Point Austin: Tased and Confused

When the APD falls in love with Tasers, it's the Eastside that gets shocked

Nelson Linder
Nelson Linder (Photo By John Anderson)

Let's see if I've got this right: This year we can credit at least one death in an Austin police incident to lack of a Taser, and one death to the presence of a Taser?

According to the official version of the June 9 Daniel Rocha shooting, Officer Julie Schroeder believed, mistakenly, that Rocha had grabbed her Taser stun-gun and was about to use it on another officer, so she pulled her gun and shot Rocha to death. And last week, despite the eventual presence of nine officers, Michael Clark could not be subdued without three full 50,000-volt shocks from a Taser, was then apparently left on the ground for some time in greater than 105-degree heat, and shortly thereafter succumbed to "medical distress" and died later at South Austin Hospital.

Schroeder has since been legally exonerated pending further internal investigation, although for lack of APD-required video cameras, we will never know for certain what happened to Daniel Rocha. In the death of Michael Clark, it would seem to be too soon to draw any firm conclusions – especially since the persistently bumbling medical examiner's office has withheld a determination of cause of death pending completion of toxicology reports, perhaps weeks away. (See "Death Puts Tasers in Spotlight.")

However, that delay didn't prevent the APD from quickly returning to duty the two officers most directly involved in Clark's death, although the department has yet to release the police video it claims confirms that the officers acted in accordance with appropriate use-of-force policy. The brass did have time, however, to convene an instant Happy Taser demonstration for local media, during which TV personnel amused themselves by volunteering to be personally Tasered – fully prepared for the shock, for two seconds, while helpful police stood by to catch them when they fell, stunned and immobilized. "Ouch!" declared one photog cheerfully afterward, in closeup. (See "Taser TV's Electrified Guinea Pigs")

Michael Clark, by contrast, was Tased during a highly combative struggle during which two police officers were also hurt, Tased three separate times for five full seconds – and only then was Clark subdued sufficiently, police say, to take into custody. Yet not one of these cooperative TV Tase dummies asked police the simple question, "Couldn't nine of you get Clark under sufficient control after he was shocked – the first or even second time – to get the cuffs on him?"

And if not – what the hell good are the Tasers?

Let's All Get Tased

I do not for one moment underestimate the difficulty and danger, either to the police or to suspects, of getting a combative, angry, and strong man under arrest who is determined to resist. The categorical protesters who insist it is a simple matter for responding officers to use verbal persuasion or "hand controls" to subdue a resisting suspect have either never endured a physical fight of any kind or even seen any fights other than the choreographed charades on TV melodramas. It'll be some time before we are even allowed to know enough about the physical details of the Clark incident to make some judgments about how the actual arrest took place – and in the meantime, thanks to secretive police policies and the extravagant speculation of irresponsible media, all kinds of rumors will multiply and reverberate.

But we have learned a few additional things about the APD's use of force, and it's a very mixed bag. In the first place, the department and the city should not continue to insist that there is no evidence that Tasers are anything but a harmless alternative to deadly force. Earlier this year, the annual APD use-of-force report did reflect a dramatic decline in injuries both to suspects and to officers since the introduction of the Tasers – a decline in serious injuries to suspects of more than 80% in one year, and to officers of 50% (the total number of injuries in relation to arrests has never been very high). That is undeniably an improvement.

But it is also true that there have now been two deaths – Michael Clark's last week, and that of Abel Perez last year – which have occurred in close proximity to multiple uses of a Taser on a combative (and possibly intoxicated) suspect. Both suspects were unarmed at the time, and there is no reason to believe that the Taser was used as an alternative to literally deadly force (that is, shooting). Rather, it seems that the Tasers may have been too readily relied upon as an instant mechanical solution to a situation that might better have been resolved with some patience and ingenuity, or at least some attempt to determine whether the suspect might not be a good candidate for electroshock.

That's what makes particularly outrageous the instant APD/TV Taser demos on prepared news personnel, not under stress, and without apparent health issues. Even Taser International now admits the weapons may be dangerous in particular circumstances, and at least one medical examiner (in Chicago) has attributed a cause of death to the use of a Taser and recommended against their use on intoxicated subjects. Whatever the outcome of the Clark investigation, the APD and the city need to monitor and review much more closely the use of this latest combat toy and to abandon the medical whitewash delivered to the City Council last spring by EMS Medical Director Ed Racht, who dismissed all national reports of Taser-related deaths as based on insufficient evidence. APD arrests are not science experiments, and Austin citizens are not guinea pigs.

Which leaves one more major issue to be explored in the coming weeks. Why is it, asked Austin NAACP President Nelson Linder this week, that the Eastside has become a free-fire zone for APD's Tasers? Why is it that the injuries and the deaths occur disproportionately to minority suspects? And more pointedly, which public officials are going to care enough to find the answers to these questions? end story

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TasersAustin Police Department, Austin Police Department, Taser, Nelson Linder, Daniel Rocha, Michael Clark, Abel Perez, Ed Racht, NAACP

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