I was in San Francisco on Thursday when the Mehserle verdict was handed down (an incident which oddly has its own Wikipedia page) and people started completely freaking out; totally losing their shit. And not in the least because they thought he should or shouldn’t be found guilty. Everyone fled their office buildings and rushed home, because of the impending riots.
Which just really pissed me off.
Now, Mehserle was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and could get 5 to 14 years. Whether or not you think that was fair or just or unjust or bullshit doesn’t really matter unless you were on the jury — that’s how our system works.
Personally, I think he had to be found guilty of something. You can’t just shoot someone in a crowded BART station, whether on accident or not, whether you’re a police officer or not. That’s not how things work here.
My opinion of whether he should have been found guilty of more isn’t entirely informed — I didn’t follow the trial closely — and it’s fairly colored by the fact that people with power freak me out, especially when they’re given guns. Steve thinks fatal accidents at the hands of police happen because we put the police in situations where they will happen — which is maybe fair. Or maybe we need to train our police more. Or both.
What you believe is a little bit dependent on whether you’re willing to give up some freedom, some rights, some civil society in order to be more secure. If you think the police have to cast a wide net, have to stop every person they believe has a gun, have to err on the side of making everyone safer, then sometimes they’re going to be wrong. I tend to believe I’d rather pay the cost of feeling less safe, of risking some crimes, if it lessens the chance an innocent person will be shot.
I think that’s what the phrase “freedom isn’t free” actually means, not that we should spend more on defense.
But that’s not what everyone was freaking out about on Thursday. Everyone was freaking out because these were going to be “the worst race riots since Rodney King.”
Shit, people, I don’t even remember the LA riots — I was 8 — but let’s not do a disservice to the 55 people who were beaten to death for no reason by comparing it to the robbing of Foot Locker by Berkeley anarchists.
You can watch footage yourself. My favorite was on Channel 5 when the two British hippies started yelling at the reporter for not understanding ‘these people.’
The only reason the rioting was such a big deal was because it had been threatened from the start of the trial. A spontaneous outpouring of emotion I could have understood, but the deliberate use and threat of violence as a means to subvert and manipulate the justice system just pissed me off. And the freaking out just fed into it.
Underneath all these much more dramatic storylines is something no one’s really talked about.
Assume Mehserle’s defense was completely true: he meant to pull his Taser and accidentally pulled his gun. And shot Oscar Grant in the back and point-blank range.
We treat Tasers in law enforcement as a non-lethal deterrent. But they’re not.
It’s been well-documented that people have died after being shocked by Tasers. Particularly if it’s at close range or for an extended period. Or if the victim has a previous condition that the officer could in no way know about. With my heart arrhythmia wierdness and propensity for seizures, if I was Tasered I would probably go into some kind of shock and die.
Obviously, obviously, less-lethal is still better than totally lethal. And if the Taser was only ever used as a substitute for a gun, then less people would die, that would be great, etc.
But, because we treat the Taser as a non-lethal device instead of a less-lethal device, officers are much quicker to pull them than they would guns. In addition, they get far, far less training in Tasers than they do on their more lethal weapons. In fact, inadequate training was part of Mehserle’s lawyer’s defense (evidently, so inadequate he wasn’t able to identify that he wasn’t holding a Taser).
And, with that quickness to reach for what they believe is a completely safe deterrent comes accidents.
Mehserle wouldn’t have pulled a gun on Grant in a crowded BART station and shot him in the back of the head if that was the only gun on his belt. He wouldn’t have reached for the Taser and made a fatal mistake. He would have resolved the situation using other means. Non-lethal means. Because the Taser, it would appear, is not less-lethal enough.