At a press conference held in Columbia on Oct. 30, the Taser-free Columbia campaign was announced. This public education project marks a significant redirection of the work first begun by the Coalition to Control Tasers, founded in Columbia in 2008. This redirection now aims to make Columbia completely Taser-free by presenting the voting public the issue of eliminating the use of these weapons by the Police Department and the public.
We could not have foreseen this critical need to work toward eliminating Tasers either when the Coalition was originally formed, or even as recently as May 2009, when the national Police Executive Research Forum standards were implemented to guide, control and assert protocols of use and accountability to inform and protect the public.
The word Taser, a brand name and registered trademark, is generally agreed to be an acronym for Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle, created by the inventor of this weapon, Jack Cover. Tom Swift is the hero of an early 20th century series of children’s novels.
But it has become evident to us that making Columbia Taser-free is now absolutely necessary to public safety.
Compelling reasons have brought us to this position. We are responding to a call on our consciences that does not allow us to remain silent. We must speak.
Here are the reasons:
First, even after instituting PERF standards, Tasers continue to be used in ambiguous, uncertain and seemingly mistaken ways that appear not to conform consistently to standards of “imminent danger” and appropriate use.
There is the well-known Aug. 1 incident involving Alan Giles, who had no weapon and posed no apparent threat, shot twice with a Taser in the alley behind Cafe Berlin. In addition, the May 16 incident of Tasering a man threatening self-harm that appears to have involved failure to follow Taser-use guidelines and the force continuum.
Second, in this climate of uncertain and ambiguous use of Tasers, accountability and transparency, which are always essential, become emphatically vital. Citizens and citizen groups making Sunshine Law requests have encountered chronic difficulties in obtaining police documents for examination, a problem that also characterized the period before PERF. (See Attorney Ed Berg’s substantive commentary, “Taser use info hard to access: Police, Council skirt Sunshine Law rules,” and the op-ed by the Coalition to Control Tasers, “Police should follow Sunshine Act, provide Taser records.”)
Third, many people see and feel a widening gap of uncertainty and fear between themselves and the police — a gap that lessens cooperation, intercepts good communication, erodes trust and damages the model of service to the public that is essential for a city police force to always support and maintain.
This climate of uncertainty and mistrust leads to an instability that can, in turn, deteriorate into irreparable harm, as in the death of young Stanley Harlan, killed by a Taser in Moberly in August 2008. This tragic death in our region, an addition to the ever-growing number of deaths nationwide (approximately one each week), Taser International’s recent warning about the dangers of shooting into the chest and recent decisions against Tasers in Memphis, Mich., and Tarrant County, Texas map the mounting evidence of a worsening situation.
Let it not require the death of a Columbia citizen to move us to eliminate all Tasers in our city. Police Chief Kenneth Burton was quoted in January as saying that citizens should make the ultimate decision about whether their Police Department uses Tasers.
We invoke his accurate and admirable statement as our call to announce the Taser-free Columbia public education campaign to inform ourselves fully and accurately about these weapons in preparation for a ballot issue in November 2010.
Catherine Parke, mother of three, long-time citizen of Columbia and MU professor emerita of English and women's studies, has an art studio with community education focus, OurArt, at Orr St. Studios, and is currently teaching English at Moberly Area Community College.