This is a pretty terrible story out of Tulsa. The incident occurred a couple of weeks ago when police were chasing an unarmed suspect on foot. The suspect in question had been caught and corralled by the police and was on the ground when he was shot. The official story by the Tulsa PD is that the officer in question meant to reach for his taser and instead pulled his firearm. On Friday, the Tulsa PD released video that appears to be from one of the officer’s body cams:
A few details take this story from the tragic to the infuriating. The first is that anyone who has held in their hand both a firearm and a taser will have some skepticism about the claim that you could mistake the fact that you’re holding one for the other.However, in this video, you can hear someone saying “Taser, taser” before the sound of the gun shot and then immediately afterwards “I’m sorry, I shot him!” So, this lends credence to the official story here. As implausible as the explanation was when I first heard it, it sure sounds on tape like it’s actually what happened.
So you have to ask yourself, what sort of grossly incompetent cop could have possibly meant to fire a taser and instead actually fired a gun, particularly at a suspect who was at the time already on the ground and under an officer? Oh hey look, it turns out that the officer in question was actually a 73-year-old insurance executive who bought his way into being allowed to play cop, complete with badge, taser, and gun:
The volunteer cop in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who killed an unarmed black man was forking over thousands in donations and equipment after becoming an unpaid sheriff’s deputy.
Robert Bates, a 73-year-old insurance executive-turned-deputy, accidentally fired his gun instead of a Taser—costing Eric Harris, 44, his life and adding to the tally of deadly police shootings against minorities nationwide.
I think that the errors in judgment that led the Tulsa PD to have this guy involved in this scenario are probably going to be played out in the context of a fairly hefty lawsuit settlement.
But more to the point, it illustrates something I have been saying for a while: lack of adequate hand-to-hand combat training by police has led them to become too reliant on tasers, and too quick to utilize them in scenarios where their use is neither justified nor necessary. Department of Justice research has shown that, while tasers can be an effective tool to preserve the health and safety of law enforcement officers, their use is
“rapidly overtaking other force alternatives” among police departments and in some cases are being used at a rate that exceeds that of officers using “soft empty hand tactics,” or simple pushing or grappling with resistant suspects.
In particular, surveys of police department policies show that little or no direction is being given to officers regarding when and where to use a taser, or when their use might be dangerous, leading to the perception that use of a taser is harmless:
- According to surveys of police departments, rules regarding Taser use vary widely. Six of every ten departments allow “for CED use against a subject who tenses and pulls when the officer tries to handcuff him or her.” In addition, only 31% ban CED use against clearly pregnant women, 25.9% against drivers of moving vehicles, 23.3% against handcuffed suspects, 23.2% against people in elevated areas and 10% against the elderly.
What we see on the video is a perfect illustration of exactly that principle. We can see that there are 6 or 7 cops around a suspect who is on the ground and being subdued by two officers whose arm muscles are bigger than my legs. There are 3 or 4 more who are visible at various points in the video indicating that they are all standing around. Under these circumstances, there is absolutely no reason to have pulled the taser and used it in the first place – not only to have subdued the suspect but also because in such a scenario the taser would have been equally likely to strike the officer who had the suspect on the ground.
Many of the stories lately have focused on the racial aspects of a lot of these questionable officer-involved shootings, and I think that’s fair and I think in many cases it does play a role. However, this particular shooting illustrates what I think is an equally serious (if not more serious) problem, which is lack of adequate intermediate force training on the part of police departments, which is one of the major reasons that force gets unjustifiably escalated.