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?

6 thoughts on “Publicity and the Taser: When Stories Get Told (and When They Don’t)

  1. The 911 story is disgusting – well they all are, but wow.

    What was the outrage icing on the taser cake is the extra violence – ripping out his hair, punching him. It reminded me of the teenager (a black girl) punched by a cop after she pushed him. She was no longer touching him, he was the adult and had the training and there were a million other things he could do than punching a girl.

    What I hate is the blue wall, or whatever it’s called. Cops are always right.

    Their actions with POCs has long pissed me off – I recently unblocked my dad, who is a cop now working an ER downtown where the poor (=black) often go. He makes ableist statements all the time (bipolar’s not real – it’s red bull and cigs) and I’m sure he’s talking about black people.

    But now I’ve added another reason, thanks to this site, to doubt them – was a person really resisting arrest, or were they deaf and couldn’t hear the instructions and were shot for being black? I watch COPS with my mom and go, “What if so-and-so is a PWD?”

  2. This is simultaneously enraging and terrifying! I’m a Type 1 diabetic, and I’ve had instances of low blood sugar that have left me incoherent and unbalanced and swervy – what if I’d done that around a cop? Would they have fucking Tasered my ass? I’m white, but I’m also a tall woman. Would my paleness protect me, or would my medical problem and my womanness be viewed as a ‘threat’?

    Gah, those poor people. I feel so badly for them, but I’m glad that the news is getting out. And thank you, s.e. smith, for posting this. I knew the Taser situation was bad, but seeing how widespread (and how many diabetics are being targeted) is truly eye-opening.

  3. Don’t underestimate the par that Taser Int’l and its lawyers play in these types of cases. In the infamous Robert Dziekanski case here in Canada (a tired, dehydrated immigrant was shocked 5 times, and died, after he picked up a stapler; it’s all on YouTube), Taser’s lawyers are now suing the commission for saying that Tasers can cause death. There have been hundreds of people killed by Tasers (most of them in police custody) but Taser’s lawyers have been there every time to prevent anyone from asking the hard questions. In my opinion, the police unions, Taser Int’l, and various police departments from across North America have been working together to protect their own – not the public they swore to protect.

  4. A distressing postscript for anyone “weird” (POC, PWD, POCWD…) – there are laws in three states making it illegal to film an on-duty cop. Why? Because they keep abusing people. (Of course, in Thomas’ case, it wouldn’t make a difference.)

    I can’t find a newspaper source – it was on Cracked today, people brought it up in comments on Jezebel (Jezebel may have ableist comments, but it’s much safer than most places when it comes to comments – like comments on news articles. eugh.), and all I can find is a Gizmodo article.

    I think the article is pretty safe, no promises about the comments.

    It’s disgusting – recent technology has been a great way to hold cops accountable for their crimes. Before (and in the states with the law), if you were lucky, you had eye-witnesses. Hopefully not somebody who knew the “suspect.” Or it was just you vs. the cop (and the justice system).

    I fear the police, I hate getting in trouble, but I do not respect them as an entity, some are good, but the system is bad.

  5. Holy shit, Kaitlyn, that article scared the hell outta me! You can’t record a police officer beating the bejesus out of you, or a police officer shooting you, or a police officer in some way, shape, or form assaulting you illegally, or you’ll be arrested FOR A FELONY? OMG. That is truly terrifying.

    Thanks for the head’s up.

  6. I’ve been collecting stories on seizure victims being tasered, beaten, killed, pepper sprayed, and sending the stories to the media – nobody in the mainstream media cares at all. Killing sick people is just fine with the media – in fact, it only continues because of the silence and complicity of the media. Animals have more rights in America than seizure victims do

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