The grisly details of Baron Pikes' violent death are remarkable. There's the fact that Officer Scott Nugent jammed his Taser into the unarmed 21-year-old nine times in 14 minutes. There's the fact that Pikes was handcuffed during each of those 50,000-volt shocks. And there's the fact that witnesses heard Pikes, who was supposedly resisting arrest, plead to Nugent, "You all got me. Please, don't Tase me again."
Then there's the fact that Pikes died in Winnfield, Louisiana, which boasts a stunning history of police corruption. The police chief was previously convicted of drug charges, according to CNN, but got a pardon from the former governor, who is now in prison for racketeering. And the preceding police chief committed suicide in 2005 after being charged with buying votes and other fraud while campaigning for the job.
Nugent joined the force not long after his dad's suicide and has been responsible for 10 of Winnfield's 14 Taser incidents in the last year—12 of which involved black residents like Pikes. And there's more: Pikes is first cousin to Mychal Bell, one of the black high school kids in the Jena 6 who were initially prosecuted for attempted murder in a schoolyard fight that started with white students hanging a noose in a tree.
All of these eye-grabbing facts have drawn the attention of national news media, which has been cued in to Louisiana's special brand of justice since the Jena 6 case. Chicago Tribune reporter Howard Witt has led the way; CNN and others have followed up. But the shocking facts of Pikes' case notwithstanding, death-by-Taser is an increasingly unremarkable story, and one that is hardly confined to Louisiana. It is, sadly, yet another side effect of unnecessarily violent policing tactics deployed in black communities.
Amnesty International has been urging the Justice Department and local police departments to curb their growing Taser use for years. The group documented at least 290 deaths following cops' use of Tasers and similar weapons between June 2001 and September 2007. A Canadian blog, Truth Not Tasers, has compiled a list of 363 North Americans it says have died after being shocked. Another blog, Tasered While Black, keeps a running log of black Americans killed or abused in what it calls "police pre-trial electrocution."
Ironically, Tasers became popular in police departments as a way to tamp down police shootings. The weapons, known broadly as "conducted energy devices," have proliferated in recent years. According to a June Justice Department report, more than 11,000 law enforcement agencies now use some form of them. The most popular is the Taser X26, manufactured by Taser International of Scottsdale, Ariz.
Taser International has worked hard to muddy the picture on the weapons' safety—and thereby stifled calls for federal regulations governing Taser use, which is now ruled by each department's own use-of-force policy. According to Amnesty, the company has hidden behind at least two studies purporting to prove that conducted energy devices are entirely nonlethal and pose no real harm. The Justice Department's own report echoed those findings, sort of, by declaring that no proof exists of "high risk of serious injury or death" from Taser-like weapons when they're "deployed reasonably" and on healthy adults. The study did, however, acknowledge that questions remain about why some people have died after being Tased.
Cops seem to be having great trouble ensuring such a weapon gets "deployed reasonably." Amnesty says most of the deaths it tracked involved prolonged or repeated shocks, like those Pikes absorbed, on people who were already restrained. Many victims also had pre-existing health problems, such as heart conditions, were mentally ill or were taking drugs at the time. Most of them died from cardiac arrest.
The Justice Department acknowledged that "the medical risks of repeated or continuous CED exposure are unknown." It concluded that more research is needed.
Um, ok. But I bet I can guess what happens when you repeatedly jolt 50,000 volts into someone's body. Or what happens when you give a 17-year-old a continuous 37-second shock of that same voltage, as a Charlotte cop did when he killed Darryl Turner in March. Baron Pikes' family can guess, too.
According to the police chief's official account, Pikes died from drugs and asthma. As the story goes, on January 17, Nugent spotted Pikes, who was wanted on drug possession charges, walking along a road and tried to arrest him. Pikes ran and, when finally caught, overpowered Nugent, prompting the Taser shots to subdue him. Once in the car, Pikes supposedly got sick, told the cops he had asthma and that he had taken both crack and PCP. They called an ambulance, but Pikes later died.
In a rare break with decorum on police violence, coroner Randolph Williams has contradicted this official account and ruled Pikes' death a homicide. Williams says the last two shocks were delivered after Pikes was unconscious—and likely already dead. Pointing to a chip in Nugent's gun that records shots, Williams says the officer fired six shots in three minutes, then loaded Pikes into the police cruiser, where he fired a seventh shot directly into Pikes' chest. At the station, Nugent and his partner removed Pikes from the car and shot him twice more. "He had no neuromuscular response to those last two," Williams told CNN.
Winnfield's district attorney announced this week that he will seat a grand jury in August to weigh charges against Nugent.
The case will likely draw national attention back to Louisiana's law enforcement, but it remains to be seen whether that attention will prompt a more serious examination of Tasers, in particular, or violent policing of black neighborhoods, in general. The problem is rapidly worsening. In 2001, Amnesty found just three deaths-by-Taser. By 2004, the annual number was up to 48. Between then and early 2006, the group had logged another 85.
Taser International may be correct in asserting that its product is safe when used conservatively. But to borrow an idea from the gun-rights crowd: Perhaps it's the user, not the weapon that matters most. At some point, we're going to have to talk about whether, as a society, we believe it's appropriate and effective to militarize neighborhoods in the name of making them safe.
Kai Wright is a regular contributor to The Root.