More Thoughts on the Utah Tasering Video:
on the Utah tasering video drew a flood of responses, including over 2,000 votes and about 400 reader comments. I wanted to add a few thoughts of my own. In particular, I want to argue that the video can plausibly be viewed two different ways depending on what parts of the video you focus on when you're watching.
One way to watch the video is to focus on the 2:00 to 2:30 window and see how little the officer communicates to the driver about what is going on. The driver seems to believe that he can settle the issuance of the ticket and that signing the ticket is an admission of liability. The officer doesn't explain to him that this is wrong: He doesn't tell the driver that the place to settle the ticket is in court or by mail, and he doesn't tell the driver that Utah law allows him to arrest the driver and bring him to a magistrate
if he refuses to sign. Even more oddly, after he tells the driver to exit the car the officer doesn't tell the driver that he is detaining him for that reason. As a result, the driver is totally clueless about what is happening. When the driver gets out of the car, he seems to believe that he was ordered out so they could settle the location of the relevant speed sign.
When you watch the video with these facts in mind, the officer's use of force seems plainly unreasonable. The driver exits the car and expects to discuss the location of the speed sign. He's standing there pointing to the sign when the officer suddenly pulls out the taser; the driver is understandably shocked and instinctively backs away. Seconds later, the officer zaps the driver with the taser. In this narrative, the officer is totally out of control. That seemed to be how most readers interpreted the video: 70% saw
the officer's use of force as unreasonable.
I don't think that's the only way to interpret the video, though. Watch the video again, and this time focus closely on the 2:30 to 2:40 window. The officer has just ordered the driver out of the car so he can arrest him for failing to sign the ticket promising to pay or appear. The driver sees that the officer has the weapon out and is ordering him to submit to the officer's authority. But the driver makes perfectly clear he is not going to submit. Here's the dialogue:
Officer: Turn around and put your hands behind your back! (pause) Turn around and put your hands behind your back! Now!
Driver: What the heck is wrong with you?
Officer: Turn around! Turn around!
Driver: What the heck is wrong with you?
Watch the driver's hands during this dialogue. Police officers are all about the hands during traffic stops; they want to see them, and they want them out in the open where they can't be grabbing a weapon. When an officer is pointing a weapon at a suspect, his greatest fear will be that the suspect has a weapon on him that he'll try to use; getting control of the situation is essential. So he's going to be paying close attention to the driver's hands.
In this case, the driver does everything wrong with his hands. At the 2:30 mark, he puts his right hand in his right pocket; his right arm is opposite the officer, so the officer can't see what he's doing. Even though the officer has the taser drawn and is pointing it directly at the driver, the driver turns to face the officer and then starts walking away, yelling "what the heck is wrong with you?" and keeping his hand near his pocket. At 2:36, the driver seems to be fishing for something in his pocket while still walking away from the officer to get more distance between himself and the taser. Two seconds later, the officer fires the taser.
If you focus heavily on this specific time window, the officer's use of force is highly regrettable ex post but not unreasonable ex ante. A reasonable officer is going to feel threatened by a hostile driver who won't follow his orders and instead backs away and fishes for something in his pocket. Of course, we happen to know that the driver wasn't armed, and that the driver was just nervously fidgeting. On the other hand, that seems to be the kind of conduct that reasonable officers are going to be looking for to trigger whether they need to use force.
In sum, what makes the video so interesting is that the driver and the officer seem to be inhabiting totally different worlds. The driver is in the first world and the officer is in the second. I think we would all agree that the officer did a terrible job in the traffic stop on the whole; that guy needs a desk job pronto. But I tend to think that reasonable people could disagree on whether the use of force itself was unreasonable.