Electricity is no laughing matter … except when it courses through other peoples' bodies in non-lethal doses. Then, it's the source of great comedy, like when Curly became electrified in a 1943 Three Stooges episode, or when the Simpsons took turns shocking each other to the point that Springfield's lights flickered. And don't forget the basic hand buzzer, a classic prank for decades.
That's part of our problem in assessing the use of Tasers, those stun guns that more and more police departments are adopting. Awful as it is to admit, something about being Tasered seems humorous—as long you're not on the receiving end and there's no serious harm. It's like an advanced version of the hot foot. Law enforcement officers use Tasers as less-lethal weapons to subdue and detain dangerous suspects. Or at least that's the way Tasers are supposed to be used.
But a golf fan was tasered on May 7 during the second round of the Players Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., four days after a Phillies fan was tasered for running onto the field during a game at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. Those incidents have sparked a fierce debate on the use of Tasers on non-violent, non-threatening fans at sporting events. No video has surfaced of 36-year-old Travis Parmelee's encounter at the Players championship, although a photo shows him in handcuffs and being picked up by sheriff's deputies. But video of the teenage Phillies fan has gone viral, with everyone taking sides. A number of fans and media members say 17-year-old Steve Consalvi got what he deserved for running onto the field, while others say the police used excessive force.
Defenders of the Consalvi tasering say fans who leave the stands can't complain about what happens; they must accept the consequences, whatever they might be. In defense of the Philadelphia police officer who fired the Taser, supporters say there's no way to tell if Consalvi or any other individual means harm or poses a threat. They point to the 2002 incident in which a drugged-up father and son entered the field and viciously attacked Kansas City Royals first base coach Tom Gamboa. They also point to the demented Steffi Graf fan who stabbed Monica Seles with a 9-inch serrated boning knife during a 1993 match.
No one's suggesting that police have an easy job, especially when it comes to making split-second decisions in high-pressure situations. But that's what they're paid to do, and they have to make distinctions between towel-waving thrill seekers and weapon-brandishing bad guys. If you look at the video from Philly, the officer has his Taser out and aimed at Consalvi for at least 10 seconds as the teenager runs around and avoids capture. Consalvi wasn't tasered because he was a threat; he was tasered because he was making the officers look bad in their attempts to corral him.
Police commissioner Charles H. Ramsey defended the officer, saying the Taser may be used to prevent a suspect from escaping arrest. But, seriously, where was Consalvi going? At least authorities got it right the following night when a copycat ran onto the field. Security guards waited until he tired and then escorted him off and handed him to police officers—who no longer go onto the field unless "greater force is necessary," according to a team statement.
Parmelee's case—in which officers are pissed off at a lack of cooperation—reveal the inherent danger in sanctioning liberal use of Tasers. We saw it most famously during a 2007 incident when John Kerry spoke at the University of Florida, and student Andrew Meyer uttered the memorable, futile plea, "Don't tase me, bro!" Cases such as these and others, in which police respond to non-violent resistance with 50,000 volts, are frightening. Is a Taser much different, or any better, than a baton to your noggin? Different or better than a hail of fists and boots?
I don't think so. Excessive force under any name hurts just the same. And listening to the painful wails of Andrew Meyer, held down by several officers at the time, should remove any hints of humor in tasering. According to Amnesty International, more than 350 individuals in the United States have died after being shocked by police Tasers. On May 4, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police tightened their Taser policy for the second time in two years, dictating that the weapon should only be fired when a suspect is causing "bodily harm" or about to do so. The Mounties had changed the rules earlier, in response to a 2009 tasering death at the Vancouver Airport, declaring that police could no longer zap suspects for their failure to cooperate.
Every law-abiding citizen should be concerned if Tasers become tools for routine force, rather than a less-lethal alternative to guns. If police are free to use the weapons on fans at sporting events—or drivers during traffic stops and customers on shopping trips—I fear that officers will grow more and more liberal … in their definition of "unruly."
Deron Snyder is a regular contributor to The Root.