Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: This is the Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
On January 3rd, Keenan Anderson returned to the familiarity of LA for what was supposed to be a short visit. He looked forward to embarking on a new professional career. California native was on the cusp of a new role as a high school English teacher in Washington DC. Instead, Keenan was killed by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department. Keenan's uncle remembers him as fearless in the face of challenge and adversity, but even this fearless young man could not endure being shot six times in 42 seconds by officers of the LAPD. His cries of, "Help me, please," were ignored. Keenan's friend, Timothy Bundy, spoke at a vigil in his honor.
Timothy Bundy: He lost both of his parents at a young age. He didn't grow up with no mother, he didn't grow up with no father. He lost them when he was eight years old. Now, his son is about to grow with no dad. He's always telling me, "I'm going to be there from my kid. My son is going to have a father, I'm going to be there." He wanted that for his son. He wanted the best for him, but now he can't have that because the police took that away. He was 31 years old, about to turn 32 in May. They've taken too many guys, man.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Keenan Anderson joins the ever-growing list of Black people killed by police. Alyssa continues to scribble down Black names like a modern-day Book of the Dead.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: On January 17th, in Raleigh, North Carolina, another Black man, Darryl Williams, was tased and killed by police in the parking lot of a local convenience store. His friend spoke out in the aftermath.
Alex Vitale: He was such a great character of life. He had such a good spirit. Anything that happened on his occasion, it could have been dealt with so calmly, versus the violence from the own people that're supposed to attend and serve you.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Dr. Kimberly Muktarian, who founded the organization, Save Our Sons, with the hopes of eliminating structural racism in police departments, had this to say following Darryl's death.
Dr. Kimberly Muktarian: If you don't run you might be dead, and you don't get a chance to second chance that. This is happening more frequently than not. The old lynching style is no longer a rope in a tree but a taser and a knee.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Axon Enterprises, the company that supplies tasers to police departments, markets the weapons as a less lethal alternative to firearms. Atlantic Public Media reports that at least 400,000 police officers carry tasers along with their firearm.
Alex Vitale: My name is Alex Vitale. I'm professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of the End of Policing.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's start with a little bit of history. When did tasers become a standard part of law enforcement uniforms and gear?
Alex Vitale: Well, probably about 20 years ago, they existed before that but there was a gradual rolling out of their adoption across the country. Certainly, today, they are standard procedure in a huge percentage of police departments nationally.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Let me just ask you to clarify just for a moment, Taser is both the name of a thing and the name of the company. Is that right?
Alex Vitale: Taser was the company that originally patented the design for conductive energy transfer weapon. Other companies have developed analogous technologies and marketed under different names but they all work in, essentially, the same way, which is that they involve direct contact with the skin and the discharge of a very high electrical charge that's intended to immobilize someone.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: What was the thinking behind the introduction of the tasers, were they meant to provide a non-lethal alternative were they thought of, at the time, as cutting-edge technology?
Alex Vitale: They were considered cutting-edge technology and they were part of a somewhat long tradition of trying to use technology to reduce the levels of police violence. The way the tasers were marketed was as an alternative to handguns. The marketer saying, "You know, let's put the bullet out of business." The thinking was that this would save a lot of lives in the process by giving police officers a tool other than handguns that they could utilize in those most extreme circumstances when they fell deadly levels of force might be necessary.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Listen, I get that. That reasoning makes sense to me. It feels like it fits within our long tradition of attempting to use technology in ways to monitor policing and ensure that it is encouraging public safety rather than allowing police violence. I'm thinking even here of things like body cams and dash cams, right? cutting-edge technology meant to be used in that way. Is that the right way to be thinking about these?
Alex Vitale: The results haven't really panned out the way we would hope. Often, what we see is that this new technology ends up just representing an extension of police power, of police surveillance, and hasn't really delivered on the accountability or in the reduction in police violence.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Why? If you can reach for a taser instead of reaching for a handgun, why do you think we haven't seen this reduction in violence?
Alex Vitale: It turns out that the tasers are not really being used exclusively in situations where a handgun would have been used. That, in fact, the vast majority of taser deployments are in situations where a handgun use would be out of policy and possibly unlawful. Instead, what we're seeing is that it's being used as an alternative to having officers actually put their hands on people or perhaps use a nightstick or pepper spray. In that sense, it's actually creating a new increased level of police force rather than a reduction in police violence.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: We'll be back with Alex Vitale of Brooklyn College, with more on the deadliness of police tasers right after this.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Back now and talking about tasers, with Alex Vitale of Brooklyn College. I want you to walk me through these two different kinds of scenarios so that I can understand clearly what you mean here. Walk me through, first, what would be a scenario where an officer, and this is like as a matter of training, what would have typically been told, "Okay, this is a scenario where it would be appropriate to use a taser as an alternative to using the handgun."
Alex Vitale: Let's imagine that you are responding to a call and you're confronted with someone who is armed with a knife and makes a move towards stabbing either the officer or someone else in the vicinity. The officer feels that they have the time, they're close enough to deploy the taser instead of a handgun to neutralize that suspect.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Then when is it being used instead when you make this point about rather than having direct contact, what would those circumstances look like?
Alex Vitale: Let's recall what happened in the Rodney King beating in the 1990s when tasers were already in some departments, which is someone who was non-cooperative with the police, who was perceived to be either resisting arrest or perhaps attempting to flee or otherwise not responding to police commands. That's a situation where deadly force is not warranted but this tends to be the situation where we see tasers deployed the most often.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: If they're instead being used in circumstances where lethal force wouldn't typically be used, then our taser is more lethal.
Alex Vitale: The taser manufacturers started off marketing their product as non-lethal technology. This was based on really faulty research that they funded and then use to market their product. It turns out from very early on, it was clear that some of these taser deployments were causing people to die. Now, it's very well documented and taser has been forced to pay out damages and then now has transferred that liability to police departments by issuing a number of warnings to them about, in fact, the lethality of their product. You're absolutely right. If we're seeing the use of potentially lethal tasers on top of the already high-level usages of handguns, we may actually be seeing an increase in police lethality.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm also wondering about the accidental discharge of the service weapon when an officer says they were reaching for the taser. I'm thinking here, just to say his name, Oscar Grant, who was killed, shot by an officer in Oakland, California. I think he was actually a transportation officer, as opposed to an Oakland police officer, because the officer understood himself, and this is at least how it came out in court, he understood himself to be reaching for the taser, thinking he was going to use a non-lethal alternative, made an error, and in fact, reached instead for his service weapon.
Alex Vitale: That's certainly not the only case where that defense has been used by an officer who claimed they made that kind of mistake. Part of the difficulty in really precisely assessing all this is the fact that the majority of police departments don't provide clear information about their use of force by officers, and so it makes it really difficult for researchers to have a clear sense of just how often these kinds of usages are taking place.
Dr, Melissa Harris-Perry: Since we're talking a little bit about the kinds of defenses that get used in these cases. Can you tell me about excited delirium which often comes up to explain the deaths of civilians at the hands of police?
Alex Vitale: Yes, this is a concept that had bounced around a little bit over a number of years but essentially, got picked up by the taser company to use as a explanation for some of these early deaths that were associated with taser use. The idea here is that there were anecdotal, emergency room, observations, and observations by police of people who may have been under the influence of some drug and who were resistant or combative in ways that they didn't normally see.
This gain traction as a convenient way to explain the necessity for certain high levels of police violence. The scientific and medical communities have never accepted the validity of this explanation. This is not understood as a legitimate medical condition and really has been used as part of a marketing and legal defense strategy with no real scientific basis.
Dr, Melissa Harris-Perry: If tasers were meant to be an alternative, what are the alternatives to tasers?
Alex Vitale: We need to look at whether or not in the first place police are actually the right people to be responding to some of these calls in the first place. I think part of it is rethinking or use of officers armed with handguns and tasers in situations where they're not needed. Also, we've heard all this discourse about de-escalation of police encounters and we just haven't seen that play out in very meaningful ways. We either need to rethink this training or rethink whether or not, really, we should be arming police officers with tasers in the first place.
Dr, Melissa Harris-Perry: Alex Vitale is professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of the End of Policing. Alex, again, thank you so much for joining us.
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