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April 28, 2015


A clarification on the effects of tasers, and
it looks like the Albany Police are
already carrying tasers again

Albany police are back to carrying and using tasers much sooner than expected, and it seems this has resulted in exactly the kind of incident and public relations meltdown that Police Chief Brendan Cox had been trying to avoid. This past Saturday evening, April 25 at 6:05 PM, officers spotted a parole violator wanted in connection with a shooting last August, 21 year old Jamarl Townsend who was sitting in a car on First Street.

Townsend jumped out of the car and fled, the officers issued a verbal warning, and an officer fired his taser at the suspect. After he was handcuffed Townsend had a seizure and became unresponsive. The local media reported that the police immediately managed to revive Townsend, when the EMS arrived he was conscious and talking.

Albany Cops Stand Guard On First Street While Jamarl Townsend Receives Medical Help Behind Them, From A Video Posted By Tauchia Chaney
Albany Cops Stand Guard On First Street While Jamarl Townsend Receives Medical Help Behind Them, From A Video Posted By Tauchia Chaney

An unsubstantiated report that was widely circulated on Facebook claimed that Townsend was tasered in the head, and that medical help did not arrive for 13 minutes. Neither is likely, but such statements feed into the current public suspicion of tasers as police weapons. Police spokesperson Steve Smith did not hesitate to say that “the use of the Taser was justified in this scenario.”

While in recent years the City government and the police management have taken great strides toward accountability and community engagement, there is still a great deal of public distrust toward the authorities. It seems that general distrust is greater than ever. Certainly that distrust is being expressed more loudly and by more people than I can ever recall.

Community and neighborhood activists, who remember all too well their own long struggles against the corrupt and unyielding kleptocracy in Albany that was overthrown only a few years ago, are more than willing to give the authorities a great deal of slack and patiently wait for the promised reports about both this incident and the recent taser-related death of Donald Ivy to come out before acting.

But it seems that a lot of regular folks have recently become aware and active over the way police handle suspects, mainly because this has become a national movement. While Albany is not Ferguson or Baltimore, which this past weekend erupted into riots over a police killing, there is a lot of pent up suspicion and resentment that goes back decades. Despite great progress, there is still a big divide between the authorities and the public in Albany.

Police Van In Baltimore As The Riots Continue
Police Van In Baltimore As The Riots Continue

This is a big test for our new police chief Brendan Cox. I think it likely that he was under a good deal of pressure from the rank and file police officers to let them carry tasers again. I am hearing from informed sources that the cops were not happy to be without their tasers, which they have come to depend upon to do their regular work, such as dealing with early morning bar brawlers and suspects who resist being taken into custody.

In light of the national mood, it may very well have been a tactical mistake for Chief Cox to have let his officers carry tasers again so early. As we are seeing in Baltimore right now, there is too much of a threat of public anger erupting into violence. I’ll have to say that I hope he continues to exercise caution in these matters, I sure don’t want to have to deal with senseless rioting in my own neighborhood.

It really is a two way problem. Recently police have been dealing with more pointed disrespect than ever before when they stop suspects, this according to every security pro and police officer I’ve spoken to about this lately. At the same time there has been a lot of overreach by the police officers, a growing tendency to apply violence and to shoot to kill. In many places around the nation the public is increasingly treating the cops as vile oppressors, while the police seem to act like the public is a military enemy that must be defeated.

Somehow this spiral into violence must be stopped. The cops deserve respect from the public while they are on duty, but at the same time they have to earn that respect. Awareness and open dialogue between both sides is the only way to integrate the police and the public back into a single community rather than separate adversaries, and to treat that is an ongoing process.

Baltimore Riots: Like A Scene From Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing
Baltimore Riots:
Like A Scene From Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing

The thing is, the more I learn about tasers the more I grudgingly concede that they are a useful and necessary weapon for the police to carry and use. But I think it more than obvious that tasers have been overused by the police, often inappropriately. For example, there is no reason for an officer to use a taser when a suspect is already in handcuffs or is merely mouthing off. A proliferation of such incidents have lead to an all-round distrust of tasers by many people.

But there are plenty of situations where tasers are the best option open to a police officer who is attempting to control a suspect. The alternatives to tasing are: 1) clubbing with a nightstick, 2) shooting with a gun, or 3) getting into a brawl. Before tasers were made available these were the only three options available to the officers.

As to the effects of tasers, there is a point from this article that I did not make clear (as a certain security professional has been insisting I clarify.) The vast majority of the more than 634 taser deaths in the US since 2001 were of persons who were jacked up on one or a combination of high-powered drugs such as cocaine, meth, PCP or any of a number of substances that have been hitting the streets lately, apparently more of a variety than ever according to drug counselor I spoke with the other day. Such persons were usually tased because they were violently acting out in public and thus posed a threat to others and to themselves.

In the vast majority of cases a tased person immediately becomes quiescent. It is the jacked up persons, who are already in an excited stressed-out state, who may become even more agitated after being tased. And it is such persons who are at risk of fatal seizure when they receive an electric shock.

Albany Police Looking For A Shooting Suspect Enter A House On Clinton Avenue Last October Near Where Jamarl Townsend Was Tased On First Street
Albany Police Looking For A Shooting Suspect Enter A House On Clinton Avenue Last October Near Where Jamarl Townsend Was Tased On First Street

So what else is to be done about such persons by the police? Assuming that the vast majority of us want the police to take control of such persons when they are acting out of control, the police are left with the three options mentioned above. Personally I would rather be tased than smacked with a club or shot with a gun. I suppose I’d most prefer to be taken down in a brawl, but is it fair to the officers to expect them to get into a brawl every time they are called to deal with an out of control person?

On the other hand, Freddie Gray, the fellow who was killed in police custody in Baltimore, a killing that sparked the current riots there, was beaten to death by the police. More than likely if he had been tased and then routinely placed into custody there wouldn’t be any riots and we wouldn’t be hearing all about it. Of course the issue here is that Gray was probably falsely arrested in the first place, which makes the police actions in this case a clear case of overreach that turned fatal. But if Gray had been tased he most likely would still be alive.

I suspect that no matter what sort of report the authorities issue about this Townsend case and about the death of Donald Ivy, there will be a fair number of people who will be dissatisfied. The problem with tasers, I’ll say it again and again, is that all too often they have not been used judiciously and with restraint by police officers. This has fueled public suspicion, which makes it hard for officers to deploy the weapon when it is appropriate to use and needed.

Police tasers are here to stay, we need to realize that. It is a plain fact that we would not be hearing much about Jamarl Townsend passing out after getting tased, except for the recent death of Donald Ivy. Tasers are not harmless like the manufacturers say, but they are vastly more benign than, say, a .38 or a .45 pistol. In the end, the first step is for the police to develop strict procedures and to learn restraint when deploying tasers. Otherwise these public rebellions will continue and tasers may become no longer available to the officers.

Update posted- April 28, 2015