Tasing a Pregnant Woman in Front of Her Kid? The Outrageous -- And Dangerous -- Abuse of Tasers by Police

In 2004, Malaika Brooks, seven months pregnant and accompanied by her 11-year-old son, was pulled over by two Seattle cops for driving 32 mph in a 20 mph zone. She was willing to accept a speeding ticket, but incorrectly thought signing it was an admission of guilt. She refused.

In response, one of the officers held up his Taser and asked if she knew what it was. She said she didn't, but added: “I have to go to the bathroom... I am pregnant. I’m less than 60 days from having my baby.”

According to Adam Liptak, reporting for the New York Times, this is what followed when a patrol supervisor joined the cops and decided to place Brooks under arrest, all in front of her young son:

The three men assessed the situation and conferred. “Well, don’t do it in her stomach,” one said. “Do it in her thigh.”

Officer Ornelas twisted Ms. Brooks’s arm behind her back. A colleague, Officer Donald M. Jones, applied the Taser to Ms. Brooks’s left thigh, causing her to cry out and honk the car’s horn. A half-minute later, Officer Jones applied the Taser again, now to Ms. Brooks’s left arm. He waited six seconds before pressing it into her neck.

Ms. Brooks fell over, and the officers dragged her into the street, laying her face down and cuffing her hands behind her back.

In the months that followed, Ms. Brooks gave birth to a healthy baby girl; was convicted of refusing to sign the ticket, a misdemeanor, but not of resisting arrest; and sued the officers who three times caused her intense pain and left her with permanent scars. 

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals let the officers off the hook for the incident, finding that while the force they used was excessive, they couldn't be held accountable “because the law on the question was not clear in 2004.” And then a strange thing happened: the cops, after winning, appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, which will decide shortly whether to hear the case.

Why appeal a case the cops had basically won? According to the Times, it was because the decision “put them and their colleagues on notice that some future uses of Tasers would cross a constitutional line and amount to excessive force.” Tasers have become such an integral tool in forcing citizens to comply that police agencies consider constraints on their use to be a bridge too far – a fight worth taking to the highest court in the land.

The city of Seattle filed a brief with the court asking that it not hear the case. City attorneys criticized what they called the cops' “sky is falling” take on the decision, adding that “three applications of a Taser in drive-stun mode in less than a minute on a pregnant woman who does not pose a safety threat” is the kind of excessive force that is likely to lead to liability for the city.

The most telling part of the story may be the unexamined assumption that police, faced with a very pregnant, nonviolent, non-threatening woman, had to resort to some sort of force to deal with the situation. In an ostensibly neutral news story, Adam Liptak wrote, “The situation plainly called for bold action.” One judge, dissenting from the ruling, said that Brooks had invited the assault by being “defiant” and “deaf to reason.” He added that the cops “deserve our praise, not the opprobrium of being declared constitutional violators. The City of Seattle should award them commendations for grace under fire.”

But the cops weren't “under fire” – they were simply dealing with a confused citizen and they were unable or unwilling to resolve the situation without violence. (Another dissenting justice claimed that “tasing was a humane way to force Brooks out of her car.”)

The use of Tasers to compel obedience – and, all too often to punish people police don't like – has become all too common in law enforcement circles. We see Tasers used on unruly schoolchildren, rowdy sports fans, a person “acting strangely” at a theme park (that one died), suspects in handcuffs at police stations, tourists who don't speak English and can't understand what police are telling them and college students who don't produce identification on command. Hardly a day goes by without such a report popping up somewhere in the United States.

The standard justification for arming police with Tasers is that they save lives – if police officers weren't equipped with the devices, they'd have to use more brutal, if not deadly force to achieve the same ends. There's certainly some truth to that claim. Tasers have been used to subdue violent suspects who might otherwise have been shot or beaten. But police wouldn't have thought to use a gun or a nightstick on, say, a 9-year-old truant (he was laying on the ground with his hands beneath his body at the time), or a pregnant woman who refused to sign a traffic ticket.

Amnesty International “acknowledges the importance of developing non-lethal or 'less than lethal' force options to decrease the risk of death or injury” from conventional weapons, but warns that Tasers – easily portable means of inflicting intense pain without leaving evidence on the body -- are “particularly open to abuse by unscrupulous officials, as the organization has documented in numerous cases around the world.” After a week in which three seemingly healthy men in their 20s died after being shocked by police in the U.S., the UN Committee Against Torture declared that “the use of these weapons causes acute pain” and “can have a grave physical and mental impact on those targeted, which violates the UN's Convention against Torture.”

Taser International – the company that makes the devices – and police agencies scoff at the notion, saying that with proper training, Tasers are in no way torture devices. But a 2005 ACLU study of guidelines in 50 American police departments found that “few if any controls are imposed on police using Taser stun guns to subdue suspects.” Whereas pepper-spray and other “less lethal” weapons like “bean-bag” shotgun rounds are highly regulated, Tasers are not.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Tasers is the widespread belief among police agencies and the public that they are “non-lethal” weapons that can't cause serious and permanent harm. But several police cadets have sued Taser International for serious injuries suffered during their training (most police departments require officers in training to experience what it's like to be shocked). According to the Las Vegas Sun, the cops claim that “Taser failed to adequately warn the police department of the potential for injury and minimized the risks of being shocked, which officers had been assured was not only safe but advisable.”

And they are most certainly lethal. Amnesty International reports that there have been 500 Taser-related deaths in the United States in the last 10 years. Taser International claims that its product is safe, and the deaths should all be attributed to underlying medical conditions, but a study published this year in the medical journal Circulation found that “electrical shocks from Tasers, which shoot barbs into the clothes and skin, can in some cases set off irregular heart rhythms, leading to cardiac arrest.”

“This is no longer arguable,” Dr. Byron Lee, director of the electrophysiology laboratory at the University of California, San Francisco told the New York Times. “This is a scientific fact. The national debate should now center on whether the risk of sudden death with Tasers is low enough to warrant widespread use by law enforcement.”

It is obvious that “less lethal weapons,” including Tasers, can save lives. But it is equally apparent that they aren't just being used as a last-resort alternative to lethal force. And it is also apparent that they often turn out to be deadly weapons. Ideally, we would have a grownup discussion of their widespread use according to a rational risk-benefit ratio, but with law enforcement and Taser International denying that they pose a danger – and with the unexamined assumption that some sort of force is justified when citizens don't obey police orders quickly enough – we're not having that discussion, and people continue to be abused and, sometimes, tortured to death with Tasers.


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