TASERs and the Cult of Compliance

Heather Digby Parton, aka Digby, is one of the most important voice out there talking about police violence, with a particular focus on the TASER issue. In Salon, she has a piece in response to the chokehold death of Eric Garner and subsequent video of other use of the illegal restraint.

Digby writes:

The New York police commissioner has promised to investigate, as they usually do, and indicated that New York will consider the greater use of tasers in order that the police not be tempted to use illegal and brutal methods to force citizens to comply with their orders. But tasers will not solve that problem, it will simply legalize the use of pain compliance by allowing police to administer electro-shock rather than take a person down to the ground with a chokehold. Just because tasers don’t leave marks doesn’t mean they are not brutal and violent.

TASERs cause pain. The use of electric shocks to subdue someone reinforces the idea that it is appropriate for police to cause pain to make people comply, and because they are seen as not dangerous (i.e. not firearms and not as viscerally dangerous as physical altercations), they actually make the cult of compliance that much worse.

She continues:

But tasers are now commonly used for another purpose entirely: to make people obey a police officer’s orders with an application of searing pain that throws them to the ground writhing and screaming in agony. Situations that might have required some psychology, patience, training or plain common sense in the past are now commonly dealt with by shooting citizens with 50,000 volts of electricity.


The viral video incidents this week in New York, the first of which resulted in death and the second a beating in the face as well as the illegal chokeholds, were about suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes in the first case and jumping a subway turnstile in the second. These were not people who were suspected of a violent crime requiring that the police spare no energy in protecting the public. Indeed, it appears that the violent acts against these two suspects were entirely based upon the “crime” of failing to instantly obey a police officer. Have we decided that this crime is worthy of beating, torture and possibly death? Because that’s what’s happening all over the country. It’s happening to children, it’s happening to the mentally ill, it’s happening to the elderly and the sick, it’s happening to average citizens who merely assert their rights and it can happen to you too. (It even happens to NFL players.)

Digby is justifiably focused on the police. It’s where the cult of compliance most commonly leads to deaths, as the police have power. The schools are another place, though, where we see compliance played out in similar wars. It’s a rot at the core of our society. Part of the solution involves linking these disparate events, to see the pattern, rather than blaming bad cops, bad departments, or fixating on a technological solution.

More TASERS will accelerate the growth of the cult of compliance, rather than slow things down or help us reverse course.

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