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.  

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.  

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.                


Kirby Olson said...

It would have been better for Mr. Grant, as you say, but what if Grant had a pistol and turned and popped Mehserle? I think the police should have rights to self-defense, too.

Their job is almost unbelievably hard, and they never know who they are dealing with. It could be a law-abiding Lutheran, or it could be Lex Lothar himself!

New technology is very hard to incorporate into your personal arsenal. I bought a new camera and was strolling with it in a mall yesterday. I didn't know what to do with it. It was slung over my shoulder, and it felt awkward, but it was too big to put in my pocket.

Ultimately, I set it down somewhere, and then forgot it. Had to go back for it this morning (Lost and Found had it!).

The original scuffle at the top of your post isn't well-defined. Was Mr. Grant actually engaging in criminal activities or not?

If he was, I have less sympathy than if he wasn't.

But I'm always on the side of the police, and think they should have the right to self-defense in such situations when someone is resisting arrest.

Probably in San Francisco everyone or almost everyone will be on the criminal's side, and assume the police officer is a pig until proven otherwise.

I always assume the police officer is doing their best to serve their community and keep it safe. But of course they make mistakes.

Curtis Faville said...


I am of two minds regarding police behavior.

I've often tried to put myself into the position of the police, wondering how I might respond to certain stressful situations.

I'd have been a bad candidate for police work, since I've always had a low adrenaline threshold and tend to get jumpy and highly impulsive under stress.

On the other hand, most of my encounters with police or police detectives have made me either suspicious, or cynical about their methods and behavior. If I had been born an ethnic minority, I suspect I'd have become paranoid, perhaps even combative. There's nothing partisan about acknowledging that reality.

I think there was a good deal of commotion going on at the scene in the BART station. My sympathies would first be for the officers; in fact, as I say in the post, it's irrational to assume that Mehserle simply got "angry" and popped him. You'd have to believe the guy was really deranged, or totally disoriented, to have acted in that manner. My tendency at this point is to suspect that Mehserle actually did perceive--though perhaps impulsively--that Grant was an immediate threat to him. Could race have played a part? Of course. But race plays a part in every human encounter; I doubt that "tolerance" training or "multi-cultural" awareness would help someone in Mehserle's position at that moment.

Also, the media has been notably mum on the circumstances leading up to the incident. Were any of the suspects armed? Were there other struggles between police and the youths before the incident occurred.

We have yet to hear the police version of the case. The district attorney, however, seems to have determined that there is sufficient guilt to pursue a conviction.

Most troubling is that it's unlikely Mehserle coud get a fair hearing in the immediate Bay Area. Not only the media, but protestors, and the attorneys, and the presiding judge himself (!) have all polluted the waters with extra-legal, prejudicial comment.

If I were Mehserle's attorney, I'd request a shift of venue, as far from the Bay Area as I could get.

My purpose here in Part II was to illustrate further the problematic nature of this new weapon technology, which I believe raises more questions about its safe use.

Kirby Olson said...

It would be very difficult to be a police officer in a place like the Bay area which probably means that well-qualified and psychologically stable officers wouldn't want the pleasure of working in such an environment.

You get what you wish for: if you want to prove that all police officers are unstable lunatics (which I'm sure that you don't, but might be a part of the general trend since the 1960s there?), you just might have an unstable and less than ideal police force.

The police need to be able to defend themselves. If someone is going berserk in Oakland (well-known as a violent area) then the police officers probably have to do as well as they can.

Like you, I would be a terrible police officer. I have a lot of respect for them, and for army personnel. I could never acquit either job in a reasonable way, since you need to stay calm even in the worst possible situations, and to be utterly fearless.

Even pulling a car over for a routine speeding ticket at 7 am would terrify me. You never know if you've pulled over Paulie in the Sopranos. Over in this very rural area where there is next to no crime an officer asked a man at a Sunoco station why he had beeped his horn, and he was met with a single shot to the chest.

The guy he had asked was a terribly paranoid methamphetamine addict and pusher. Later that weekend he squeezed off hundreds of rounds from a cabin in which he was holed up. 500 officers surrounded the cabin which ultimately burnt down, taking the perp out.

I know a lot of police officers. They have families, and little children, who depend on them.

I have almost no respect at all for criminals and think that they get what they deserve. Creating a public disturbance is always uncalled for, and the police should be able to use a lot more force to remove illegal people doing illegal things from our society.

Tasering strikes me as at the very least an attempt to be decent.

But it puts the officer at a disadvantage if the perp has a pistol. I think the officers should be always to use pistols.

But they should use them judiciously.

Tasers seem ridiculously pacifist to me, as they put officers at risk. It basically says go ahead and rile up an angry hornet, and then see what happens.

In this state our governor (David Patterson) has issued an order that says that even if criminals have guns, they are not supposed to shoot at vital organs. They are supposed to go for leg wounds or arm wounds.

I find this puts officers at a terrible disadvantage, since they can only wound someone who is trying to kill them. It's just unbelievable.

But it's part of the racial legacy in which for decades there was no policing or only the worst policing in black neighborhoods.

But orders like Paterson's make officers unable to respond to calls in black neighborhoods in particular, and put everyone in those neighborhoods at risk, just so that a criminal's rights can be protected.

Don't you have any more conservative journals in San Francisco where the police officer' s viewpoint could be aired, or where we might find an unfavorable depiction of what was going on at the Bart station?

Kirby Olson said...

I googled Oscar Grant III, who has a Wikipedia page devoted to him and this case. It says that he was using a drug called Fentanyl, which is about 80 times more powerful than morphine. He had done considerable time inside for drug dealing (18 months), and had used a gun in other crimes.

He also had alcohol in his blood.

He was also apparently reaching for something when he was shot.

It turned out that he was unarmed.

The whole event took place in the wee hours of New Year's Eve, which also gives the event more of a context.

Nothing good happens after one am. All law-abiding citizens are at home with their families at that hour. The only people still out are criminals and police, and maybe a journalist here and there.

It's an interesting case, and your arguments are very interesting. I didn't know about this before coming to your blog. Apparently a lot of people all over the country are talking about it.

Curtis Faville said...

The fact is, that Mehserle's actions are both irrational, and totally repugnant, unless you accept that he acted on instinct.

I doubt that Mehserle was one of these wackos who was just looking for the chance to kill some young Black man.

My guess is that he was tragically confused.

But if he'd not had the potential use of a Taser on his mind, he'd never have reached for "it".

That's the tragedy, caused, in effect, by his prior experience of using it in these situations.

I see this instance as being repeated frequently, if more police use Tasers alongside their usual guns.

I'm not surprised about Grant's substance issues. The media here has been scrupulous NOT to mention any of that, just interviewing minority protesters demanding blood. The media has abrogated its responsibility.

Kirby Olson said...

Unfortunately, the media has completely abandoned any pretense of objectivity. You saw it clearly in the last election. The inner cities will not benefit from this over the long haul.

They will look the other way as serious problems mount.

Hope and change will become Orwellian terms for double-speak. We are only a week or two in. Wait three years.

It's part of what's happened in the universities that I've been raving about for years.

It's only when the inner cities completely cave in to the law of the jungle that anyone will listen.

It would serve Oakland right to have a police strike for two weeks, and see what took place. The family is suing for several million (I forget the exact figure). They will probably get it, and it will have to come out of police funds, making the city even less safe, and making the amount of money for better police salaries to attract better police officers even less.

I hope the police officer wasn't just acting badly and that you're right about his intentions. We should probably check HIS background, too.

Backgrounds are supposed to be irrelevant, and you are only supposed to check the actual facts of the actual incident for some reason or else you are prejudicing the jury. But it's odd not to be able to introduce a rap sheet.

It definitely does have bearing on the character of a perp.

Norman Lathers said...

I'm wondering if people would have complained of racism if a black officer had killed a white man??

hedera said...

@Kirby Olsen, you have your police forces confused. The Grant family is suing the separate police force associated with the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART). The Oakland Police Department was not involved in the fracas and in fact does not patrol the BART stations; BART police patrols them, and the officer now under arrest was a BART officer. So any monies awarded to the Grant family in a putative suit will have no effect on the city of Oakland's police funds. In fact, the Oakland Police Department handled itself with admirable restraint during the rioting that followed the incident.

I'll add this: I attended the OPD's Citizen Academy, a 14 week course (free) for citizens who are interested in how their police officers are hired, trained, and how they operate. I've ridden along with an officer on routing patrol. The officer who shot Grant was a 2 year veteran of the BART police. I was told several times during the Citizen's Academy that police officers aren't considered fully "seasoned" until they have 5 years or more on the job. So this man, who may have thought he was reaching for a Taser, was relatively inexperienced as officers are judged.

For background on police officers and deadly force let me recommend "Into the Kill Zone," by David Klinger, a University of Missouri criminologist; and the chapter "Seven Seconds in the Bronx" in Malcolm Gladwell's book "Blink." Very strange things happen in the minds of police officers, even experienced ones, when they believe they are threatened with deadly force from a suspect.

It is too weird for words that my word verification string for this post is "stabb."

Curtis Faville said...

I think weird things happen in everyone's mind under stress.

That's almost a cliche of psychoanalysis.

I think the sensitivity of any policeman is directly proportional to his/her experience, native intelligence and instincts. Occasionally, that can get an officer killed. But that's the wager. Being a good cop involves the ultimate risk. American society is violent, and we have a deeply ingrained gun culture.

I wish the media wasn't so anxious to exploit that culture of violence for commercial gain. Less violent hip-hop and rap and heavy violence in our movies would suit me just fine. Despite the arguments in favor of free speech, etc., celebrating violence, glamorizing it, does in face encourage our youth to act these negative fantasies out.

The curve of aggression and venality has been on a steady rise for at last 50 years in America, starting with the "noir" movies and novels of the 1940's, and escalating constantly.

Joe Bob Briggs (nee Bloom) used to rate drive-in movies by the number of breasts and chain-saw dismemberments per flick.

Alas, I feel I've strayed away from this profound subject into a trivial cul-de-sac.