Publicity and the Taser: When Stories Get Told (and When They Don’t)
Last night, a young Black man with epilepsy was admitted to a hospital in Louisiana after a suicide attempt. He declined to don a hospital gown and ‘attempted to leave his examination,’ at which point security stepped in. According to witnesses, security officers punched the young man in the lip and pulled out several of his dreadlocks before pulling out their Tasers and shocking him, causing him to have a seizure.
His family members state that although doctors present were aware of his seizure disorder, they indicated that it was ok for security to Tase him.
This is not an unusual story. In fact, Tasers and seizures have a long and sordid history:
“While we’re not able to comment on the details of this case, we are certainly concerned to hear that a person in apparent medical and emotional distress was subjected to the taser.” (Manchester, England, 2010)
The most recent report involves a Michigan man with epilepsy, who, when experiencing a seizure, apparently was unjustifiably tasered, clubbed, arrested, jailed and committed to a psychiatric facility for violent offenders — all based on non-threatening behaviors caused by a seizure. (Michigan, US, 2006, content note, describes police brutality)
A local family is questioning why a woman having a diabetic seizure would have to be tackled and shocked by police. (Portland, Oregon, US, 2007)
When the EMTs asked the cops to help them move Lassi from where he was lying on the floor, Lassi says, one of his “arms flailed during his diabetes-induced seizure, striking one of the LaGrange and Brookfield defendants. At no time did Mr. Lassi intentionally strike or offensively touch any of the LaGrange or Brookfield defendants.”
Lassi says LaGrange Park Officer Darren Pedota responded by Tasering him 11 times, for nearly a minute, as he lay helpless. (Chicago, Illinois, US, 2009)
A Texas man who called 911 to request medical assistance for a diabetic seizure earned a tasering from local cops for his trouble, the Waxahachie Daily Light reports. (Texas, US, 2007)
“Freddie was a law abiding resident of the United States of America. During his lifetime, he was never involved in any criminal activity. The records are there for everyone to see…He was the quintessential model son, grandson, nephew, grandnephew and cousin.” (Georgia, US, 2004, content note, describes police brutality)
The Taser is a ‘nonlethal’ electroshock weapon which has become highly controversial, for a lot of reasons, including the fact that people of colour are far more likely to be Tasered than white folks. The Taser is being adopted by more and more police departments, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Taser-related deaths are going up. The people most likely to be killed with a Taser in the United States are young Black men, and Tasers are especially heavily weaponised against people with disabilities, most particularly people with mental illness, seizure disorders, intellectual disabilities, and autism.
Fortunately for the patient in Louisiana, Taser use didn’t kill him. His family is, according to news reports, in the process of transferring him to another facility, where I sincerely hope that patients are not Tased.
What is remarkable about this case is not that it happened, but that I read about it. The only reason the media picked up the story of a young Black man being Tasered into an epileptic seizure is because of who he was: Derek Thomas is the nephew of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and according to the media, Justice Thomas is not happy with his nephew’s treatment.
I am very happy that Derek Thomas is being transferred to another facility, where he will hopefully get more appropriate care. I’m also pleased that he has supportive family members who are also influential and willing to fight for him.
Reading his story, though, makes me think of the scores of similar cases that I am not reading about. Justice and humane treatment should be available to all people, regardless of who they are, who their families are, and the colour of their skin. Tasing patients should never be deemed an appropriate treatment. This case angers me, and I am equally angered by the scores of similar cases taking place in hospitals across the United States right now that I will never know about because the media isn’t interested enough.
I would really like to see the mainstream media in the United States use this story as a starting point to explore the use of Tasers in hospitals, mental health facilities, and institutions, and to examine particularly closely the racial disparities in how, when, and where Tasers are used. This is an opportunity for some really terrific investigative journalism. Will anyone follow up on it?