All Force Is Reasonable Force

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A 57-year old school-teacher calls the cops to report a prowler. The cops respond by tasing her--repeatedly:


Much of what happened in front of Wells' house was recorded by the camera on the dash of [Ryan] Smith's patrol car. The AJC obtained a copy of the video.

[Janice] Wells, hidden from camera view by the open door of the Richland patrol car, can be heard pleading, "Don't do that! Don't do that!"

"Get in the car. Get in the car. You're going to get it again," Smith answered.

Almost immediately there is another clicking as the Taser is discharged again and Wells screams.

"Don't do it! Don't do it!" Wells pleads again.

Smith, who quit eight days after the incident, remains unrepentant.

"I did what I had to do to take control of the situation," Smith told the AJC about his decision to repeatedly discharge his Taser.

It's good that Smith was fired. But not as good as you might think--he quickly got a job in the sheriff's department a few counties over. Wells will almost certainly sue the county to great effect--meaning the tax-payers will pick up the bill, while a cop who tased a third-grade teacher effectively keeps his job. The latter outcome bothers me a lot more than the former.

Some thoughts on why this sort of thing is tolerated. I read the report and was very frustrated by Wells' response to the officer. She refused to give him the name of another man who was at the house, and then resisted when he tried to arrest her. As I've said before, I regard police officers as men with guns--capable of calling in more men with guns--empowered by the state to shoot you.

Surely I have called the police before, but there are a lot of situations in which I probably should call the cops, but I wouldn't. I'm often unwilling to introduce someone who thinks it's good idea to tase, or more commonly arrest, you for being rudeness into a dicey situation. People are hot-headed enough. The last thing you need is a hot-head with state-backing. Pointing out that most cops are not hot-heads is irrelevant. They don't spit in your coffee at most McDonanld's. But if I see it happen once, I'm never going back.

From that perspective, I had trouble understanding Wells' actions. When you view cops as men with guns, you do what they say, and you take up your beef at a later point when you have the high ground. As I've said before this isn't advice or policy. It's a personal decision coming out of my interactions with the police. And I was forced to remember that while reading this story.

In fact the "men with guns" angle is exactly why this sort of dumb shit continues. Citizens are forced to take on the onus of de-escalation--because the people trained and theoretically paid to understand de-escalation refuse to. What is most important to them, as Officer Smith put it, is "control." It does not matter that Wells was in her own home. It does not matter that she was the one who called the cops. From the perspective of this officer, once he's summoned, he has the right to take control by whatever means he deems appropriate. He is the authority--not the woman who pays his salary.

We, as a society, have endorsed this approach. We have created, and tolerated, a world where police officers who tase school-teachers are allowed to continue to patrol the streets. It is not conspiratorial. It is who we are.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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