A death of convenience

Turner's killing by Taser is an outrage
John Grooms, Creative Loafing, April 2, 2008

On March 20, a 17-year-old Charlotte teen-ager, Darryl Turner, died at the hands of police officer Jerry Dawson Jr. I'm willing to bet that by the time you read this, we won't know any more about the killing than we know on March 27, the day I'm writing this. As far as we know, Turner was killed for no justifiable reason. The catch, though -- as always, when Charlotte police kill someone -- is that "as far as we know" isn't far enough, and the process of finding out more about Turner's death will be like pulling molars.

Police were called to the Food Lion on Prosperity Church Road when Turner, a store clerk, got into a rowdy argument with a customer service manager. The police say when they got there, Turner ignored Dawson's commands and "advanced toward" the officer, who proceeded to kill him. The weapon was a Taser, but for all the difference it made to Turner, it might as well have been a gun.

In this job, you get used to hearing about injustices and the lame excuses that are often given to justify them, and you almost start to take it for granted, but I am just seething about this particular case. A 17-year-old who was apparently unarmed (no one at the scene saw Turner with a weapon and, believe me, if he'd had one, it would have been one fact the police would have "divulged" till the cows came home) was hit by a Taser and died.

I can hear the apologists now: You're soft on crime! The police are overworked! You liberals ... sputter sputter, harrumph, ad nauseam. Yes, police work is hard and dirty and et cetera and so forth, but none of those facts, nor any others, give anyone -- especially not a paid public servant -- the authority to use Tasers at the drop of a hat.

In fact, here's the crux of the matter: Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers are supposed to use Tasers only in instances in which the only other recourse would be firing a gun. In other words, police are supposed to use Tasers to prevent possible serious injury or death. Turner's case is the first fatality by a police Taser in Charlotte, but it's only the latest in a string of Taser-caused fatalities by police around the country. Hundreds of people, including more than 15 in the Carolinas, have died since 2001 after being shocked by Tasers. In other words, there's a good reason Charlotte police aren't supposed to use Tasers as a weapon of convenience.

After Turner was killed, the police gave their usual post-death spiel: The officer is on administrative leave pending an internal investigation, which is routine when someone dies in police custody, and homicide detectives are investigating the death, so they can't say anything else since it's a "personnel matter."

My guess is that the investigation isn't going so well for Officer Dawson. Why? Because four days after Turner's death, information suddenly turned up that police had found three small bags of pot in Turner's socks. Funny how that kind of thing happens. And we all know how wild and aggressive those potheads get, don't we? Or was the implication that Turner was a drug dealer? Maybe he was, and maybe he wasn't, but in either case, I don't think Dawson has the authority to be judge, jury and executioner. But, oh gracious, he had pot-in-a-sock! Never mind that Turner graduated from high school early last year with A's and B's. And never mind that reporters haven't been able to find one person with anything bad to say about Turner. It doesn't matter now, anyway, because the kid is dead.

In 2005, Tasers were the focus of local controversy after two CMS students were hit with them. Those incidents occurred soon after a man in a Lancaster, S.C., jail died after being shocked with a Taser six times during a fight with police officers. Nationwide, critics claim that Tasers are becoming a tool of convenience rather than one of next-to-last resort.

Yes, Tasers are a valuable weapon -- but only if they are used for their intended purpose, as a last resort in order to avoid having to shoot someone -- not as something to be pulled out at the first sign that a suspect is aggressive, or that your uniform might get dirty scuffling with him.

So Turner was angry but unarmed, and was approaching a police officer. And the best the officer can do is fire a Taser? That's almost a working definition of lazy police work. Turner should have been wrestled to the ground and handcuffed -- more than one officer was at the scene, after all -- rather than getting hit with 50,000 volts of electricity. If Dawson and the other officer didn't know how to properly subdue an unarmed suspect without Tasing them, then these officers were either poorly trained or the training didn't stick. At the very least, they should be re-trained or fired. Homicide detectives investigating the death will present their findings to the Mecklenburg County district attorney. If use of a Taser was unjustified, involuntary manslaughter charges would be in order. But this is Charlotte, where death-by-police is apparently not a prosecutable crime.

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