Wednesday, May 5, 2010

How much force is too much force?

How much force is too much force?
That is the question that Taser-gate has forced us to ponder.
The picture above was taken at Citizens Bank Park on Monday evening at the Phillies' game. It shows a Philadelphia police officer aiming his taser at a 17-year-old fan who entered the field of play and disrupted the proceedings until he was subdued and apprehended.
The episode was the buzz of sports talk radio yesterday. Not surprisingly, the pundits could not reach consensus. Vai Sikahema and John Gonzalez, hosts of a morning sports talk show on 97.5 FM, the Fanatic, were on opposite sides of the fence. Gonzalez thought the taser incident represented another "black eye for the city" and that the officer used too much force to stop the teen-age culprit. Sikahema, who played for the Eagles, felt the use of force was appropriate. After all, he said, when you break the law, you should expect consequences to happen.
Callers took widely different positions on the incident. Some thought tasers were a good idea and that the sight of a young fan shuddering involuntarily on the outfield grass, shaking from an electrical shock, would discourage other fans from disrupting our ballgames. One said it set a dangerous precedent and warned if citizens didn't protest this kind of police action we were becoming complacent and were in danger of becoming subjected to "a police state."
Later in the day on the same station, Sal Paolantonio -- who covers the Eagles for ESPN -- said if the boy had been his son, he would hire a lawyer and pursue a law suit against the officer who used the taser. He noted that tasers had killed more than 300 people over the years (most of them who died had a pre-existing heart condition at the time they were subdued with a taser) and that the company who makes tasers has advised police departments around the country that tasers should never be aimed at the chest of a suspect.
How you feel about the use of tasers usually comes down to how you feel about law and order and that, all too frequently, tends to echo a person's political views as well. Conservatives usually side with police officials, who say the use of a taser to subdue a person fleeing arrest is consistent with modern police policy and actually safer than using several officers to trap or tackle a suspect.
Liberals tend to believe the use of a taser to subdue a young fan in a public place like the ballpark is a classic case of excessive force. It's one thing to subdue a suspect who is fleeing police after snatching a purse. It's quite another to use it on an over-zealous fan who wants to bring attention to himself by joining Ryan Howard on the field for 30 seconds.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsay defended the actions of his officer and said he has used appropriate force. But it didn't take long for the police department to rethink its tactics. Last night, just as Cole Hamels was about to throw the first strike in the ninth inning and protecting a 1-0 lead, another fan jumped the fence and ran onto the field.
This time, the fan was apprehended without the use of a taser.
Hamels seemed to lose his composure after the incident. He quickly gave up the lead and left the game in a 1-1 tie. Luckily, the Phils won it in extra innings.
If they'd lost it, the court of public opinion might have come to the conclusion that using tasers on such disruptive fans is a good thing.
I, for one, would prefer not to see attention seeking teen-agers or drunk fans seeking a moment of "fame" treated like criminals fleeing the scene of a crime. Let's ask our law enforcement officials use common sense in the future.

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