Tasers the most lethal of “non-lethal” alternatives

SAN FRANCISCO–In the wake of public outcry over the latest police shooting of an unarmed African American, San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr has revived his previous call to equip his offers with electronic stun-guns, also called electronic control weapons (ECWs). With similar cases in Chicago, New York and Miami, New America Media’s Paul Kleyman interviewed Aram James, a leading opponent of ECWs about their risks. James, a former public defender in Santa Clara County, south of San Francisco, spent over 25 years in the public defender system. Now in private law practice, he is a consultant and advocate opposing the use of Tasers. Following are excerpts from the interview.

Question: You’ve been critical of arguments that ECWs are a nonlethal or less lethal alternative to guns. What are the myths you’ve raised regarding Tasers?

Aram James: That Tasers save lives is the first myth. That’s a lie. That Tasers can be used as a substitute for deadly force–that’s not true, that’s not accurate. A 2011 Department of Justice (DOJ) report found that over 200 Americans have died after being shocked by Tasers and the advocacy group Truth Not Tasers has documented over 900 deaths from them since 2004.

They are the most likely of the intermediate-force weapons, which Tasers were designed as, to kill. Other intermediate-force weapons would be a pepper spray, batons, take-downs, verbal commands, canines, etcetera.

Q: That same DOJ report says several police departments have seen reduced injuries by using ECWs as a “less lethal” weapon. What’s your response?

James: The issue is appropriate use. People have said, “Well, Mr. James, wouldn’t you rather be shot by a Taser than a gun?” And I say, of course, but that’s a red herring. If you have a knife or gun I’m not going to use a Taser to stop you. At that point a police officer needs to have a gun. Alternatively, it’s the most lethal intermediate weapon to use with people who are unarmed. A recent study by the Stanford Criminal Defense Clinic makes it very clear that research on Tasers undercuts arguments for adopting them.

If you talk to law enforcement offices who know Tasers, you don’t take a Taser to a gunfight. Tasers are effective about 70 percent of the time in dart mode, and 60 percent of the time directly applied to the body. So, if I have a knife or a gun in a range close enough to use it against a police officer, you absolutely do not use a Taser. The training is shoot center mass to kill.

Q: So, who are police using ECWs on?

James: A 2014 study from the Nebraska ACLU said that three-quarters of Taser blasts they included were used on vulnerable populations. Over and over again studies have shown that disproportionately Tasers are used on young African Americans, Hispanics, the mentally ill, elders and other groups at high risk for injury. Documented cases there included a nine-year-old boy and a 63-year-old man who was confused.

In 2005, the Houston Chronicle reported that local police officers used Tasers on minorities 87 percent of the time. The paper followed up two years later with an analysis of over 1,000 incidents showing almost all were unarmed. And Houston police used Tasers over 120 times on people with mental illness.

Studies also show that many of the most serious injuries or deaths have occurred when officers inappropriately tased someone repeatedly or with a continuous charge.

Q: How did you get involved with this issue?

James: I first got involved in 2003, with the Coalition for Justice and Accountability in San Jose. It came into existence shortly after the murder of a mentally-ill San Jose citizen, Cau Bich Tran. Police shot her in her kitchen seconds after they entered and saw her holding what turned out to be a vegetable peeler.

Members of the coalition, including me, initially supported the use of Tasers, believing they’d save lives, having bought the propaganda and the deceptive ad campaign put out by the major manufacturer, Taser International. But we learned that’s simply not true. The company has also lost lawsuits stemming from injuries or deaths when police used Tasers, also believing their claims.

Q: How are Tasers used in police training?

James: Exposure to Taser blasts used to be a mandatory part of ECW training. But the [nonprofit] Police Executive Research Forum came out with a model policy a few years ago saying there’s too much injury to use Tasers in training situations with officers. And the U.S. military has done the same. Their “Electronic Control Weapon Guideline” states, “Agencies should be aware that exposure to ECW application during training could result in injury to personnel and is not recommended.”

So my question is, if law enforcement knows ECWs are too risky to use even in very controlled training circumstance, why the heck would they want to use it on unarmed citizens in uncontrolled street situations? The question I would put to [Police Chief ] Greg Suhr is, are you willing to use these on your own officers in controlled settings to show that they’re safe? If he’s telling the truth, he’s going to say, “No, we’re not going to do that.”

Bottom line: They’re not safe to use on unarmed people and they’re not safe for police to use against armed suspects.

Q: What are appropriate uses of ECWs?

James: None in my view. The alternative, more community police is the key. When police officers are walking the beat and know people in their communities, and their vulnerabilities they’re much less likely to use force in those circumstance.

Community policing, crisis intervention training–a lot of departments have a small percentage of their officers who have been properly trained in crisis interventions. Getting police out of their cars into the communities, walking the beat, riding their bicycles, walking the neighborhood, there’s plenty there to look at in terms of how we can do community policing in a much more effective and constitutional fashion.

New America Media, News Analysis, Paul Kleyman, Posted: Dec 11, 2015

Local retired public defender critical of Menlo Park police shooting, criticized

….Regarding the three Menlo Park police officers involved in the shooting and killing of an alleged burglary suspect on November 11. Here are a few questions that need answering before we hear from San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe’s stock conclusion that “the officers acted entirely reasonably in gunning down the suspect.” Case closed.

  • Why was the suspects dead body apparently allowed to be dragged around the crime scene, potentially irreparably
    compromising the evidence?
  • Why is Wagstaffe prematurely running interference for these three officers by predicting, even before his crime lab has completed its testing, that the three body worn cameras, attached to each of the officers, will contain no video evidence of this is incident?
  • Why were potential citizen witnesses apparently told not to speak to or cooperate with the press?
  • Did the gun the police claim was found near the suspects body belong to the suspect, or was it placed there by the police?

Please keep digging for the truth in this matter. We need credible answers, not the police and prosecutorial obfuscation. Thus far the answers we are hearing from the police and the district attorney don’t pass the smell test.

Readers response criticizes attorney

….. I also applaud the Daily Post for its continued coverage of the officer involved shooting in Menlo Park,  but I am appalled by James insinuation of police corruption. Body cams worn by police officers are a very new technology that is still undergoing development, both in regard to technology and the standards of usage.

I recently spoke with an acquaintance in law enforcement about a pursuit involving a half dozen officers that all had body cams, but not one of them remembered to turn theirs on.

It is simply not a priority to fumble around trying to activate an electronic device while lives are potentially in danger.As their usage becomes more commonplace, perhaps there will be a better solution to activate them when appropriate.

As for the reason the body was moved, this was covered already in previous reports. The body of the suspect was on top of the gun and the logical thing to do is move the suspect away from the gun when the gun that cannot be moved away from the suspect.

This action could have saved the lives of both the officers and the young boy that witnessed the shooting.

What upsets me the most is that you would accuse a police officer in this era of carrying a “throw-down gun” to plant on an unarmed suspect.

This is the folly of television, movies and crime novels. I find the mere implication that this could be the case to be absolutely despicable and disgusting.

You are no different than those fueling the rioting and violence in Ferguson, Mo., through hyperbole and rhetoric.  I am all for watching the watchers, but let the system do its work and allow all the facts to be gathered before making such a libelous statements.

Editors note:  Mr. James and Mr. David have both presented excellent arguments. We hope the discussions on this important subject continue……

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Outrageous verdict in the Zimmerman case

Trayvon Martin bildeIn light of the outrageous verdict in the Zimmerman case this evening, I have drafted a post script to my original article titled: Open letter to the family of Trayvon Martin and prosecutor Angela Cory.

Over the last several weeks I have had a chance to see many hours of this trial on television and have paid close attention to many of the instant, self-described, legal scholars/commentators on both sides of the issues raised by this trial.

Spoken and unspoken throughout the trial, and the proceedings leading up to the trial, including the media coverage was a palpable racial tension from the start, going back to 2012 when the Sanford Florida police refused to arrest George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. And then we found, once the long delayed trial began-that the jury that was selected was made up all most exclusively of white folks.

One thing that hit me viscerally as the disbelief of the verdict set in was my commitment to re double my efforts to promote racial justice in a broken criminal injustice system, my long held personal opinion, only magnified 100 fold, as a result of tonight’s verdict and the racially tinged atmosphere that pervaded the criminal proceedings through-out.

Another thought that comes to mind is: How is it that in 2013,in a country that claims to be post racial, (a simplistic notion that I have never given credence to, rejected from the first time I heard the concept, marketed by the media during the post-election celebration, after Obama’s 1st election for president)–that our criminal justice system can still allow for an all-white (maybe one non-white juror)jury…in a case as racially charged from the start, as the one involving Trayvon Martin’s cold blooded murder.

What happened to the requirement that juries represent a cross section of the community, particularly in a case dripping with racial division, controversy and animus.

How is that we let things in our criminal injustice system get so far afield, that Florida allows criminal cases to be tried in front of a jury of 6 not 12

People? In  essence, cutting the guts out of the concept of obtaining a truly diverse cross-section of the community on our juries.

Trayvon Martin’s case is just the latest example of thousands of  criminal cases, that are tried in this country every year–that involve black defendants and black victims of crime, where black jurors are still routinely shut out of the process if not entirely, almost so.

It is the time to insist that juries in this country, that are judging black defendants or black victims of violence (like Trayvon Martin)be judged by at least some if not a majority of black jurors.

This is an idea triggered by a provocative proposal written by Law professor and regular legal commentator, Paul Butler in a law journal article: Racially Based Jury Nullification: Black Power in the Criminal Justice System, published in the Yale Law Journal in 1995.

In Paul Butler’s piece on race based jury nullification, he quotes Malcolm X in words that seem most appropriate on this night when, yet again—justice has been denied, denied, yet again, along racial lines.

A night when George Zimmerman was acquitted for the execution of 17 year-old African-American Trayvon Martin, a young man whose crime was going to a 7-11 store to purchase candy/skittles for his younger brother, while walking in the rain wearing his hoodie.

“[T}he time that we’re living in now…is not an era where one who is oppressed is looking toward the oppressor to given him some system or form of logic or reason. What is logic to the oppressor isn’t reason to the oppressed. And what is reason to the oppressor isn’t reason to the oppressed. The black people in this country are beginning to realize that what sounds reasonable to those who exploit us doesn’t sound reasonable to us.

There just has to be a new system of reason and logic devised by us who are at the bottom, if we want to get some results in this struggle that is called: “the Negro revolution.” 

** (Malcolm X, Speech at the Leveret House Forum of March 18, 1964, in The speeches of Malcolm X at Harvard. 131, 133, (Archie Epps ed., 1968)

Now is the time to open up a non-stop dialogue on race and our criminal justice system, as the life and integrity of our country now depends on it.

Each of us is now responsible to make certain that no more Trayvon Martin’s are allowed to be demonized and murdered, without a remedy, by a white supremacist criminal justice system.

Open letter to the family of Trayvon Martin and Prosecutor Angela Cory

Angela Corey

I support the call for justice for Trayvon Martin and his family. I want the truth of this case to be pursued–in a public courtroom for all of America–and the entire world to see.

I am a retired public defender and spent 25 years in the courtroom representing indigent individuals charged with crimes–to the best of my ability. I know all too well–up close and personal–just how broken our criminal justice system is.

Here in Santa Clara County–California –the home to the best and the brightest innovators in the high tech world (Apple, Facebook, Oracle, Hewlett Packard, et al) and with some of the  greatest institutions of learning  in the world ( Stanford, UC Berkeley and others) we have still not come to grips–or been able to do away with–a criminal justice system plagued by racially discriminatory practices–at all levels–from the raw exercise of police powers in the streets–at the arrest stage–to the filing patterns of our prosecutors–to the disproportionately  long sentences given to African–Americans—and other people of  color–by our judges.

The system has made some small efforts to change–but we still have miles to go before we will truly see anything close to the equal application of the law.  We are–here in Santa Clara County–if I am to speak the truth–part and parcel–of what author and Professor Michele Alexander calls The New Jim Crow“.

In my experience prosecutors potentially wield extreme and extraordinarily subjective power over the lives of all of us–by way of their exercise of prosecutorial discretion—and it is incontrovertible –that here in the center of the high tech world– race still matters and plays the crucial and central role re who is charged with a crime and who is not.

Black men in particular are charged with crimes that whites are much less often charged with–and on the same facts–and there remains a huge disparity in the severity of sentencing that Blackmen–and other men of color–receive as compared to whites. And–sadly– the same racial divide applies to women in the criminal justice system.

When I request justice for Trayvon Martin, from the state of Florida–I am not pointing a finger at you.  I don’t need to travel to Florida to find injustice in our criminal justice system—injustice based on race–happens just the same way here in Santa Clara County—everyday.  So when I call-out for justice for Trayon Martin–I call out for all of the Trayvon Martin’s of America. All of the Trayvon Martin’s of Santa Clara County.

As a fellow member of the legal profession–I call on you prosecutor Angela Corey to look carefully at the evidence in this matter–ask yourself–if the race of the alleged victim and the alleged killer were reversed–would charges have already been filed? I think we both know the answer. So–it is time for you–Prosecutor Angela Corey–to do the right and thing–file murder charges against George Zimmerman.

Once charges are filed make certain that a jury–that represents a cross–section of the community is selected–and that the case is tried by a prosecutor with a track record for fairness to all parties involved.

I ask that Mr. Zimmerman–if he does not have money to employ the private attorney of his choice–be appointed the most able public defender available–one who will provide Mr. Zimmerman a zealous defense–and one who will ensure Mr. Zimmerman–and all of us–that he/she will act through-out the legal proceedings with an undivided loyalty to Mr. Zimmerman’s cause.

I know that Trayvon Martin’s family wants nothing to do with a lynch mob mentality directed at Mr. Zimmerman–this would not further the cause of justice for any of us–or honor the memory of their son–Trayvon Martin.

In the end, it will it will be incumbent on the legal profession, the community–Trayvon Martin’s family–and all of us–to all come together–to ensure a fair and fully transparent jury trial in this matter. That’s all I ask for. America can ill afford anything less.

See related stories and links below:

Special to the Mercury News – By Raj Jayadev: Justice For Trayvon Martin and America hinges upon two words: prosecutorial discretion

For Trayvon Martin And America, Justice Hinges on Two Words: “Prosecutorial Discretion”

For Trayvon Martin, Justice Hinges on “Prosecutorial Discretion”

45 Days After Killing Trayvon Martin & Sparking National Outcry, George Zimmerman Finally Charged

How Lawyers Got Nation Talking About Martin

Zimmerman to be charged in Trayvon Martin case

Trayvon Martin case: Poll finds stark racial divide

Miami Heat players: Arrest in Trayvon Martin case brings some closure

The “Rorschach” Facts in the Killing of Trayvon Martin

Trial in Martin Case, Filled With High Emotion, Would Draw a News Swarm

Who Killed Trayvon Martin?

Will George Zimmerman get out of jail today?

Experts: Zimmerman attorney made smart move

George Zimmerman released from jail on bond in Tyayvon Martin case

Live: George Zimmerman Released From Jail on $150K Bail

From Rodney King to Trayvon Martin: Let’s Not Miss Another Opportunity to Progress

Leonard Pitts: Silence isn’t peace; racial prejudice exists

The New Jim Crow

Trayvon Martin shooting: Witnesses change stories ahead of Zimmerman trial