Thursday, June 11, 2009



Two weeks ago, a Texas highway officer stopped a 72-year-old great-grandmother for driving 60 miles per hour in a 45 speed limit zone. See video at The officer asked the woman to sign a ticket promising that she would appear in court to answer the charge. She refused. The officer ordered her out of her car and violently shoved her onto the roadside. Naturally, she became upset. He raised his voice and threatened to “taze” her unless she complied with his orders. She continued to refuse. Finally, after trying to return to her car, the officer fired his tazer into her body, causing her to shriek and collapse to the ground. As she writhed in pain beneath his feet, the officer shouted: “Get down! Get down! Or you’re going to get tazed again!”

Thanks to the officer’s decisive action, the dangerous suspect surrendered. Well, she really did not have a choice because her muscles were unresponsive. The officer cuffed her and took her into custody. She was charged with speeding and resisting arrest. She suffered no physical injury. When the officer’s dashcam footage made the news, however, the Sheriff’s Office quickly rallied to his defense. A police captain said he acted “properly at all times” and that “no one suffered injury.”

Tazers have generated debate for as long as they have existed. Law enforcement hails them as a revolutionary means to subdue violent, resisting offenders. Liberals call them inhumane, degrading weapons intended to humiliate and subjugate citizens. Law enforcement stresses that tazers “do not cause permanent injury” and are thus “safer than nightsticks” or other bygone restraint methods. Liberals point to the grotesque spectacle that ensues when 50,000 volts of electricity flood through a human body, rendering it instantly limp and motionless. For the liberals, the question is not efficacy. It is dignity and humanity. For law enforcement, the question is crime control and “officer safety.”

I fall on the liberal side in this debate. Nobody likes crime, but no one can suggest that law enforcement should have a free hand in adopting any methods necessary to control it. After all, our Constitution would mean nothing if, as a society, we decided that we wanted to control crime “by any means necessary.” Our Bill of Rights proceeds on the assumption that unchecked government power represents a threat to individual liberty. Government power is most dangerous in the hands of the Executive branch, and that includes the police forces. Without constitutional guarantees securing our bodies, property and dignity, the police could freely detain, question, torture, humiliate, degrade and coerce us at will, all in the name of some nebulous “crime prevention.” We tolerate Executive power only on the understanding that we retain rights against it as individuals. Among those rights is the right to reasonable, dignified treatment by executive officers.

Tazers represent a “means” to enforce the law. For Machiavellians, “means” mean nothing as long as they effectively achieve the desired “ends.” When it comes to crime, the “ends” are compelling: Stopping criminals and enforcing the law. But what means are permissible to effectuate these goals? Machiavelli would have praised Hitler for his commitment to crime control. His police forces knew no boundaries in their efforts to suppress crime. They were highly successful because they had every “means” at their disposal to investigate and prosecute “offenders.” But this example exposes the deep moral flaws in Machiavellian thinking. Means do matter, at least in a constitutional democracy with claimed commitments to lasting principles such as dignity, equality and justice. In America, we have always defined ourselves against tyrants with unrestrained power over citizens. Tyrants employ every means necessary to maintain dominance and control over their subjects. In this sense, Americans have always been deeply suspicious of Machiavellian thinking in government because tyrants read Machiavelli. In our constitutional order, means matter as much—if not more—than the ends.

Tazers bring these age-old issues into focus. Many States now authorize the police to use tazers in order to suppress dangerous or resistant crime suspects. Proponents cite medical evidence that the tazer’s electric charge—while substantial and fearsome to behold—only temporarily shuts down muscle function, leaving the subject uninjured. The subject experiences massive pain for an instant, then it vanishes. Many States embrace tazers because they do not cause “permanent injury.” Many States even reference reports that “old” restraint methods are actually more dangerous because they can potentially cause “permanent injury.” For these States, tazers offer a way to completely subdue suspects without causing injury or placing officers in harm’s way. These States focus on the objective benefits that flow from tazers. They focus on the “ends” that tazers achieve. On paper, it looks good. Tazers are “legal.” They are “modern.” They are “effective.”

But what about reality? Tazers do more than merely “subdue suspects.” They represent a massive, overwhelming intrusion of governmental power onto the body of the individual citizen. Consider the power dynamic in a typical citizen-police confrontation involving a tazer. In most cases, the citizen is unarmed and upset about being accused of a crime. The officer, by contrast, has a gun, wears an official uniform and threatens to employ a futuristic-looking electrical device to render the suspect totally powerless in an instant. Even if the suspect has not committed a serious infraction, the officer holds all the authority. Furthermore, he has the raw, technological means to enforce his will over the suspect. When he says: “Step back,” he has the power to enforce compliance and punish defiance by sending a 50,000-volt shock through anyone petulant enough to question him. Thus, the officer has all the cards. If the suspect does or says something he does not like, he can employ his technological advantage to utterly break the suspect’s physical and emotional capacity to defy him. All the tazer videos show this dynamic at work. The officer seems to relish his ability to reduce his antagonist to utter subjection. Even when the suspect goes down and begins wailing like an injured pig, he continues shouting and even threatens to “taze him again” unless he complies with his every command.

Is this rational law enforcement? Or mere power play?

Tazers are frightening devices. They do more than merely “allow” police to “control” unruly crime suspects. They arm executive officers with a devastating weapon that breaks individual citizens’ will and reduces them to compliant, screaming children. In my view, this is too much. I do not like government action that impinges deeply upon the dignity of the individual, whether or not they are crime suspects. When a police officer shoots an unarmed suspect with a tazer solely to punish him for willfulness or resistance to orders, I see tyranny, not legitimate “crime control.” No matter what benefits the State claims from tazer use, I cannot bear the spectacle of citizens reduced in an instant to a shrieking quarry. It bothers me to know that government can do this to its own citizens in a constitutional democracy. “But it does not injure them,” say the tazer defenders. Perhaps not. But tazers certainly inflict pain, indignity and humiliation on them for daring to question a police officer’s authority, even if it is misplaced. In my eyes, that is too much power for an executive officer to possess. It is not about crime control. It is about governmental conduct. And dignity matters to me.

Sadly, most people disagree with me. They wonder why I have sympathy for crime suspects. They also wonder why I care about some worthless criminal’s dignity. Even the Supreme Court disagrees with me. In case after case, they reject constitutional challenges alleging “arbitrary” police conduct. The Court says that you have a “liberty interest” to be free of “arbitrary police action” that “shocks the conscience” because such action “offends the decencies of civilized conduct.” See, e.g., Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833 (1998). But the Court whittles away that hopeful language by requiring challengers to show that the police “intended to cause harm unrelated to the legitimate object of arrest.” In tazer cases, the police will never admit that they intended to cause you harm; in fact, they will simply say they did not cause you “harm” at all, because tazers “do not cause permanent injury.” Your writhing agony after being hit by 50,000 volts does not qualify as “harm,” because it was not “permanent.” This is the mischief to which hypertechnical legal argument can lead.

For me, dignity means more than the legal abstractions our Supreme Court is willing to define in law. I defend everyone’s dignity against governmental intrusion because I believe in the principles that animate our constitutional order. In my view, that order reflects the primacy of the individual against government action. And in police-citizen confrontations, government action grossly overpowers individual autonomy. In unfair fights, I favor the underdog. I think anyone who believes in the individual over the government should think the same thing. In my eyes, zapping people with tazers because they refuse to comply with intimidating police orders is wrong and unfair, whether it is “legal” or not. Tazers allow government to physically and emotionally break individual citizens into abject submission with a single trigger pull. I do not like that idea.

There are so many things in our society that are “legal but wrong.” I place tazers in that category. What do I mean by this? To understand what I mean, I return to the tension between “ends” and “means.” Legislatures—and the citizens who elect them—can choose to make certain things “legal.” In so doing, they democratically enshrine certain value judgments concerning what “ends” must be achieved. Many State legislatures have decided that tazers admirably advance the governmental interest in “crime control.” They made tazers “legal” without really reflecting on the “means” they chose to accomplish their purpose. Yet there is a different source for “right” and “wrong;” it does not flow from the legislature, or even the Constitution. Legislatures make things legal or illegal; they do not make things “right” or “wrong.” In many cases, legislatures make things legal that are also good. But they also make things legal that are wrong. Tazing people is wrong but legal. It is wrong for government officers to zap citizens into utter submission, whether or not they suffer “permanent injury.” It is wrong to inflict scorching pain on citizens, even if it is “temporary.” It is wrong to inflict pain on citizens merely for being willful or for questioning the basis of governmental action. It is wrong for government officers to use tazers to childishly assert dominance over citizens. No matter what legitimate goals tazers serve, I think they are the wrong means to achieve them.

I am fully aware that law enforcement proponents will heatedly disagree with my views on this subject. They are welcome to disagree with me. I understand that some people value crime control more than others, and that some people believe that criminal suspects do not deserve dignity or respect from government. I know there are people who do not really care whether government violates a person’s dignity as long as that person is “a criminal” or somehow “blameworthy.” I believe the contrary. In my view, dignity and respect are absolute governmental obligations in our constitutional order. They are principles that go beyond mere expediency. They apply whether the subject is a murderer or a saint. And they should prevent government from adopting certain methods to effectuate otherwise legitimate goals.

My response to the law enforcement apologists is this: Once we allow increased government intrusion onto the bodies of individual citizens, what’s next? We allow tazers. They allow officers to inflict pain and degradation on people who have not been convicted of any crime. Why? “Because we want to control crime,” they say. Yet that is a broad mandate. What fearsome methods might we also permit to effectuate that goal, as long as we move “incrementally?” What about a tazer that stops the heart “temporarily?” What about a tazer that causes “temporary memory loss?” These are significant deprivations, no matter whether they are “permanent” or “temporary.” A suspect could claim: “Government stopped my heart,” and no one would care. That is profoundly troubling.

If we do not take a stand for individual dignity at some point, there is no logical end to potential governmental intrusion upon us. If we do not make dignity a meaningful principle, we all degenerate into lawyers arguing about whether something is “legal,” even when we know it’s wrong.

1 comment:

SteveW said...

I, for one, as a future potential suspect, fully support tazers. I would rather get tazed when the situation is in doubt than take a PR-24 to the head or take a "dignified" bullet. Are tazers misused? Absolutely. Better to find that out with an officer misusing a tazer, who can then be fired, than with an officer misusing more injurious or lethal weapons.

I don't know in the present case whether the tazer was misused, but considering that he subdued an uncooperative 72-year old without breaking any bones I'm guessing that the technology certainly worked here. She could be sitting in the ICU with a dignified broken hip instead.