Sunday, May 15, 2005

Power Corrupts

Recently I read an article that sickened me to my stomach. A pregnant woman stopped for a speeding ticket was tasered by Seattle police ostensibly for "resisting arrest".
Pregnant woman 'Tasered' by police is convicted

By HECTOR CASTRO
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER

She was rushing her son to school. She was eight months pregnant. And she was about to get a speeding ticket she didn't think she deserved.

So when a Seattle police officer presented the ticket to Malaika Brooks, she refused to sign it. In the ensuing confrontation, she suffered burns from a police Taser, an electric stun device that delivers 50,000 volts.

"Probably the worst thing that ever happened to me," Brooks said, in describing that morning during her criminal trial last week on charges of refusing to obey an officer and resisting arrest.

She was found guilty of the first charge because she never signed the ticket, but the Seattle Municipal Court jury could not decide whether she resisted arrest, the reason the Taser was applied.

To her attorneys and critics of police use of Tasers, Brooks' case is an example of police overreaction.

"It's pretty extraordinary that they should have used a Taser in this case," said Lisa Daugaard, a public defender familiar with the case.

Law enforcement officers have said they see Tasers as a tool that can benefit the public by reducing injuries to police and the citizens they arrest.

Seattle police officials declined to comment on this case, citing concerns that Brooks might file a civil lawsuit.

But King County sheriff's Sgt. Donald Davis, who works on the county's Taser policy, said the use of force is a balancing act for law enforcement.

"It just doesn't look good to the public," he said.

Brooks' run-in with police Nov. 23 came six months before Seattle adopted a new policy on Taser use that guides officers on how to deal with pregnant women, the very young, the very old and the infirm. When used on such subjects, the policy states, "the need to stop the behavior should clearly justify the potential for additional risks."

"Obviously, (law enforcement agencies) don't want to use a Taser on young children, pregnant woman or elderly people," Davis said. "But if in your policy you deliberately exclude a segment of the population, then you have potentially closed off a tool that could have ended a confrontation."

Brooks was stopped in the 8300 block of Beacon Avenue South, just outside the African American Academy, while dropping her son off for school.

In a two-day trial that ended Friday, the officer involved, Officer Juan Ornelas, testified he clocked Brooks' Dodge Intrepid doing 32 mph in a 20-mph school zone.

He motioned her over and tried to write her a ticket, but she wouldn't sign it, even when he explained that signing it didn't mean she was admitting guilt.

Brooks, in her testimony, said she believed she could accept a ticket without signing for it, which she had done once before.

"I said, 'Well, I'll take the ticket, but I won't sign it,' " Brooks testified.

Officer Donald Jones joined Ornelas in trying to persuade Brooks to sign the ticket. They then called on their supervisor, Sgt. Steve Daman.

He authorized them to arrest her when she continued to refuse.

The officers testified they struggled to get Brooks out of her car but could not because she kept a grip on her steering wheel.

And that's when Jones brought out the Taser. Brooks testified she didn't even know what it was when Jones showed it to her and pulled the trigger, allowing her to hear the crackle of 50,000 volts of electricity.

The officers testified that was meant as a final warning, as a way to demonstrate the device was painful and that Brooks should comply with their orders.

When she still did not exit her car, Jones applied the Taser.

In his testimony, the Taser officer said he pressed the prongs of the muzzle against Brooks' thigh to no effect. So he applied it twice to her exposed neck.


Afterward, he and the others testified, Ornelas pushed Brooks out of the car while Jones pulled.

She was taken to the ground, handcuffed and placed in a patrol car, the officers testified.

She told jurors the officer also used the device on her arm, and showed them a dark, brown burn to her thigh, a large, red welt on her arm and a lump on her neck, all marks she said came from the Taser application.

At the South Precinct, Seattle fire medics examined Brooks, confirmed she was pregnant and recommended she be evaluated at Harborview Medical Center.

Brooks said she was worried about the effect the trauma and the Taser might have on her baby, but she delivered a healthy girl Jan. 31.

Still, she said, she remains shocked that a simple traffic stop could result in her arrest.

"As police officers, they could have hurt me seriously. They could have hurt my unborn fetus," she said.

"All because of a traffic ticket. Is this what it's come down to?"

Davis said Tasers remain a valuable tool, and that situations like Brooks' are avoidable.

"I know the Taser is controversial in all these situations where it seems so egregious," he said. "Why use a Taser in a simple traffic stop? Well, the citizen has made it more of a problem. It's no longer a traffic stop. This is now a confrontation."
The last sentence is particularly sickening. Ahh... so it was the woman's fault she received the Tasering, which was simply a product of her not instantly obeying the directives of a law enforcement officer. It had nothing to do with zap-happy cops whatsoever! The agents of the law cannot be to blame! The state is infallible! All hail the Fatherland!

Blame the victim. I recall reading that that particular strategy is a favourite of psychopaths. Blame the victim for what is happening to them so as to avoid the real culprits being discovered. Dr. Robert Hare has done some extremely interesting research in this area. Personally, I find the idea that there may be a substantial percentage of undiagnosed psychopaths running around quite enlightening. It would go a long way toward explaining specimens like the above Taser-touting police officers.

But then, what makes a psychopath? Is it genetic? Is it some kind of disfigurement of the psyche caused by traumatic events? Certainly so-called "normal" people can exhibit a mean enough streak as it is. Consider for instance, the Stanford Prison Experiment.

This was a landmark study done in 1971 at Stanford University regarding the psychology of captivity. One of the key observations was that some types of people, when placed in a position of power, tend to abuse that power. From the site:
There were three types of guards. First, there were tough but fair guards who followed prison rules. Second, there were "good guys" who did little favors for the prisoners and never punished them. And finally, about a third of the guards were hostile, arbitrary, and inventive in their forms of prisoner humiliation. These guards appeared to thoroughly enjoy the power they wielded, yet none of our preliminary personality tests were able to predict this behavior. The only link between personality and prison behavior was a finding that prisoners with a high degree of authoritarianism endured our authoritarian prison environment longer than did other prisoners.
A third of the "guards" in the experiment equals four men. Is it possible that these men were all psychopaths? In terms of strict numbers, it's probably unlikely. From an article by Robert Hercz reproduced on Hare's website:
The most startling finding to emerge from Hare's work is that the popular image of the psychopath as a remorseless, smiling killer -- Paul Bernardo, Clifford Olson, John Wayne Gacy -- while not wrong, is incomplete. Yes, almost all serial killers, and most of Canada's dangerous offenders, are psychopaths, but violent criminals are just a tiny fraction of the psychopaths around us. Hare estimates that 1 percent of the population -- 300,000 people in Canada -- are psychopaths.

He calls them "subclinical" psychopaths. They're the charming predators who, unable to form real emotional bonds, find and use vulnerable women for sex and money (and inevitably abandon them). They're the con men like Christophe Rocancourt, and they're the stockbrokers and promoters who caused Forbes magazine to call the Vancouver Stock Exchange (now part of the Canadian Venture Exchange) the scam capital of the world. (Hare has said that if he couldn't study psychopaths in prisons, the Vancouver Stock Exchange would have been his second choice.) A significant proportion of persistent wife beaters, and people who have unprotected sex despite carrying the AIDS virus, are psychopaths. Psychopaths can be found in legislatures, hospitals, and used-car lots. They're your neighbour, your boss, and your blind date. Because they have no conscience, they're natural predators. If you didn't have a conscience, you'd be one too.
Utilising Hare's estimate of one percent and assuming a homogenous distribution amongst the population, the likelihood that the four men (16%) of the Stanford prison experiment sample were all psychopaths is pretty slim. Indeed, all other factors being equal, the odds of a single psychopath making it into the experiment are at minimum four to one.

Still, the Experiment has several notable criticisms. Psychologist Erich Fromm's analysis is a good starting point. Wikipedia also has a good page on the Stanford Prison Experiment. See also the 'Signs of the Times' analysis which correlates the relevance of the Stanford Prison Experiment with events in Iraq.

This stuff about psychopaths makes for uncomfortable reading, but when one sees articles about pregnant women being tasered by police, it's good to have knowledge that puts such brutality and intolerance into context. It also puts several encounters with certain people in my life in a much clearer perspective as well.

As the saying goes... "Forewarned is forearmed".

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