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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