An incident last week in which a police officer used a Taser on a student in the University of California at Los Angeles library is still reverberating across the campus and abroad. University leaders said they planned a indepedent review of the affair, and a newspaper reported that the officer involved in it had also played a role in several other controversial incidents in the past.
Last Tuesday, as shown in a video that has circulated around the globe, a student, Mostafa Tabatabainejad, was shocked on multiple occasions in the university library. However, campus officials have suggested that there is more to the story -- “Not all the events Tuesday night can be heard or viewed on YouTube,” said UCLA’s police chief, Karl Ross, in a press conference last Friday -- the incident has spurred widespread protests at other campuses, including the University of California at Berkeley, on Monday. The newspaper there, The Daily Californian, termed the incident a case of "abuse."
Because Tabatabainejad is Iranian-American, the case reached as far as Teheran. The Turkish press reports that Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mohammad-Ali Hosseini, had called the police action a clear violation of international and human rights and urged punishment of the police officers involved.
Friday, UCLA's acting chancellor, Norman Abrams, announced that an independent investigation would be led by Merrick Bobb, president of the Police Assessment Resource Center which monitors police conduct.
“Merrick Bobb is one of the nation’s leading authorities on police conduct,” said Abrams. “He served as staff attorney for the Christopher Commission, which examined [the] Los Angeles Police Department’s policies and he also has served as an independent monitor of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.”
On Monday, the Los Angeles Times reported that the officer who used the Taser is Terrence Duren, an 18-year veteran with the department. Duren was named officer of the year in 2001, but has been mixed up in a number of controversial incidents, the Times noted:
- In May 1990, Duren was accused of using his nightstick to choke Kent S. Scott, who was hanging out in front of a fraternity late on a Saturday night. Scott sued and the university moved to have Duren removed from the force, but later gave him 90 days' suspension.
- In October 2003, Duren shot and wounded a homeless man he encountered in a university building. During the confrontation, Duren said that the man tried to grab his gun. The man’s lawyer said that his client was mentally ill and did not provoke the shooting. Duren was later cleared of any charges.
Duren defended his record to the Times and cautioned people not to judge until after the independent investigation. “I patrol this area the same way I would want someone to patrol the neighborhoods where I live. People make allegations against cops all the time.”
At issue is not just the library episode, but also the UCLA police department’s policy on Taser use. Department policies on Tasers vary across different universities, and many campus police departments report that they do not use Tasers.
In this case the Taser was used in “drive stun" mode, where the darts are not deployed but when the device is touched to the suspect, he or she is then shocked. Tabatabainejad’s lawyer claims -- and the video appears to show -- that Duren applied the Taser after Tabatabainejad’s hands were cuffed behind his back because he went limp and would not stand up. The UCLA police department’s policy allows Taser use in “drive stun” for “pain compliance against passive resisters.”
Policies in one local jurisdiction appears to be more restrictive of Taser use, however. For instance, use of the device on handcuffed suspects is forbidden by officers with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department unless the officer gains permission from a superior. Further, the sheriff's department's policy states that the Taser “shall not be applied to gain compliance over persons whom personnel reasonably believe are not presenting an immediate, credible threat to the safety of Department personnel or the public.”
Stephen J. Connolly, a lawyer with the Office of Independent Review, which provides civilian oversight of the sheriff’s department, said that observers should be careful in interpreting police policy. “Public safety and officer safety can leave wriggle room,” he said. However, he stated that it did not fit the sheriff’s department’s policy to apply a Taser to a handcuffed suspect who was not compliant, yet not a threat.
In a separate analysis, a recent report by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center advised that Tasers only be used on “dangerous individuals and never on individuals who are passively resisting arrest.” The report also recommended that Tasers should be limited to circumstances where lethal force would also be allowed.
A UCLA police spokeswoman, Nancy Greenstein, would not comment on her department’s Taser policy and said that the issue will be examined during an investigation the department is undertaking and by the independent inquiry led by Bobb. “With all the interest [we are receiving] in the world, we want to be as transparent as possible” with this investigation, she said. Greenstein said that she is not sure when the investigations will conclude.
Marwa Kaisey, president of UCLA’s undergraduate student body, said that opinions about the incident vary and that students seem a bit more apprehensive about campus police officers than in the past. She added that students are waiting for the independent investigation to conclude and that she hopes that concerns over campus safety will not distract students from finals.