TAR HEEL VIEW: Taser use must be measured


The ordeal of Jack Slaughter shows the need for law officers to treat Tasers more as they would handguns and less as they would batons.

Slaughter, who was handcuffed, was jolted at least seven times with a Taser when he was arrested in Graham County in 2012. A first-degree murder charge subsequently filed against him was dismissed on the grounds he is incapable of assisting in his defense.

The use of force was egregious to the point that Slaughter’s constitutional rights were violated and he could not remember where he was when Robert Smith was stabbed to death, rendering him unable to help with his own defense, Judge Bradley Letts wrote.

Tasers fire two wires with barbed points into a target, then administer an electrical shock of high voltage but low current. The target feels intense pain and can be momentarily paralyzed. The idea is to subdue a violent subject from a safe distance without using a gun. One shock and the target will stop resisting, so goes the theory.

But what if the subject isn’t thinking clearly? What if he is on methamphetamines, as tests showed Slaughter was? Dr. George Corvin, a Raleigh-based psychiatrist who testified in Slaughter’s behalf, points to Slaughter’s demeanor on film taken by the camera in the Graham County jail’s booking room.

“If you look at his face, you know something else is going on. He’s scared,” Corvin said. “If you’re psychotic and paranoid and fearful and not understanding the interaction with law enforcement, you’ll see that when they shock him, he’s fighting to save his life. As opposed to surrendering to officers, he’s being tortured and he’s fighting for survival at that point.”

The first Tasering evidently occurred when Slaughter walked through an open door. The jolt sent him into a metal file cabinet and, with his hands restrained, he was unable to break his fall. He would occasionally kick at deputies as he lay on the floor. Each kick would bring a new shock.

All of this evidently interfered with the process of memory. “Memories have to get consolidated. You write them down and they have to get stored in circuits somewhere in the brain,” said Wilkie Wilson, a Duke University researcher who studies the impact of drugs on the nervous system.

“You give it 24 hours or so and it’s more permanently written … My offer to the court is it’s entirely possible these memories were never properly stored because of the trauma that occurred to him in the office.”

Today, the treatment of Slaughter would clearly be illegal. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a case involving the fatal use of a Taser on a mentally-ill man in Pinehurst, ruled that the standard for using a Taser should be similar to that for using a handgun. This means officers must believe they are in immediate danger.

“It was considered to be a less intrusive type of force than say the alternatives of batons or pepper spray or fists,” said a lawyer representing Pinehurst. “We were concerned about officers in the 4th Circuit who now have to comply with this ruling and it limits their options, I think unnecessarily.”

The analogy he uses is faulty. The effects of electric shock on the brain make the Taser a potentially far more dangerous weapon that pepper spray and posing a different sort of threat than batons or fists.

The U.S. Justice Department has begun a civil rights investigation. We’re not sure what will come of that, but we can see no justification for using a Taser on a handcuffed man seven times.

The Asheville Citizen-Times

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