Massachusetts Daily Collegian

To tase or not to tase

By Matthew M. Robare

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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]


11 Responses to “To tase or not to tase”

  1. Michael Rohm on January 27th, 2011 11:06 pm

    They’re just doing their jobs. Who can possibly object to that? They have to follow orders, after all.

  2. Sam Adams on January 28th, 2011 2:41 am

    Another immature liberal weenie in the making. Here is a hint, don’t be a thug and no one will use a TASER on you.

  3. gavinsamu on January 28th, 2011 4:46 am

    The B.A. in Criminal Justice provides a baseline that I think helps anyone going into law enforcement develop the much-needed critical thinking skills. search for “United Forensic College”. Today, a degree is pretty much required if you want to move into supervision and management.

  4. Henry Carrasco on January 28th, 2011 9:08 am

    Brilliant comment Sam Adams!! When you can’t defend anything, simply insult them with absolutely no factual backing!

    It’s not like Matt laid out several different examples of abuse of power or anything. I think you won this one Sam, clearly we all just need to stop being thugs.

  5. Kate Slater on January 28th, 2011 11:36 pm

    Well done, Matt. Many police departments have chosen to use the more accurate term “less lethal” for taser weapons. Once they acknowlege that tasers are powerful, complex and danger ous, I think most(not all) police are sane enough to use them cautiously. Till then, people will keep on being killed.

  6. Ed on January 31st, 2011 2:21 am

    What will inevitably happen is what happened in the ’60s — the people eventually have enough and consider all the cops to be bad and ignore everything they say. This is how we got Earl Warren and the Supreme Court tying cop’s hands behind themselves then, and it will happen again. Maybe not with SCOTUS, but it will happen.

    Remember too that Jury Nullification still exists, and if the people don’t believe the cops, they won’t convict, no matter how clear the guilt…..

  7. Steve Tuttle on January 31st, 2011 4:48 pm

    Dear Editor, I must admit I’m stunned how this story made it past any editing cycle.

    Now don’t get me wrong. I truly enjoy providing retorts and enjoy a good debate. I can even agree to disagree. I’ve battled with some of the toughest journalists in the world. I do this for a living. I never shy away from a good debate but I certainly won’t go into a battle with nothing to gain. Zero.

    What I question is how Mr. Robare’s story was not fact checked and how his over the top statements were approved. When does a column go from opinion (permissible but with facts and science) and rhetoric (always permissible but it should be reasonable) to rubbish (not permissible – an editor could have addressed most of this garbage).

    I truly don’t the full day it would take to provide the litany of data back to contradict Mr. Robare’s rubbish. While I can tell you I’m no fan of quitting, it’s really sad to come across a story that isn’t even debatable. No one can sway someone that far gone (except an editor) but here, it appears that the editor didn’t even do cursory fact checking 101.

    I have to admit, journalism isn’t what it used to be when I was in school. I know this first hand as I’ve actively engaged professionals in my position for the past 17 years in charge of communications. I did 1500 media interviews in 2005 and saw the worst best and the worst. Now, it’s more like welcome to the land of pump the out trash and don’t let any facts for science get in the way.

    So, let’s put it this way, it looks like you both get an F on the facts and the fact checking editting.

    Read Mr. Robare’s story again and please correct me if I’m wrong. Did you an editor really approve this? Really? Seriously?

    Vice President of Communications

  8. Dwayne McKnight on February 1st, 2011 8:23 am

    @Steve Tuttle

    Looks legit, amirite?

  9. Brandon on February 19th, 2011 12:41 pm

    Dear Vice President of Communications,

    I find it ironic that you’re second in command with the company’s communications, yet you illustrate lack of professionalism while you unashamedly attack the editor and article of a college opinion piece.


    “Did you an editor”

    ” it’s more like welcome to the land of pump the out trash ”

    “I truly don’t the full day it ”

    “and saw the worst best and the worst.”

    VP of communications? Really? Seriously? Welcome to the land of pump the out trash!


  10. Ronin555 on February 27th, 2011 10:19 am

    Few police are able to resist the temptation to abuse their power. Supplying cops with tasers only increases the likelihood of abuse.

  11. Black Friday Digital Camera Deals on November 18th, 2011 4:33 am

    I’m a Senior Lecturer from the Cultural Studies department at Central Saint Martins where I’m also earning a living on a project for that business.

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