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Riding the Taser in Utah   December 2nd, 2007
       

 
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Let me start by saying that I'm a "law and order conservative." When it comes to reports of police abuse, in the absence of concrete evidence, I virtually always come down on the side of police. They have a dangerous job, they have to deal with a lot of unsavory people, and I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

When I've been pulled over a few times for speeding, I've had no complaints of how I was treated except once: One time late at night in the middle of nowhere on a highway in Texas I do think a highway patrol officer exaggerated the situation by asking me to get out of my car and asking me to pop my trunk over a broken taillight. I complied and was sent on my way with a warning and instructions to fix my taillight (which I actually appreciated since I didn't know it was broken until the officer told me). However, I've always been uncomfortable with that experience because I know there was no justification for him to ask me to pop my trunk--there was no probable cause, the trunk was not within my reach so nothing in it could pose a threat to the police, and I had given the officer no reason to be suspicious of me in anyway--yet I complied to avoid trouble. I succeeded at avoiding trouble, but I always have wondered what would have happened if I had stood up for my rights and declined to open the trunk for the officer.

I fear that what happened in Utah on September 14th, 2007 may very well be my answer.

The Utah/Trooper Jon Gardner Taser Incident

For those that don't know, on that day Utah Highway Patrol Trooper Jon Gardner executed a traffic stop because a driver, Jared Massey, was allegedly speeding through a 40mph construction zone. Jared took issue with the officer on the spot because, he claimed, there had been no previous speed limit reduction sign and that he was going 40mph at the point he passed the 40mph speed limit sign and the officer's car. The officer prepared the ticket and asked Massey to sign it, which Massey indicated he would refuse to do until they went back and looked for the previous 40mph sign which the officer claimed existed and which would substantiate the speeding allegation. The officer insisted that Massey sign the ticket and Massey again insisted that they go look for 40mph speed limit sign first.

At that point the officer asked Massey to "hop out of the car" and Massey seemed to believe that they were going to investigate the location of the speed limit sign. Instead, the officer immediately instructed Massey to "put his hands behind his back" and, simultaneously, drew his taser and aimed it at Massey. Massey was taken aback by this seemlessly unnecessary escalation and slowly started to walk away from the officer who repeated his instruction and then fired his tas3er, dropping Massey to the asphalt. Massey's understandably frightened and hysteric wife jumped out and the police officer verbally forced her helplessly back into the car.

Soon after, another police officer arrived on the scene and Trooper Gardner mis-characterized the true events to the newly arrived officer on the scene. And, famously, he told his colleague that Massey had "taken a ride on the taser."

The full police cruiser dashcam videos can be found at the following YouTube links: 1-Traffic stop and tazing incident, 2-After the tazing, 3-Mischaracterizing events to the other officer. This is the full sequence, but there is a lot of blank space where nothing happens in the middle of the first link. This link is the condensed version of the whole stop with the relevant content; it basically just removes all the video where nothing is happening.

What the Subject Jared Massey Did Wrong

I'll first say outright: The subject, Jared Massey, could have handled this better. Signing a ticket is not an admission of guilt so he should have complied with the instruction to sign the ticket. He could have been less stubborn, more respectful and less confrontational with the officer when disputing the allegation in his car. When he was out of the vehicle and ordered to put his hands behind his back, he should have complied--he definitely shouldn't have started walking away.

Having said that, I can empathize with Massey. Assuming Massey was correct and there wasn't a 40mph speed limit sign a mile before like the officer claimed, why would you feel compelled to even acknowledge the bogus ticket before the officer could show you it was valid? After you signed the ticket, would there be any reason to believe the officer actually would accompany you back to the first sign, or would he just tell you "deal with it in court?" And if he did go back with you and it was determined there wasn't a posted speed reduction, would the officer be honest enough to admit he was wrong and take back a ticket that you had already signed?

I'm guessing that Massey wasn't thinking he was being wronged by the court, but that he was being wronged by the police officer--perhaps even unintentionally. That's why I suspect he was so insistent that they go back and check to see if the speed limit had really dropped to 40mph long before the point in time that Massey had slowed down. Why accept a traffic ticket and have to be present in court for something that, hopefully, could be resolved by an honest officer's admission that, actually, no infraction had taken place.

What Trooper Jon Gardner Did Wrong

Having acknowledged Massey's mistakes, I simply do not believe they are any excuse for the trooper's long list of mistakes.
  1. Inability to defuse situation. The trooper offered no evidence that he was able to defuse the situation by calmly discussing things with Massey. The trooper could have indicated that signing the ticket was not an admission of guilt. The trooper could have indicated that Massey was compelled by law to sign the ticket. He could have said that he understood Massey's concerns but that it must be addressed in court. Or he could have said that he would be happy to go back to the first speed limit sign after the ticket had been signed. Instead, the whole incident became a matter of testosterone--a flat-out pissing match between the two. This smacks of a complete lack of professionalism and training on the part of the trooper. We need law enforcement that solves problems, not creates them.

  2. Needless escalation. The trooper needlessly escalated the situation and increased tensions--both of which seriously increased the risk to the safety of the subject and the trooper. The officer escalated the problem by failing to calmly defuse the situation. The officer escalated the problem by opting to confront the subject rather than simply writing "refused to sign" on the ticket and completing the incident (which the officer did have the option of doing). The officer escalated the problem by asking the subject to "hop out" of the car which only increases the chance of physical conflict. The officer escalated the situation by drawing his taser even before he had finished saying "put your hands behind your back" for the very first time--even though Massey had given the officer absolutely no reason to anticipate a physical confrontation. And the officer escalated the situation when he used his taser without verbal warning, without provocation, and without any reasonable fear for his own safety.

  3. Lied to Massey's Wife. In the condensed video clip at 8:03, the wife correctly expresses her amazement that the first thing the officer did was whip out his taser gun, the officer stutters, and says that it "looked like he was leaving." This is a complete fabrication since when the officer drew his taser, Massey was still walking towards the police car. The trooper demonstrated an intent to use his taser in the absence of any perceived physical threat and Massey definitely wasn't "leaving" when the officer drew his taser.

  4. Lied to Second Officer. When Gardner is narrating the sequence of events to the officer that arrived on the scene later, he did not tell the truth. He tells his colleague that he told Massey twice to "turn around and place your hands behind your back" and then drew his taser and repeated it once again, and included a warning that the subject would be tazed. The truth is that Trooper Gardner started drawing his taser just as he was completing his first instruction to Massey and when there was zero indication that Massey was a threat to the officer. The truth is that he never verbally told Massey he would be tazed. And when Gardner also explains to the other officer why he used the taser, the reason is not the same as the reason given to Massey's wife: Now the reason he gives is that Massey was "jumping around" which most definitely did not happen in the video.
My Perspective

As I said before, I am willing to give police great latitude in the execution of their job. I understand they run great risks on a daily basis. I was taught to respect officers as a child, and always have. However, I firmly believe that officers must give us daily examples of why we should respect them. They aren't to be respected simply because they grew up wanting to carry a gun and drive fast so they went to the police academy and became police officers--there's nothing in that that would give the public any reason to respect them more than anyone else. Having gone through the process and receiving a badge does not make them automatically worthy of respect. No, the reason why we should respect them is because they are there to "protect and serve" us at potential great danger to themselves, and they do it professionally. Or at least, I believe, most do.

Respect for authority should never be allowed to go to authority's head. The function of police is to protect and serve, not to needlessly assert their authority for reasons of ego, or simply for the sake of asserting authority.

In this case, Trooper Gardner pulled Massey over because he was allegedly violating the speed limit. This infraction could have been settled by the trooper writing "refused to sign" on the ticket, handing it to Massey, and walking away. The trooper would have fully accomplished the purpose of his traffic stop and both the trooper and Massey could have gone about their business. Instead, Trooper Gardner became personally involved in the matter and let his own ego, pride, and position of authority go to his head. He decided that in a battle of the jerks, he was going to win because he had a badge--even though doing this did not serve or protect the public. In fact, by having the subject get out of the car, he greatly increased the risk for a physical confrontation that would put himself, Massey, and possibly even passing motorists at risk.

As much as I am thankful for what police do for us on a daily basis, we absolutely must not let people that are entrusted with so much authority abuse that trust and that authority.

  1. Police should seek peace, not violence. Trooper Gardner did exactly the opposite. At every opportunity to defuse the situation peacefully, he instead chose a course of action that escalated the problem and ultimately reached a violent conclusion with the taser. Any officer that intentionally tries to escalate problems either for the sake of his own ego or to see if he can rack up a longer list of charges against an otherwise law-abiding citizen shouldn't be an officer. Police should minimize confrontations and conflicts with the general public, not increase them. Even law-abiding citizens can run afoul of a long list of "obey police" rules in a short time in a traffic stop--that doesn't mean they deserve to be treated like dangerous criminals... or even made into criminals in the first place.

  2. Tasers not a substitute for police training. I've seen episodes of Cops on TV where the officers were able to defuse far more dangerous situations verbally without the use of force, much less a taser. And, on many occasions, the police ultimately let the initially belligerent subject go with a warning once the officer had calmed things down verbally. The fact that an officer carries a taser and can "resolve" everything in a second should never be a substitute for good and professional police work. The officer's first weapon--especially in a traffic stop for a minor infraction--should always be his training to defuse a situation.

  3. Tasers for real threats. There is nothing in the Utah incident that would give any reason to believe that the officer had any reasonable motive to believe he was in physical danger. And despite Massey's retreat from the drawn taser, there was no reason for the officer to believe Massey was going to flee the scene. Tasers are potentially lethal, and falling backwards unimpeded onto the concrete (or maybe into passing traffic) is potentially very dangerous. Officers should use tasers not simply because a non-dangerous subject isn't following instructions but because the officer either fears for his safety or because the suspect is really trying to flee the scene. Tasers should be the tool of last resort, not the first.
Despite my very pro-police stand, this incident in Utah is going to make me very vigilant in the reports of the mis-use of tasers. It has also changed my perspective that people should automatically respect police and I now demand that police demonstrate to us why we should respect them. I will continue to respect police, but not simply because they have a badge. Any police that is not worthy of respect should be fired. Period. And I strongly believe that despite Trooper Gardner's allegedly spotless record, he demonstrated in a 30-minute traffic stop that he should not be on the Utah Highway Patrol force.

Unfortunately, the Utah Highway Patrol chose to find that Trooper Gardner acted reasonably. I find that amazing. Trooper Gardner may have acted within the strictest reading of the law, but if that's the case then the law must change. We absolutely cannot afford to have officers patrolling our highways that are looking to create physical conflict where there is none. If police want we the people to be sympathetic because their job puts them in dangerous situations, then we the people should have a legitimate expectation that those same police don't intentionally create those dangerous situations: What if Gardner had been unstable or had carried a weapon? Trooper Gardner could have been mortally injured in a completely unnecessary conflict. Perhaps police work would be ever so slightly less dangerous if we didn't have jerks like Trooper Gardner trying to provoke the public in a routine traffic stop. And, at the same time, police officers would be much more respected if they didn't harass law-abiding citizens unnecessarily. Simply nothing good can come of such a harassing, adversarial relationship with the law-abiding public. No, the subject of the traffic stop, Jared Massey, didn't act anything near ideally, but the action of Trooper Gardner was completely over the top and unnecessary--which is why, I suspect, the Utah Highway Patrol dropped all charges except for the original speeding charge. They know what happened wasn't right, yet they are unwilling to say so and take action against this disgusting example of a Utah Highway Patrol trooper.

We deserve a lot better from the police and highway patrols of this country. We are a nation of laws, but when those laws are enforced abusively, the end result is no better than the laws are completely ignored. Laws exist for the benefit of society, not to give police an excuse to engage in abuses of authority and trust.

In any case, I for one will not be visiting Utah in the foreseeable future. Even though it's one of the more beautiful states that neighbors mine (Colorado), I most definitely will not intentionally drive on highways that are patrolled by a police force that sees nothing wrong with Trooper Gardner's actions. Utah has some nice attractions in the southern part of their state, but Arizona and California offer equally impressive natural environments to satisfy my needs, and Colorado has better skiing anyway. I'll be keeping my skiing business in Colorado and will focus on visiting the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, and the desert of Nevada long before I consider returning to Utah.

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