COLUMN: Effort to ban Tasers not likely to pass

Thursday, November 12, 2009 | 3:44 p.m. CST; updated 11:17 p.m. CST, Wednesday, February 9, 2011

It’s always painful to have to disagree with people you admire. So I wasn’t my usual carefree self Wednesday night as I walked out of Hickman High School. For nearly two hours, I — along with a couple of hundred students and a handful of grown-ups — had listened to an argument about Tasers.

Yes, I know. I can almost hear you asking: Why bring that up again? Haven’t we settled that dispute, since the Columbia Police Department finally released most of its records on Taser use and agreed to abide by the national guidelines? Actually, we haven’t.

The coalition of community groups — including the NAACP, the ACLU and Grass Roots Organizing — that pushed long and successfully for those records and those guidelines has now launched what it’s calling the “Taser-free Columbia Campaign.”

It’s been in the papers, on television and then at Hickman, as part of the school’s praiseworthy “Speak Your Mind” forum series. That series, greatly to the credit of organizer George Frissell, has been running for 20 years.

I went to the forum not sure where I stood. On the one hand, the Taser is a weapon the cops swear by. As Deputy Chief Tom Dresner explained Wednesday, it disables belligerent suspects without doing lasting harm, and it prevents the use of greater force. Columbia police are trained intensively in its use, and that use is closely monitored.

On the other hand, more than 400 people worldwide have died after being shocked by a Taser, including one man in Moberly. Sometimes, including at least a couple of incidents here, police use the weapon in circumstances that don’t justify it, under their own rules. And I like and respect the leaders of the anti-Taser movement, especially Ed Berg and Mary Hussmann.

I went home thinking that the pro-Taser speakers had won this argument and that the movement to ban the weapon is doomed to failure. It’s doomed partly on the merits and partly because the coalition itself is, as Ed Berg told me after the forum, divided over whether to continue pushing for tighter controls or to seek elimination.

The case for the Taser was made by Chief Dresner and Michael Lyman, a former DEA agent and police trainer who now teaches in the criminal justice program at Columbia College. The argument I found most persuasive was that in trained hands this weapon is less likely to do permanent damage to either party in a confrontation than the alternatives, which include pepper spray, the baton and hand-to-hand combat.

Ed Berg and Mary Ratliff, state president of the NAACP, argued the other side. It seemed to me that their most compelling objections really were directed at abuses rather than at the weapon itself. Afterward, I asked Ed whether he just didn’t trust the police to do the training and monitoring they promise. That’s when he revealed that the coalition is split, with him on the side of controlling use and Mary Hussmann on the side of banning.

To me, at least, the issue comes down to this: If not the Taser, then what? I don’t intend to tangle with a police officer, but if I did I’m pretty sure I’d rather be shocked than clubbed.

And on another painful subject, I have to offer a correction. I erred last week in attempting to explain the makeup of the commission that screens judicial candidates in our nonpartisan court plan. Bob Watson, who covers the courts for the Jefferson City News Tribune, set me straight. In fact, three lawyers on the commission are elected by the state bar association, three nonlawyers are appointed by the governor and the chair is a judge of the state Supreme Court. I’m grateful for the corrective and sorry it was needed.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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