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Shock Heard Round the World

September 20, 2007

The video is a YouTube sensation, and the latest argument capturing the public's fancy is whether the student being filmed wanted it just that way. But the lasting questions to come from the Taser incident that followed Sen. John Kerry's speech Monday at the University of Florida will most likely be about the conduct of campus police.

Officers at the now-infamous event first stood behind Andrew Meyer, the Florida student, and then forcibly removed him from the microphone. A university spokesman has said the student's allocated time for questions had expired, but others allege Meyer was taken away after saying "blow job" in the context of a comment about President Clinton.

As with many incidents posted to video-sharing sites, it's difficult to get the full context of what happened in the Florida auditorium. Meyer can be seen refusing to comply with the officers and becoming angry when the microphone is turned off. Police take Meyer to the back of the auditorium and eventually employ a Taser gun after it appears he continues to resist. Throughout the process, Meyer yells to others for help, finally gasping, "What did I do?, and telling an officer, "Don't taze me, bro."

In the days since the incident, some have criticized the reaction of campus police, saying there was no need for a stun gun. Meyer's motivations have also been called into question. Some have called him an opportunistic prankster, pointing to several practical jokes he has taped. The arresting report quotes Meyer telling police while being driven away, "I am not mad at you guys, you didn't do anything wrong, you were just trying to do your job." An officer writes that he became much calmer once out of camera range.

Meyer was charged with disrupting a public event and resisting with police. Two officers involved in the incident have been placed on administrative leave pending an external investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. A university panel of faculty and students will also conduct an internal review of its police protocols.

J. Bernard Machen, Florida's president, said at a news conference that the incident was "regretful for us."

“We’re absolutely committed to having a safe environment for our faculty and our students so that the free exchange of ideas can occur,” Machen said. “Civil discourse and civil debate are hallmarks of universities.”

Kyle Bernet, a Florida student who helped start the Facebook group "UF Students for More Tasering, Bro," said that although it didn't appear the police needed to use a Taser, he viewed Meyer's actions as a publicity stunt.

Bernet said his group was formed as a joke, but since has become somewhat more serious. "We didn't think it'd be a big thing with people rallying behind him," he said. "Now it seems like everyone is making him into a martyr and making this into a freedom of speech case."

Nathan Cleckley, an incoming UCLA student who started the group "Free Andrew Meyer," said it's just that. It wasn't so much the Taser use, he said, but the removal of Meyer from the microphone before he could express his full opinion that upset him.

Tasers have been accepted for some time as a part of the security protocol at Florida, Machen pointed out during his press conference. They are generally allowed on other campuses, too, though some have banned them entirely.

Police conduct was also called into question last year at the University of California at Los Angeles, when a student who could not produce identification was repeatedly stunned with a Taser gun. The student said he complied with requests to leave, but officers alleged he had made a scene and was inciting others to join his resistance.

UCLA police officials found in an investigation that no policies were violated, but an outside review showed that officers had other options for defusing the situation without using a Taser. The university has since changed its guidelines for when the guns can be used. Under the new rules, police can use them on "violent subjects" but not on those who are passively resistant or handcuffed. (UCLA is in the process of deciding what constitutes a "violent subject.")

Merrick Bobb, president and executive director of the Police Assessment Resource Center, which monitors police conduct and conducted the outside investigation at UCLA, said he expects the combination of last year's incident and the one at Florida to draw greater scrutiny to the Taser as part of armaments that campus police carry.

He said his center doesn't advocate the removal of the weapon from the arsenal, but rather closer attention paid to how it is used. The Florida case could turn on whether police gave Meyer a warning that a Taser would be used if he didn't comply, and whether the officers felt either they or audience members were in danger.

"If you're a college, what you have to do is look at the totality of the circumstances at hand," said Raymond Thrower, director of safety and security at Gustavus Adolphus College and president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. "You can't base your policies on one incident. Otherwise you'll be in reaction mode all the time."

Thrower agrees that colleges will probably be revisiting their own police procedures, but he doesn't expect them to necessarily make changes. Nancy Greenstein, a spokeswoman for UCLA's police department, said part of the typical review process there includes considering what to do if there's reason to believe that an individual might cause trouble at a given event.

Thrower said it's important not to draw too many conclusions. "You have to look at what you're dealing with at the time," he said. "Just because a person has been disruptive in the past doesn't mean he'll be now."

And then there's the issue of police training. Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, a group that does consulting and training for schools and colleges on security issues, said campus officers typically aren't getting enough of it when it comes to responding to particular equipment and uses of force.

From watching the Florida video, Dorn said he is troubled that once police made the decision to remove Meyer from the room, they physically lost control of him and were forced to make a quick decision. (He said he understands the Taser use if officers felt he was a threat, but said the situation could have been avoided had they escorted Meyer more efficiently.)

Dorn, who served previously as a police lieutenant at Mercer University, said even though some perceive Tasers to be unnecessary for campus police, they are important options.

"I predict lots of places will overreact and say, 'No more Tasers,' " he said. "If it's determined that the officers' actions here were incorrect, fine. But there are so many more cases where they have helped save lives."

Robert Norcross, director of campus police at Mira Costa College, in California, said a large number of campuses in his state -- including his institution -- continue to use Tasers. He said while it's appropriate to review policies regularly, he doesn't plan to use the Florida incident as a time to do so.

 

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