Don't Tase Me or St. Paul, Bro

It's time to rename Kellogg Boulevard "Electric Avenue." The St. Paul police want to buy an additional 230 Tasers to outfit every member of the 370-strong force with a portable Mr. Zappy.

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The St. Paul City Council is likely to approve the $210,000 funding request on Wednesday, but they should not. There are three reasons why.

REASON NO. 1: Tasers are more dangerous than people think, and we're learning more about how dangerous all the time. New health studies cast doubt on the manufacturer's safety claims, and suggest that running 50,000 volts of electricity through a body can cause long-lasting cardiac effects.

What an, ahem, shock.

More than 150 people have died in the U.S. after being shocked by police, and as it turns out, many studies that say Tasers are safe are commissioned by the manufacturer -- hardly an unbiased party. Yeah, you'd rather have someone get tased than shot, but is that really the only choice?

REASON NO. 2: Once police forces have the Tasers, they suffer from "mission creep," and use of the devices snowballs. The 2004 Amnesty International report [PDF] Excessive and Lethal Force? Deaths and Ill-treatment Involving Police Use of TASER found that “…far from being used to avoid lethal force, many US police agencies are deploying Tasers as a routine force option to subdue non-compliant or disturbed individuals who do not pose a serious danger to themselves or others.”

In one Colorado county, a 2004 study found that one-third of the 112 people tased were handcuffed at the time the juice went through 'em. A taser might be a dangerous piece of equipment, but it feels like a toy, and people treat it as such -- when you have one, you want to use it.

First, it's a rioter throwing a rock. Then, it's a skateboarder who is pissing you off.

REASON NO. 3: They say it's not about the Republican National Convention. But we all know it's about the Republican National Convention. I'm not even going to take the obvious tack and point out that it's a risk to civil liberties when you can just tase every annoying street theater performer (tempting as that may seem). It is a risk to civil liberties, but there's another angle I want to talk about.

Speaking as someone who reported on the WTO riots in Seattle, the last time you want police officers to be trying out new equipment is during a massive demonstration -- there's so much potential for miscalculation and escalation. You run the risk of not having officers fully trained, not knowing how to use the devices properly or in what context to use them, and, worst of all, the very real potential for overuse.

Nonlethal weapon use by American police is a complex issue, and one that I see both sides of. Whatever side you come down on, though, now is the worst possible time to implement a policy like this.


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