I was going to write a response to Popehat’s post from last night that the verdict in the Johannes Mehserle trial was the correct one, but I noticed that Scott Greenfield beat me to it this morning. I get the point that Popehat is trying to make – that if you argue in favor of context and understanding the circumstances behind an action in every other case, you should do the same thing when it’s a police officer who’s accused of the crime. On the other hand, there’s little doubt that if the person accused of shooting a prone, handcuffed man in the back hadn’t been a police officer, no amount of, “Whoops, he thought his gun was a taser*” would have been sufficient to get his conviction reduced to involuntary manslaughter.
Nonetheless, his defense attorney made an argument that I can imagine hearing from any of the attorneys who work in our firm, if they had been representing Mehserle. Greenfield’s point includes the fact that there’s an implicit bias – in every other case, the jury is going to go in assuming guilt and skepticism, whereas in this case, the jury is more likely looking for a reason to acquit. (As well as the point that a police officer is going to be pretty friggin’ certain at all times exactly where his gun is.)
I agree with Greenfield on both points, but there’s a third one that, in lieu of this verdict, we ought to consider: If it’s so easy for an officer to confuse his gun with a taser that a jury can accept at face value that it was involuntary, shouldn’t that be something we take into account when considering the safety of a taser as a weapon?
GQ this month ran a pretty great profile on the founders of Taser, and they fervently swear by its safety, naturally. They deny the dangers it may pose to people with heart conditions or other health risks, insisting that there’s no evidence. Police departments back them up, insisting that it’s a coincidence when people are tasered and then die – “excited delirium“, it’s called – and so far, it’s held up in court. Excited delirium is real, tasers don’t pose health risks, and we’re all safer because it means that the police can neutralize a threat from a distance without using their gun.
Except, of course, when their gun feels just like a taser in their hands, and so they can’t tell the difference between squeezing the trigger on a firearm pointed at a man in handcuffs lying on his stomach. In that case, the very fact that the officer has a taser makes it more likely that a person could be killed for no reason. Well, how can you even tell the difference?
Snark aside, this does highlight one of the real dangers of the taser – by implying to officers that they have a safe, non-lethal way to shut someone down entirely from a distance, they inspire them to be less careful when making choices. Even if you believe that that’s exactly what happened when Mehserle shot and killed Oscar Grant while he was handcuffed and prone – that he assumed it was safe because he thought he had the taser in his hand, and not the gun – you have to question whether equipping our police officers with these weapons doesn’t make them more dangerous.
* Note: I stopped capitalizing it when I learned that it’s actually an anagram for “Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle”, because that is ridiculous.