Public debate is a wonderful method of bringing attention to social, law enforcement, economic and like issues affecting the community. We are indeed fortunate to reside in a country where free speech and assembly are not only guaranteed but also encouraged. Everyone who so desires can make themselves heard.
Locally, we have seen this activity bear fruit in the appointment of a committee to examine the need for a civilian police review board in response to citizens’ complaints. When all was said and done, the review board has become a reality — not all agree on whether it is necessary or even beneficial; nevertheless, we shall all accept it and move on.
A recent controversy has developed over the purchase of 40 additional Tasers by the Columbia Police Department, which would enable each patrol officer to be armed with one. Taser is an acronym for “Thomas A. Smith Electronic Rifle,” a nonlethal defense weapon employed by thousands of law enforcement agencies.
Weighing in against its purchase and use locally are Grass Roots Organizing, the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, Peace Haven International and the Fellowship of Reconciliation — all of which cite various statistics aimed at alarming the public as to the potential disaster quotient.
The figures cited by these agencies appear to have been cherry-picked for effect with little effort at verification. For example, the ACLU alleges 148 deaths by the weapon in the hands of police officers in the U.S. and Canada since 1999, while Amnesty International claims to have documented 300 U.S. deaths alone since 2001. Makes one wonder who is keeping score, doesn’t it?
Those opposed cite likely officer abuse by employing the weapon for minor offenses such as disobedience of orders, disrespectful behavior or against activists engaged in peaceful protest. One of the most vocal in dissent, Ed Berg of GRO, claims the use of Tasers “creates fear, conflict, anger, resentment and hatred of the police, while destroying trust, respect and community cooperation.” That may well be an opinion held by some; however, to most it is an unwarranted attack upon the professional conduct and training of the law enforcement community.
Let us take a stroll through reality. There are few professions inherently more hazardous than that of a police officer. While it is tragic indeed that any deaths may have been Taser-induced (the jury has yet to report out), from 1900 through 1999, 6,846 U.S. police officers were shot and killed and an additional 331 were either stabbed or beaten to death, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Conversely, police departments using Tasers have reported officer injuries reduced by percentages ranging from 23 to 93 percent.
Additionally, it is a defensive weapon that cannot penetrate doors or walls and cannot maim or kill innocent bystanders with stray or ricochet bullets. Designed as a less lethal weapon, it disables by a neuromuscular disruption through involuntary stimulation of sensory and motor nerves by firing two small, dart-like electrodes connected to the main unit with connective wire. The maximum effective range of the weapon is a shade over 10 meters (32.80 feet).
While public opinion is useful in the shaping of policies and programs, there are issues best left to the discretion of professionals who have not only the training but also the responsibility for law enforcement and public safety. Our police are thoroughly schooled in the rules for application of deadly force and carry firearms for that purpose. Why then should we balk at arming them with less lethal weapons? The Taser launched electrodes are far less lethal than a .40 caliber projectile.
Few among us are so naive to believe that every police officer will make the correct decision 100 percent of the time, inasmuch as they are human as are we. Nevertheless, I am more inclined to trust their judgment over that of various activists or organizations which tend to espouse opinions or “facts” with little supporting experience or expertise. The last time I looked, policemen are the good guys — a la Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Tommy”: “While it’s Tommy this and Tommy that and ‘Tommy, fall behind,’ but it’s “‘please to walk in front, sir,’ when there’s trouble in the wind.”
Finally, to those who fear officer abuse, I have a rule of thumb that has served me well in dealing with authority: When I receive direction from a police officer, I comply forthwith and politely.
Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.