To tase or not to tase

By Matthew M. Robare


The South Hadley Police Department was given some tasers back in November by the Village Commons, a company that rents office and retail space across the road from Mount Holyoke College, according to Also according to MassLive, tasers are “non-lethal.”

This interesting nugget of un-truth was actually brought to you by Taser International, a company that makes millions selling the miniature, mobile electric-chairs – I’m sorry – “neuromuscular incapacitators.” Remember the first rule of time-travel safety: keep your incapacitators and your flux capacitors separate and clearly labeled.
It’s just not true that tasers are non-lethal. The company website includes only one possibility: “Subjects located in the water may drown if their ability to move is restricted.”

Then again, they would probably blame the water if a victim drowns, just to keep that “non-lethal” status, regardless of the fact that being electrocuted caused the person to drown. If an arsonist burns down a house with a person inside, they’re charged with murder. No jury, no prosecutor, no defense attorney would accept a defense of “I’m innocent of murder. The poor man had a condition that made him burst into flames at the same time the fire I started reached his location.”

But arsonists are criminals and police officers are law enforcers, so the ordinary rules for those of us not part of that elite class – fair trials, standards of evidence, prison sentences – get waived for officers. Three years ago a 29 year-old man in Minnesota, Mark C. Backlund, died after being tased by police, according to The Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Backlund’s father, Gordon, said that his son had no medical conditions that could have been aggravated by a taser. Five state troopers on the scene were put on administrative leave. The autopsy was “inconclusive,” according to the Associated Press.

Author William N. Grigg, who has collected numerous incidences of death by non-lethal weapon, wrote, “Where the death was clearly a result of police violence, defenders … take refuge in contrived ambiguity. Whenever a young person dies after being subjected to electro-shock torture via taser, the public is lectured about the lethal effects of ‘excited delirium,’ a mysterious condition that seems to afflict only those who are gang-tackled, tased, and otherwise abused by police. (While some medical examiners accept ‘excited delirium’ as a valid cause of death, the condition is not widely recognized among medical professionals apart from those closely associated with law enforcement.)”

In April of 2009, police tased Michael Jacobs Jr., a mentally ill man, to death by “inadvertently” holding the trigger down to long. Unfortunately for the police, there was no convenient medical history or excessive drug use to pin the death on and the Tarrant County, Texas Medical Examiner found that Jacobs had suffered “sudden death during neuromuscular incapacitation due to application of a conducted energy weapon” and that it was homicide. However, according to The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, a police investigation cleared the officers of wrong-doing and a grand jury refused to indict them. I bet that if one of us taxpayers killed a police officer, even “inadvertently,” we would be indicted for murder. A taxpayer wouldn’t get placed on administrative leave, either.

There are some big questions here, but they’re answerable and like many of life’s mysteries, those answers can be found on In the early 1970s, psychologist Philip Zimbardo conducted an experiment at Stanford University where 12 students were made prisoners and 12 students were made prison guards. It was supposed to run for two weeks, but Zimbardo’s girlfriend made him end it after six days because conditions had become so nightmarish. Putting people into positions of authority over others tends to make them more aggressive and less sensitive to the feelings of the people they have authority over. Even worse, the earlier Milgram experiment showed that most people are willing to follow an authority figure’s orders even when they are told to do something morally repugnant.

But there’s still another part of the taser story, coming to us from the article “Five popular safety measures that don’t make you any safer.” It’s called the Peltzman effect and it’s where the presence of safety regulations increases unsafe behavior because people assume that because there’s a regulation that injury risk has been taken care of.

So a company markets a dangerous weapon as being non-lethal to a group of people whose professional careers revolve around being in a position of authority over others and many of whom, according to MSNBC, believe that a war is being waged against them. Like mixing weed and Adderall, it’s a bad combination.

One of the arguments made by Taser International is that officers armed with tasers are safer. That may be true, but I think that the evidence is clear that when officers have tasers, the people aren’t safer. Sometimes it’s more important to be protected from the cops than from the criminals. I hope the South Hadley Select Board takes that into consideration when they make their decision.

Matthew M. Robare is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]