Image via Flickr user Rébus
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.
On to the rest of this week’s bad cops:
- NYPD commissioner Raymond Kelly said on Sunday that if stop and frisk is stopped, crime—particularly crime against minorities—will go up, since minorities are also disproportionately the victims of violence. But it’s not as if the policy was ridding poor black and hispanic neighborhoods of guns and evildoers—90 percent of those stopped and frisked under the now-unconstitutional NYPD policy are not arrested, and police rarely find a weapon.
- George Madison Jr. was out biking in his hometown of Evansville, Indiana, on August 13 when a squad car’s abrupt left turn surprised him at an intersection. According to Madison, who is a firefighter and a preacher, when he waved his arms in response, officers Darin Clifton and Jason Clegg pulled over and began yelling at him. Madison took out his cell phone, and the cops escalated by brandishing a Taser. “Don’t make me use this,” they told him. Madison was then cuffed and asked his name and occupation, and the officers got a lot friendlier when they realized they were hassling a firefighter. Madison doesn’t want these aggro cops to lose their jobs or even be suspended, but he also doesn’t think their sudden change in attitude when they realized he was a city firefighter is a very good sign and he’s filing a formal complaint with the department. “The fact that I am a firefighter or preacher doesn’t make a difference,” he told the Evansville Courier & Press. “All anybody wants is to be treated like a human being.”
- In the dictionary next to chutzpah is a photo of Harris County, Texas, sheriff’s deputy Brady Pullen, who is suing the mother-in-law of a man Pullen killed during an incident on December 30. The deputy's complaint (he's asking for $200,000 for “mental distress”) states that Camina Figueroa did not adequately warn the cops that her son-in-law Kemal Yazar “posed a violent threat to others” during a 911 call in which she said Yazar was acting erratically after using bath salts for several days. The officers say that Yazar attacked them as soon as they walked inside, forcing them to Taser and then shoot him, and Pullen claims his nose was broken during the confrontation—but the victim’s sister-in-law, who was present, says he was nonviolent and was backing away from the officers when he was killed. Regardless, Pullen’s lawsuit is embarrassing bullshit coming from someone whose job is supposed to be protecting people, even if that means putting himself at risk.
- On Thursday, a Brooklyn man named Carlos Alcis suffered a fatal heart attack after police busted into his apartment at five in the morning because his 15-year-old son was suspected of stealing a cellphone. The family of the 43-year-old says that police took half an hour to offer any aid to him, and that they had to call 911 to get him help. The officers deny this and say they performed CPR on him.
- As previously noted in this space, 60-year-old Pensacola, Florida, resident Roy Middleton was shot in the leg by Escambia County sheriff’s deputies on July 27 at 2:40 AM while he searched through his mother’s car for a cigarette. The actions of the deputies, who are now on paid leave, drew some media attention, but their boss, Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan, didn’t issue the routine curt refusal to comment and instead claimed Middleton was not only a victim but a suspect and “the tragedy of this is the noncompliance to the directions of law enforcement officers.” It gets worse: after commentators noted that two white deputies had assaulted a black man without cause, Morgan used a speech to the local Rotary Club as an excuse to go on a long tirade about how nobody cares when black people murder white people.
- Time for our Good Cop of the Week award: Last Saturday, August 9, cops near Minneapolis, Minnesota, pulled over a guy named Andrew Paul Heim, a repeat drug offender who had $400 worth of oxycodone in his BMW. Heim led the officers on a car chase that ended when he crashed into some woods, after which the 37-year-old fled on foot, only to wind up drowning in a 20-foot-deep lake. The four cops on the scene—Jason Gehrman, John Jorgensen, Matthew George, and Kyle Eckert—took off all their gear and repeatedly dove into the dark water in hopes of saving the man. Heim ended up dying (after “shouting one last expletive at the officers,” according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune), but we salute the efforts of the four cops.