, and the officer, Johannes Mehserle, 27, quit the force rather than face immediate questions regarding his actions on duty. There were public demonstrations in Oakland, some of which turned violent, as a consequence of what was interpreted as an example of racially motivated violence. Subsequently, Mehserle was charged with murder and arrested in Nevada where he had fled to stay with a relative.
Sunday, February 1, 2009
The Taser Controversy Part II : In the News!
For readers not living in the Bay Area, a bit of background. Early New Year's day, Bay Area Rapid Transit Authority police were called to intervene in a melee that occurred on a BART train in Oakland at night. Onlookers carrying portable phone video devices recorded the event, watching in disbelief as one of the police shot and killed a black man, one of several of whom were being subdued and detained on the loading platform.
Mehserle's version of the story, which has been partly corroborated by statements made after the incident by fellow officers, is that he believed that the suspect, Oscar Grant III, was resisting arrest, and that Mehserle believed that he seemed to be reaching for something--perhaps a weapon, under his belt. Mehserle pulled his revolver and shot Grant in the back as he was lying face down on the concrete. Police witnesses have been reported to have said they heard Mehserle saying that he intended to "tase" the suspect; and also that Mehserle appeared to be upset and confused shortly after he made the shot.
Mehserle's attorney told reporters after his client's arraignment in court, that Mehserle will claim as his defense that he believed, or understood, that he was in fact tasering Grant, but mistook the service revolver he was carrying for a Taser device. The attorney stated that they felt a reduction of the charge to manslaughter would be more appropriate under the circumstances.
In what must be regarded as a clear violation of judicial ethics, the presiding judge in the case, Morris Jacobson, came out publicly stating that Mehserle's attorney's account of the shooting was "inconsistent" and "to make up something that's not true to avoid consequences." In a colossal irony, Jacobson set a gag order on the contending parties not to discuss the details of the case outside the courtroom.
There are several unusual aspects to the case. Why would an officer suddenly draw a gun and shoot an unarmed man, lying on the ground, in the back, in plain view of witnesses, without apparent provocation? Public video records of crime and arrest incidents are still unusual, though with the proliferation of these devices amongst the general population, this is going to continue to be a hot issue in the coming years.
What are the possible extenuating circumstances? The media has been reluctant to go into the details of the disturbance leading up to the shooting, but it seems clear that several minority men, drunk or stoned, were having what has been described as a sort of "gang" fight. Oakland, particularly in the African American neighborhoods, has one of the highest crime rates in the nation, with drugs and gang activity, and a high annual murder rate, especially among Black youths. Historically, there has been considerable distrust and bitterness in the Black community towards municipal police and state patrol officers.
Videos of the incident are not altogether clear. The view of Mehserle and Grant is partially blocked by the standing body of another officer. Grant is clearly on the ground, but Mehserle seems to be attempting to subdue him, perhaps to cuff him, when he simply pulls his revolver and fires. The action seems irrational, unless Mehserle was suddenly losing his cool, and his temper; or, as he has stated, he became confused and somehow thought he was packing a Taser instead of a revolver. Is his claim plausible?
My guess is that, whatever you may believe, his claim has enough probable merit at least to leave some doubt about why he may have done what he did do. Unless Mehserle went berserk, and acted in a way certain to put his entire career and life at risk, what he did looks like the action of a man who was either disoriented, or had become irrational under the pressure of a moment of confusion and tense confrontation. Officers are trained to handle stressful situations like this, but it's difficult to predict what individuals will do under fire, especially if they are experiencing problems, mental or otherwise, in their private lives.
The point of my relating this story, is to bring attention to the problematic nature of the increasing use of Tasers--a new technology involving applying severe electric shock to victim perpetrators. This incident points up a new problem which I haven't seen discussed anywhere in the media: What about the confusion officers may display under stressful situations, which might cause them accidentally to pick the wrong weapon? Supposing an officer intends to pull out his pistol to protect himself from a man with a gun, but instead grabs his Taser? Or the officer, as here in this instance, who pulls out his revolver when he mentally "thinks" he is reaching for his Taser instead.
I maintain that Tasers are bad medicine under any circumstances, given their vastly greater likelihood of causing life-threatening harm. As this recent incident at a BART station shows, the use of Tasers has now opened a whole new area of concern, namely the confusion about which weapon is being used, and when, and how.
Wouldn't it indeed have been better for Mr. Grant, if officer Mehserle had simply pulled a nightstick from his belt and tapped Grant meaningfully on the shoulder, instead of reaching instinctively for a Taser? Suspects may be at risk with the use of sticks, or pepper spray, but they're comparatively safer in those cases, than they are from officers brandishing Taser guns and loaded revolvers. It could even be argued that street criminals are more likely to take the position that using a gun against a Taser is a superior defense against arrest and conviction, than simply physically putting up a struggle with a police-person. After all, if you think you're going to be irresponsibly Tasered, it probably makes more sense to run or shoot first, from a safe distance, than it does to try to bluff your way or resist arrest at short range.