Did Tasers Kill Oscar Grant?

If we believe the statements made by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle, Oscar Grant died because an officer mistook his sidearm for his Taser stun-gun. Critics have attacked Mehserle’s explanation, noting the differences between the Taser and the sidearm in size, weight, coloration, trigger weight, and other factors.

A bigger question is why Mehserle felt that the use of a potentially lethal weapon was needed in a minor altercation, when Grant was already on the ground and surrounded by Mehserle and other officers.

When Tasers and related shock weapons were introduced, they were heralded as “non-lethal” countermeasures for police to use in subduing suspects- an alternative to shooting a suspect that was dangerous but who police didn’t want to shoot.  Soon, that branding was dropped in favor of the moniker “less than lethal”; Tasers, it turned out, along with beanbag rounds and other so-called “non-lethal” countermeasures could inflict fatal injuries under the right- or wrong- circumstances.

Despite that knowledge- and despite a number of high-profile cases of death or serious injury resulting from the use of Tasers and other sub-lethal countermeasures- policing in the US seems to have come to increasingly rely on the Taser not as an alternative to the handgun, but as an alternative to the night stick or baton- a means of forcing compliance, rather than of incapacitating a subject who was presenting an immediate threat.  Officers continue to use their sidearms to kill suspects who are armed and potentially dangerous, while using the Taser to force compliance from resistors.

This use of a potentially lethal weapon in lower risk situations contravenes years of police training concerning the use of sidearms.  Modern police officers are trained never to fire their sidearms to injure, disarm, or incapacitate: the sidearm is to be used only to kill a subject that presents a credible, immediate threat.

One reason for this policy is to protect police officers: shots to wound or disarm can fail to drop a dangerous suspect or miss entirely, resulting in injury or death for the officer.  This is also why Tasers continue to not be employed in highest risk situations; if a suspect has a gun or other weapon, or is threatening an officer of bystander, a Taser may fail to stop a subject.  Successive shots to the center of mass- police are trained to aim for the chest and fire until the subject drops or the magazine is empty- guarantee stopping the suspect, and allow for multiple attempts if the first one misses.  This is why victims of police shootings- lawful and otherwise- typically are shot multiple times, sometimes receiving seven or eight rounds from a single shooter.

A second reason for these tactics, oddly enough, is the protection of suspects.  Officers are instructed to move through a ‘continuum of force’, starting with verbal warnings, escalating to laying hands on the subject, and continuing to pepper spray and blows with a nightstick.  Only if the officer felt there was no choice but to kill the suspect, and that the suspect presented a continuing threat, was he to draw his sidearm and fire.

This policy keeps the threshold for potentially lethal force as high as possible.  If officers were trained to shoot to wound or disarm, an errant shot could kill a suspect or bystander in a situation where an officer would never have intentionally used lethal force.  By keeping the gun- a countermeasure that always carries the potential for death- in the holster until a situation arises where the officer believes he may need to kill the subject, the officer is discouraged from ever using the weapon in a situation where the death of the subject might not be necessary.

The introduction of Tasers has changed that equation- and particularly, the much looser standards of training and deployment that exist for them.  In the wrong situation, a Taser can kill as surely as a gun.  Low thresholds for use and weaker reporting and documentation requirements (compared with firearm discharge) create the potential for abuse and over-reliance.  Amnesty International has documented ongoing issues with Taser use by police forces, including incidents of deaths and allegations of use as an implement of torture.  Mehserle testified that he had received only 6 hours of training on the use of his Taser, compared with the 90 hours or more of firearms training required by some police agencies, and the 12 hours a year required by BART as part of its continuing education program.

Communities would never tolerate police receiving less than a full day of training in the use of their sidearm.  And yet, officers like Mehserle report for duty every day with only a few hours of instruction on a weapon that is also potentially lethal.  Police do not have sufficient guidelines in many localities about when use of their Taser is and isn’t reasonable force, and these guidelines, when they exist, are not well known to the public.

The Taser has come to be seen as an invisible alternative to the baton, rather than as a substitute for the hand gun.  Police use it perhaps believing they can elicit compliance without risking death.  Meanwhile, the taser is more attractive than the night stick, as it leaves no visible wounds and does not evoke memories of 60’s era police beating civil rights marchers.  The baton has an image problem; meanwhile, the invisibility and ease of use of the clean, modern Taser is seductive.

Ambiguous policies and poor training in the use of Tasers- and perhaps an unwillingness on the part of its manufacturers and law enforcement to acknowledge its potential for abuse and lethal injury- has created a situation where the force continuum is being subverted.  Police are pulling their tasers in situations where they would never pull their firearm, and using them in situations that would have been resolved in previous years either unarmed or with a baton.

By the time Johannes Mehserle tried to reach for his Taser, he had already opened himself up to the possibility that he was going to kill Oscar Grant, whether either man realized it or not.

His negligent use of his sidearm instead of the taser is inexcusable, but what happened to Grant is consistent with an officer thinking that he was using a lower-threat “safer” alternative.  Mehserle pulled the taser, reportedly, when he had difficulty getting control of Grant’s hands to handcuff him.  Rather than solving the solution with a baton strike, he pulled a pistol-grip from his belt, pressed the weapon up to Grant, and pulled the trigger once.  He did not fire the multiple shots you would expect from an officer intending to kill a suspect; more likely, he held down the trigger on the weapon, attempting to engage the Drive Stun mode used by law enforcement for pain compliance.

Tasers have some very good qualities.  They can enable an officer to disable a subject without exposing himself to the risk of a close encounter.  But the truth is, they are not a substitute for any weapon in an officer’s arsenal; they are too unreliable to use in place of a firearm, and too dangerous to use in place of a baton.  Their use for ‘pain compliance’ in Drive Stun modes presents too much potential for abuse, and too much danger, to be allowed to continue as it has.  The taser should occupy a new and distinct slot in the threat continuum, being used only in its incapacitation function, and only with sufficient training to an officer that acknowledges the potential for lethal injury.

Officers should not have to risk their lives because of non-cooperative suspects.  But neither should citizens have to risk death because of policy gaps in their police agencies.

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CNN Bravely Fires Editor for Making Controversial Tweet

In a display of bold journalistic integrity, CNN has shown Octavia Nasr the door for expressing respect for Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah.

Fadlallah- who died on Sunday- was a Lebanese cleric widely seen as a spiritual inspiration for Hezbollah.  There was a lot about Fadlallah not to like.  Like most Muslim pedagogues, he held barbaric views on Israel.  He argued justifications for suicide bombings, and accused Israel of exaggerating the effects of the Holocaust for political gains.

On the other hand, Fadlallah wasn’t all a bad guy- and not just in the ‘sure, he was a genocidal maniac, but he loved his kids’ sense.  Like Hezbollah itself, he condemned the 9/11 attacks despite long having been stridently critical of American foreign policy in the Middle East (anti-Islamists love to claim that ‘no one’ in the Islamic world condemned 9/11).  He was a critic of the Iran’s theocratic rule, arguing that Khomeini had gone too far by setting up any single cleric as the arbiter of religious truth, and opposed the spread of theocracy to Lebanon- despite heavy Iranian backing for Hezbollah.

Most importantly, he advocated a relatively progressive view of women’s rights, and justified his position in a way much more likely to resonate with Muslims than the typical Western hectoring.  Fadlallah issued fatwas condemning female circumcision and honor killings.  He advocated the equality of men and women, and their equal role in shaping society.  He also issued a fatwa confirming the rights of women to defend themselves against physical and social violence, and condemning as un-Islamic male violence towards women or attempts to deprive them of their rights.  He also believed that abortion was permissible in situations where the mother’s life was at risk.

Fadlallah was a sharp critic of the U.S., but there is a lot in his views on that topic that is hard to dismiss.  He argued that the U.S. was using ‘terrorism’ as an excuse for imperial exercises in the Middle East- a view that is certainly understandable, given the former U.S. presence in Lebanon and the ongoing presence in Iraq.  He accused the CIA of attempting to stir up trouble in the region, but one might expect such views from someone that the CIA allegedly tried to assassinate.

According to the New York Times:

Since the early 1990s, he adopted a more pragmatic tone, preaching against the division between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. He raised money for a sprawling international network of charities and willingly met with prominent Americans, including critics of his beliefs, and considered dialogue with the enemy an Islamic imperative.

So there was plenty about Fadlallah not to like, but if you’re a fan of the art of the possible and looking for signs of grass-roots progressive views and dialog within the Islamic world, there were certainly some things to respect about the man.

So following his death, CNN senior editor for Middle Eastern affairs, Octavia Nasr tweeted:

Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah … One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot.

Twitter doesn’t allow for a lot of nuance, so following the controversy about this tweet, Nasr followed up with a blog post explaining that, as a Middle Eastern woman, she respected an Islamic leader who was willing to meet with people like her- Christian, female, Westernized- and engage in a dialog about the future of Lebanon and the Middle East.  Fadlallah drew criticism from other Muslim clerics for his views on women and religious co-existence, and from Hezbollah for his criticisms of Iran’s growing influence, and its departure from its original goals and values.  She expressed respect for a complex figure who stood out as a relative moderate, and sadness for the death of a human being she had met and spoken with.

CNN announced on Wednesday that they had parted ways with Nasr because “her credibility… has been compromised” by that act.

Unfortunately, she violated the primary commandment of reporting about the Middle East in the U.S.: Thou shall not attempt to introduce nuance.

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What exactly is the constituency of the Democratic Party?

Joe Conason has a piece at Salon repeating a piece of conventional wisdom that has been floating around since the 2008 election: even if Democrats suffer losses in the upcoming elections, unstoppable demographic trends (the rise of the ‘minority majority’ nation and the growth of the college-educated workforce) will ensure that Democrats have significant successes over the next twenty years.  The continuing decline of the percentage of the country that is white, Christian, and lacks a college education will doom the Republicans- whatever their short-term gains- to demographic irrelevancy as a regional party representing portions of the rural South and Midwest.

This line of reasoning takes for granted that demographic categories that currently favor Democrats over Republicans- such as Hispanic/Latino voters, African-Americans, and Asians- will continue to vote for Democrats.  Conason points out that failures to achieve Democratic goals over the next couple years could threaten the party’s mid-term dominance, but the argument seems to assume that if Democratic legislators can pass the legislation that they want, voters that are currently voting Democrat will continue to do so.  But is their hold on their voters as strong as the pundits think? Continue reading

Easter and Commercialism

There’s an article up at Slate on why Easter “resists the commercialism that swallowed Christmas”. The author, James Martin, argues that Easter’s central theme and message- the death and resurrection of Jesus- are inherently less suited to commercialization. While the Christmas story lends itself to a sort of warm ‘n’ fuzzy non-denominational enthusiasm, the Easter story is rife with gory trappings, and strikes at the central themes of what it means to be a Christian.

I don’t buy Martin’s argument. I’d argue that Easter is no less commercial than Christmas, it’s just the magnitude of the attention given to them that differs. Easter isn’t less commercial, it’s just less popular. For reasons unrelated to the Christmas story, Christmas is able to draw the attention of non-Christians and marginal Christians, while Easter- again, not because of its religious content, but rather because of accidents of the calendar- does not.

First, we have to look at a central tenet of Martin’s argument: is Easter less commercially exploitable? A quick trip to the supermarket tends to dispel this notion. Pallets of jelly beans and chocolate bunnies fill most groceries and drug stores this time of year. Stuffed rabbits and ducks festoon shelves. Egg dying kits are ubiquitous, along with plastic eggs and sales of baskets and easter grass. The face of Easter that is shown to the public is, in general, not the face of crucifixion and resurrection that Martin suspects that the public might object to. Another face for Easter- the older pagan trappings of the spring fertility festival- have long-since acted as a commercially viable stand-in for images of the crucifixion. In effect, it doesn’t matter if the image of a crucified Christ is unmarketable- there are other images that can stand in, just as the image of Santa Claus or Frosty can take the religious edge off of Christmas.

So why is Easter not a commercial monsoon on par with Christmas, if there’s nothing about the holiday itself that really discourages consumerism? One argument might be that the calendar can only hold so many commercial blockbusters; fore reasons unrelated to religious content (mostly the tradition of gift-giving, which has only the most tenuous connection with the story of the nativity), Christmas established itself as the primary gift-buying season of the year. That process has fed on itself- once retailers realized that the collective wallet was opening in the November – December window, more and more commercial ventures began to be packed into the same window.

Martin argues that Easter’s position out on its own in the early spring season situates it to be a better commercial magnet than it is: the outdoor season is on its way, and there aren’t the distractions of surrounding holidays. I’d argue that the opposite is true. Part of the commercial drive of Christmas is the intensity of the surrounding holiday season, which is furthered by the winter weather. What is often regarded as a single Christmas binge is really the collected purchases of an entire social season. Large purchases of food and decor purchased for Christmas serves double-duty for New Years. Cold weather and time off from work encourages large-scale buying- you know you’ll be home, and you know that you won’t want to go out. Why not buy an entire ham and have sandwiches for a few days, in case somebody drops by?

The timing of Christmas- being fixed on December 25th- raises its profile as well. Easter always falls on a Sunday, a day when people are already off work, and which has traditionally been a time for family. Christmas creates an unusual interruption in the work schedule encourages both additional attention and travel. The position of Christmas in the middle of a busy holiday schedule for other faiths- such as Hanukkah and Ramadan- encourages employers to permit time off, without creating the impression that they are paying undue attention to any single religious group. The proximity of Christmas to New Years encourages employers to give people multiple days off, encouraging travel. Meanwhile, Easter’s position on an unpredictable Sunday in the spring lowers its profile, particularly among non-Christians, and the absence of a companion holiday or a regularly scheduled day off causes Easter to pass unnoticed for many non-Christians.

The notion that the gruesome spectacle of the crucifixion, or the theological implications of the resurrection, make commercialization impossible seems likewise implausible. What’s commercial about making offerings to the spirits of the dead? And yet Halloween is a successful commercial holidays, marked more by the sales of candy and costumes than by attention to the theological issues that ostensibly give it form. Why should the recollection of the dead of war inspire a picnic or barbecue? Experience seems to indicate that to the average person, a day off is a day off, and no origin- no matter how solemn or macabre- will get in the way of a good party, if there’s one to be had.

Coverage of the Protests in Tibet

A few more articles coming out detailing the ongoing protests in Tibet. Things seem to have turned somewhat violent in Lhasa, after monks began a non-violent protest on Tibetan Uprising Day to express their opposition to religious restrictions in Tibet. Two interesting bits from the New York Times article on the topic:

1) Claims that the violence escalated after Chinese security forces attacked protesting monks- triggering a response from other Tibetans. The violence against the monks of Burma triggered similar results.
2) The New York Times seems to be playing up the ethnic tensions aspect of the violence. Most of their quoted sources come from Chinese living in Tibet, and mention violence against Chinese in Lhasa and destruction of Chinese shops and homes. There’s much less attention given to this angle in the BBV report.

Chris Hedges: I Don’t Believe in Atheists

Good interview at Salon today with Chris Hedges, who has ended up on several occasions debating the current crop of cranky atheists. The best point of Hedges interview goes to the heart of what’s wrong with the specious arguments put forward by Christopher Hitchens and others:

If we’re afraid to privilege Enlightenment values, don’t we run the risk of sanctioning religious rituals that discriminate against women and minorities?

But I would never argue that! I mean, I think genital mutilation is disgusting. I’m not a cultural relativist. I don’t think that if you live in Somalia, it’s fine to mutilate little girls. There is nothing wrong with taking a moral stand, but when we take a moral stand and then use it to elevate ourselves to another moral plane above other human beings, then it becomes, in biblical terms, a form of self-worship. That’s what the New Atheists have, and that’s what the Christian fundamentalists have.

The atheism-only crew makes a fundamental mistake in confusing tolerance with the inability to make moral decisions. Hitchens and others seem to think that because they’re afraid that their own religious frameworks will be questioned, liberal religious thinkers are in capable of critiquing violent or extreme forms of religious expression. The position held by most moderate religious people is not that anything goes, and everyone is right; rather, it is that the ability to be a moral person is not limited to any single philosophical position or affiliation.

With Friends Like These…

John McCain is learning today the only thing more politically dangerous than being disliked by the right wing of his party is being supported by it. I happened to catch some of CNN’s coverage today of the dust-up involving Bill Cunningham’s controversial intro today. Basically, Cunningham- a Cincinnati area and syndicated talk radio host- railed on Obama today instead of introducing McCain, calling Obama a “hack” and repeatedly using his full name- Barack Hussein Obama. Nothing wrong with calling a man by his full name, but among the conservative conspiracy world, referring to Obama as “Hussein” has become a sort of code for asserting that he is a crypto-Muslim, or at least needlessly sympathetic to the Muslim world. If Bush’s use of the phrase “wonder-working power” was a signal to evangelical Christians that he was in their court, Cunningham’s invocation of “Hussein” was the same message, sent to rabid right-wing conspiracy theorists and racists of all stripe.

McCain repudiated Cunningham’s remarks- prompting a cranky response from Cunningham- in a later news conference. Unfortunately for McCain, in a general election between him and Obama, things are going to get worse before they get better. While the Republicans have been researching how far they can go without coming across as racist or sexist, the radical wing of the party has no such concerns. The dirty secret that Republicans have tried to conceal in building their “big tent” coalitions of social conservatives, religious conservatives, free market conservatives, and foreign policy hawks is that their party remains a last redoubt for racists and sexists of all stripes.

During the general election, McCain is going to have to work to constantly distance himself from “supporters” whose wild attacks on Obama will serve as a constant source of embarrassment. A constant drumbeat of ultraconservatives coming out of the woodwork to say, in effect, “I’m voting for McCain to keep a black guy/Muslim/guy with a funny name out of the Oval Office” are going to remain a liability to his campaign- particularly because McCain needs to seek the support of the more strident conservatives to shore up his support in the party.

For the next nine months, John McCain is going to have to endear himself to people like Bill Cunningham and his fans- while worrying every step of the way that a conservative pundit or official that just endorsed him or appeared with him is going to let slip a racist or xenophobic remark. Without these sorts of conservatives, McCain has no hope of mobilizing the Republican base for the general election. With them, he’s going to have to spend time and energy running damage control to keep moderates and independents from fleeing from the bigotry- overt and covert- that Obama’s candidacy draws out.

McCain may be in for a rough ride in the general election, if friends like Bill Cunningham keep lending their support.