Posted by Brad @ 4:17 pm on December 31st 2009

The Most Important Court Decision You Haven’t Heard of of the Week

I really do think the Taser issue is a big one. It cuts at the heart, in the same way the Campaign for Liberty worker’s case against the TSA did, at the idea of the police as being infaliable and beyond question. The Taser can be a wonderful tool, I think—it certainly beats shooting people—but it’s ease and efficacy has led to its total normalization not as an alternative to deadly force, which is in my view how it should be used, but as just a normal tool, on par with pepper spray or, say, putting your hands on a guy. And the scary thing is, because of the power of police unions locally and the lionized status of them nationally, the use of this device has been normalized with almost no consistent rules or limitations. We have essentially just given all beat cops cattle prods and said “use them as you see fit”.

Which is why this week’s ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court bears some publicity. In that it’s the first federal precedent that finds the police can indeed be held liable for their Tasering, and gives a whole host of further findings regarding how the Taser should be used.

A federal appeals court this week ruled that a California police officer can be held liable for injuries suffered by an unarmed man he Tasered during a traffic stop. The decision, if allowed to stand, would set a rigorous legal precedent for when police are permitted to use the weapons and would force some law enforcement agencies throughout the state — and presumably the nation — to tighten their policies governing Taser use, experts said.

Michael Gennaco, an expert in police conduct issues who has conducted internal reviews of Taser use for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and other agencies, said the ruling by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals prohibits officers from deploying Tasers in a host of scenarios and largely limits their use to situations in which a person poses an obvious danger.

“This decision talks about the need for an immediate threat. . . . Some departments allow Tasers in cases of passive resistance, such as protesters who won’t move,” he said. Tasering for “passive resistance is out the door now with this decision. Even resistance by tensing or bracing may not qualify.”[…]

In spelling out their decision, the judges established legally binding standards about where Tasers fall on the spectrum of force available to police officers, and laid out clear guidelines for when an officer should be allowed to use the weapon. The judges, for example, said Tasers should be considered a more serious use of force than pepper spray — a distinction that runs counter to policies used by most law enforcement agencies in California and elsewhere, according to Greg Meyer, a retired Los Angeles Police Department captain and consultant on use-of-force issues.

“It sounds like this court is attempting to raise the bar for nonlethal use of force,” Meyer said.

As well they should, unless one believes, as most police departments do, that all non-lethal force is equal. I can certainly appreciate the sentiment that being a cop is a hard job and we shouldn’t throw up uneccessary barriers to make their lives more difficult. But at the same time, we should hold them to a standard of professionalism and humanity that we would anybody in a position of such power over us, and when it becomes common practice to use a Taser not as an alternative to deadly force, but as an alternative for, you know, handcuffing a guy, it’s time to start throwing up said barriers.

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