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!