Early in the morning of August 6, Miami Beach police fired a Taser burst into the chest of Israel Hernandez, an 18-year-old artist and skater who was running from a half dozen cops after they saw him spray-painting a boarded-up, abandoned McDonald’s. Shortly after Hernandez was taken into custody, he went into cardiac arrest and subsequently died in the hospital, a casualty of the cops' decision to shock him with a stun gun. It turned out that the officer responsible, Jorge Mercaco, has a history of being accused of using excessive force—the Miami New Times reported on Thursday that he once arrested of a woman who did nothing more than ask him for directions, and in 2008 Mercado and another officer beat and Tasered an Iraq War veteran and his friend. (None of these accusations led to the officer being disciplined.)
Mercado remains on administrative leave, which is typical when a suspect dies after a police action. An autopsy of Hernandez is pending, along with three different investigations by the local DA, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and the Miami Beach Police Department’s Internal Affairs division. The cops, naturally, are defending Mercado’s choice to use the weapon on Hernandez. It remains to be seen whether the police officially misused their Tasers, since Hernandez supposedly refused to obey their commands and was arguably a potential threat—the cops claim the teenager ran at them when they cornered him, and police chief Ray Martinez told the Miami Herald, “The officers were forced to use the Taser to avoid a physical incident.” But is it policy to aggressively chase a kid for graffiting an abandoned building? And should it be?
Tasers aren’t a bad invention, and even help save lives in situations where cops would otherwise be firing real guns—but they’re also too often a crutch for law enforcement. Instead of being wielded by brave officers who use them to avoid killing dangerous lawbreakers, Tasers are often used by mean or lazy cops to neutralize such nonthreats as streakers, pregnant women who are pissed about parking tickets, disorderly ten-year-olds, the mentally disabled, and lost autistic children.
Like flashbang grenades, beanbag rounds, and rubber bullets, Tasers are touted as nonlethal weapons, and to be fair, most of the time they don’t kill people. But there are some horrific exceptions. The dangers of Tasers are still being debated, even as their use is on the rise in large cities. A 2011 study by the New York Civil Liberties Union found that police in that state misused Tasers is as many as 60 percent of incidents—cops were frequently Tasering people without warning them, using the potentially deadly weapons on the elderly and the visibly infirm, and even shocking those already in cuffs. In 2012, Amnesty International counted 500 people who died after being Tasered in the last decade; many of the deaths were officially attributed to other causes, but “medical examiners have listed Tasers as a cause or contributing factor in more than 60 deaths, and in a number of other cases the exact cause of death is unknown,” according to Amnesty. That same year, the New York Times reported on a study that suggested Taser shots to the chest are particularly dangerous and can lead to cardiac arrest. (The company that manufactures the stun guns advises against shooting people in the chest with them, but the NYCLU says that chest shots were used in more than a quarter of Taser incidents it reviewed.)
You can argue that Israel Hernandez shouldn’t have fled from the cops, if only for his own safety. But if we’re going to give the police the power to shock and potentially kill civilians, they’re going to need to exercise some judgment. They should be able to figure out that chasing and Tasering a teenaged suspect who was spray-painting an abandoned building is an overreaction. Their training should include the idea that while “nonlethal” force is preferable to using live ammunition, sometimes they don’t need to use force at all.
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