Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Taser Controvery - Latest Local Incident


On June 30, 2009, officers from the Marin County Sheriff's first response unit entered the private home of Mr. Peter McFarland, in response to a third party report that a man had "threatened to shoot himself in the head." The response team ended up subduing the man, using a Taser four times, to force him to go to a facility for evaluation.    
On the Compass Rose blog, we have attempted to convince people that the use of these dangerous new police "toys" is both far too risky, and subject to all kinds of abuse. After we first went on record on this matter, Tasers were implicated in the accidental shooting death of a BART passenger, resulting in a manslaughter conviction (the Mehserle case).
In the succeeding months, the public outcry against Tasers has been steadily growing, with multiple death incidents (murders) and incidents involving minors (children), disabled victims (including those with clearly identified vulnerabilities such as heart and neurological conditions), being reported in the media, as well as by members of the general public. 
In the latest local incident, a crude video of the encounter was released, which shows in graphic detail the unwarranted, irresponsible use of a Taser to subdue an older man (64), who was clearly not being either uncooperative, or acting in a manner which would suggest that he was a danger to himself or to others (in the legal parlance of the 5150 procedures). In the video, the officers, acting stubbornly and in total ignorance of common decency and common sense, provoke Peter McFarland off his couch, then proceed, with no provocation on McFarland's part, to repeatedly Tase him, including three times after he was lying helpless on the floor. Both McFarland and his wife, who was at the scene, warned the officers several times that he was disabled, and suffered from a major heart condition. After he was thoroughly subdued, the team refused to remove the Taser from his chest, cuffed him, and continued to berate him for "refusing to cooperate" and "resisting"--and McFarland was further encumbered with straps and taken against his will, via ambulance, to a hospital for "evaluation." 
McFarland was understandably cranky, and called the team members names, but he was at no point a threat to them (or to himself), and did not present as someone who needed "evaluation" or incarceration. No crime had been committed, and Mr. McFarland showed no signs of mental illness. Once McFarland had been shoved inside the transport vehicle, the officers giggled as McFarland moaned in agony in a restraining chair (the cuffs and Taser wires still in place).  
In short, the team members failed to use good judgment and acted like ghoulish, bullying children, exacerbating a situation, making it much, much worse, and threatening McFarland's life and health. The legal issues surrounding the incident are complex. McFarland has vowed to sue the County. The Marin County Sheriff's Department has circled the wagons, claiming that it can show it followed procedure and has nothing to answer for. 
The availability of these terrible new weapons in the hands of untrained and out of control police officers and emergency teams opens up a whole new area of potential abuse. Each new weapon that is made available to law authorities can, and will be, misused. There are many ways in which this may occur. The Mehserle incident showed how a confusion between guns and Tasers can lead to tragedy. The McFarland incident shows how Tasers, used in about the same way that children would use squirt-guns (but with potentially catastrophic consequences) on others, can and will be abused.  
There's no question in my mind, regarding the McFarland incident, that McFarland should be awarded high damages. I would think the County's best alternative would be to settle out of court, given the highly inflammatory nature of the video evidence itself. I also think there's little question that the officers involved in the incident need to be terminated from their jobs; no one with tendencies like those shown in the video should be placed in a position of power or responsibility. If I were in the Marin District Attorney's Office, I would seriously consider prosecuting them for aggravated assault. They acted cruelly and irresponsibly, and could very easily have killed Mr. McFarland. 
As might have been predicted, Tasers have the effect of making enforcement officers feel that these "tools" are just harmless toys, that encounters are like games in which taunting and provocation can be used to manipulate and punish "perps" or simply innocent people who don't show enough adequate "respect" for the police. But Tasers aren't toys, and law enforcement isn't a game of chicken. Anyone confronted by legal authority should obey without question, not because their protests may be misconstrued, but because the police can't be trusted to act in a professional, adult manner. Tasers have become the new toys for brutality. Woe to the man whom the police want to "manage" with these clever new shocking devices. Woe to the man afflicted with a heart or neurological condition, whose life is immediately at serious risk of death or severe injury. 
In dealing with any police officer, it's always best to assume you're dealing with a possible psychopath, or someone who thinks his "authority" is best expressed by calling everybody's bluff. Tasers, unfortunately, not only make the consequences of unwarranted police force much, much worse, but actually have the effect of encouraging officers to provoke. It's a recipe for disaster.        
Tasers must be outlawed!                          


Anonymous said...

not so very different than in the 60's...

only then the "fuzz" used real bullets, billy-clubs, water hoses, and tear-gas!

the lesson then
the lesson now

don't fuck with the police! They shoot first and lie-like-hell to justify their actions after the "fact"

Anonymous said...

It was 2009, not 2010.

It's 5150, not 5051.

It was an EMT, not just some random third party, to whom the guy said "if he had a gun he would shoot himself in the head."

Did law enforcement have cause to enter the home to determine welfare, and take the guy in? Close question, but apparently the guy does not dispute that. Probably hard to dispute the intervention as an intervention, given the statement to the EMT, the lack of denial to the cops by the guy, his demeanor (badly drunk) and statements ("I'm depressed").

The use of force is a different question. What alternatives were available, when the guy got up and seemingly came toward the cops? It would seem to have been a classic situation for a classic law enforcement take-down using physical force. The post here doesn't take a position on this, but probably plain ol' fashioned physical force would have been okay.

Note: even if there was cause for a taser shot, the apparent extended use here was over-the-line.

Anonymous above is right though: when the police knock or stop you, the only sane course is to submit.

Curtis Faville said...

Dear Anon:

Thanks for the clarifications. I was running the video on another window while writing the blog, and my typing was so slow I had to wait 15 seconds for each word to appear. No excuses, though. I used to have 5150 on the tip of my tongue, but it's been years since I used the term.

Threats of suicide are common. In addition, response teams aren't supposed to use unnecessary, and excessive force on someone who may be mentally unstable (and physically at risk as well). They were treating this guy like a criminal. He was sitting calmly on a couch in his living-room, and they refused to acknowledge that they'd made a superfluous call. Drunkenness, in one's own home, is never a crime. Depression, by itself, isn't a crime either.

The guy sat and presented as coherent, reasonable, if a bit impatient, to the team. They stubbornly refused to leave. They precipitated the incident. No force was indicated, and none was required.

Putting Tasers in the hands of preemptively motivated individuals like this is totally irresponsible. They should have left his house, and filed their report. The whole thing was blown completely out of proportion.

It's my personal opinion that the possession of these new "toys" encourages encounters like this one, and presents a real danger to the community.

Steven Fama said...

"It's my personal opinion that the possession of these new "toys" encourages encounters like this one, and presents a real danger to the community."

No doubt.

I think the police were in a tough spot here. The taser use was over-the-line. But the paramedics report a guy unable to stand up, saying (sort of just about) he might shoot himself. I don't see real coherency in the video. He doesn't acknowledge the wife, despite her saying lots of stuff. The dog gets no attention, even though it's almost in his lap. He spouts back to the cops, not understanding jail vs. hospital.

Consider what would have happened if they'd turned and walked away, and then he shot himself, and his wife.

You talk like he did to an EMT, then present as he did (and the wife isn't really denying the potential of a problem), the cops pretty much gotta bring in you for a psych evaluation.

Curtis Faville said...


I think, without the desire on the part of the team to play with their new toy--to, in effect, enforce their whimsy--they just throw up their hands and leave the guy to his own devices. He'd had a little incident, fallen down the steps, lost his temper, and acted out a little. This kind of thing happens a million times a day in America--if not the world. We've come to a pass, in our time, where we think everyone needs an evaluation and an antiseptic de-lousing. It's nuts. Society can't afford this intrusive kind of meddling. The guy's in his own house, he's angry at the world, you keep provoking him, and then zap him, several times. It's shocking. Intolerable. Should never happen. If the team's not up to the task of understanding this simple situation, they should be replaced (they need a psychiatric social worker to determine this???). The whole thing made my blood boil. "We're doing this for your own good, come along now and be a good citizen." Bullshit!

If the only excuse authorities need is a third party report that someone is "acting out" to enter your home, strap you to a gurney and whisk you away to a padded room, we're living in Orwell's 1984.

J said...

Yes. 5150 it izz. Like the song.

You raise some good points, Sir Faville it a choice between say a .38 and a Taser? Some citizens might prefer a zap, however nasty, than a slug.

I'm against tasers, but they not quite lethal. Of course you are correct the man should sue the cops for big shekels, and the sadistic thugs with the badges should... lose their badges.

Yet....I've witnessed a few incidents were tasers were certainly justified--the proverbial gangster on speed, or crack, or PCP for one, where the cops can't just shoot him (tho some might/have) and instead they just ....zap him, and carry him off to jail, or a mental hospital.

Tasers tend to scare suburban liberals, with some reason (...actually the arsenal of the hells angels'-- a few blocks down--of pistols, semis, rifles seem a bit scarier...and crips or EME a few miles away have about the same). But...those humans --atleast non=perps--who like lived or worked downtown LA (or even..commuted there) probably think differently. The problem is the cop-selection process itself. The thugs (of whatever race)
and sadists tend to outnumber the sane, balanced responsible individuals (tho....most of the LAPD/LASD earn their paycheck).

Curtis Faville said...

Regarding the shadow issue of "responsibility"--

if they go out and knock on the door and the man, or his wife, says everything is fine, appears to be stable, then society has NO responsibility beyond this point--assuming there is no prior history or extenuating circumstances. If the man then commits suicide, so be it. Neither you nor I nor the man in the moon has any duty to police every member of society. I'm no libertarian. The line between personal freedom and society's "right" to intervene has become far too blurred.

Curtis Faville said...


You miss the point.

There are probably situations in which police could make an argument for using Tasers, in lieu of guns, but I believe those situations are rare.

Guns are abused in the same way. Every week we hear of how some slouch is gunned down by officers--torso filled with slugs--by a team which felt "threatened" by a guy with a kitchen knife. Come on, they can wing'im or shoot him in the foot.

I once, just on a dare, went to a gun shop, to see how easy it would be to buy a hand-gun. The guy behind the counter says, "you don't want a .22, you want a slug that will really STOP A GUY IN HIS TRACKS, like a .38 or a .45." In the gun culture, this kind of talk is considered "practical" I suppose.

The police culture suffers from a number of reactionary positions:

--Officers experience enough threat of harm and injury, they should be able to reduce their jeopardy by any means, including preemptory wounding, and even shooting to kill.

--Members of the public must "respect" authority, and anyone who doesn't deserves to be manhandled and arrested. "Resisting authority" includes disagreeing with the officer or "acting uppity." This is schoolyard ethics.

--Assume everyone's a criminal first, and treat them accordingly. Always draw your gun when serving a traffic ticket, etc.

--Always use overwhelming force in any situation. Billy clubs on women, children and pets, .38's on any male over 12 years old.

I'm sympathetic with urban police. They have an ugly job. But they should be answerable to the people, not to a handful of cronies on the force. All police officers should be subject to annual psych evaluations to determine their mental state. A nut driving a squad car with a set of lethal weapons is about as dangerous as a drug mule cruising the neighborhood and packing.

J said...

No sir, you miss the point.

The incident you describe sounds fairly nasty but it's not representative. There are many situations where the cops should use non-lethal weapons: what's the alternative? Bullets, or billyclubs it would seem.

Tasers were initially sort of a kinder, gentler alternative to firearms, and grew out of the situations I describe with street people and perps high on drugs, near psychosis (or actually psychotic). Perhaps lower the voltage a bit but there are many situations when they still should use them, or some other non-lethal alternative. I think the mandatory taping of busts also subjects the cops to public scrutiny: a good thing. If they are always being filmed when arresting people they're not likely to pull a Stacy Koons. The thugs that do, should be fired and/or themselves arrested.

Industrial pepper spray also has been used--not sure that's so superior to the the pain of the taser-zap which does subside after an hour or so (nets, actually have been used). Actually I'm for like a dart gun that fish and game use for bears, and so forth: with a very fast-acting sedative, narcotic, the cops could like shoot some perp and knock him out in seconds.

jh said...

it would appear that a judicious use of the blowdart could be a good alternative and what's more theyr very quiet

it would require some skill and careful training
but then we might actually employ some brazilian hunters in the whole bigger equation of world justice

if we could just find a delicate way to stop all the commotion and fuss around people

i think blowdarts are the answer
but with some of those very pleasant site specific hallucinogens

no guns no drama just a quiet transcendendal moment

i suppose sooner or later there'd be an OD and we'd have to rethink it
but the immediate logic carries itself a long way into the social imagination

bring on the blowdart patrol


Curtis Faville said...

One of my favorite scenes in cinema is the sequence where Steve McQueen is escaping from the natives in Papillon, and he's hit with a dart, starts to feint, then dives about 100 feet into a jungle river.

I also suggested the "net" idea in another blog.

I just think a billy-club or a quick shot to the calf is probably preferable to risking someone's life by shocking them. Shocking is actually much risker to a heart patient or a neurologically compromised individual than a little flesh wound.

Kirby Olson said...

Police officers need to have sufficient force to stop perps. So this means they need either guns, muscle, or some other weapon with which to overcome perps.

Given that they need this, some of them will abuse it. Whenever you put authority into anyone's hands, some few will abuse it.

Even a comments box can be used, and the equivalent of tasering can be administered (flaming could be seen as tasering).

You could shut down the comments box, as Silliman did.

You could outlaw those that continually flame, as I did.

Or you could allow flamers to taser, as you do.

For the police force, you will have to find a way for them to police, which means they must have a force that overwhelms communist and anarchist hoodlums from going outside the law, and you have to perhaps administer better tests to keep the mentally unstable or the born-again bully from wearing the badge.

Tasers don't taser people, particular individuals do.

J said...


Perhaps you've been enjoying the pineapple liqueur and gin a lil early, Sir F. That's...Controversy. --as in, you're still allowing the controversial right-wing extremist Kirby O to post (and he's known as such on numerous sites...Berube & his cronies consider KKirby and his regs as something like a blog ... Gestapo).