The repeated use of a Taser on University of California at Los Angeles student Mostafa Tabatabainejad last week in the Powell Library on the UCLA campus has created an uproar over police brutality, not only in Los Angeles but across the country. The incident is an all-too-perfect example of excessive police force and demonstrates why even nonlethal weapons should be used rarely and with extreme caution.
The details are still unclear, and UCLA is holding an independent investigation to determine if the officers’ actions were warranted. Eyewitness testimony suggests that even though Tabatabainejad failed to produce student identification to the library staff, he was on his way out the door when a police officer grabbed his arm.
The University of California Police Department claims that officers only used a Taser after Tabatabainejad “went limp and continued to refuse to cooperate with officers or leave the building.” It seems obvious the Taser’s effects on Tabatabainejad’s body hindered his ability to comply with police orders. The incident was partially captured on a cell-phone camera, and the video evidence shows he was having difficulty standing as police demanded he exit the building.
It is also troubling that one of the police officers who used the Taser on Tabatabainejad has a history of excessive violence throughout his career – such as choking a bystander with a nightstick in 1990 and shooting a homeless man in 2003. UCLA is right to seek an extensive investigation, and if the investigation confirms stunning Tabatabainejad several times with a Taser was excessive and avoidable, the officers responsible should be fired. The school cannot set a precedent that unwarranted police brutality against its students is excusable.
Tabatabainejad has since filed a lawsuit against the campus police, alleging not only police brutality but also racial profiling. Being an Iranian-American, Tabatabainejad believes his ethnicity played a major part in his treatment that night. Officials contend it is not uncommon for library police to request identification after 11:00 p.m., as UCLA library facilities are for the exclusive use of UCLA students, faculty and staff during that time of night. Nevertheless, Tabatabainejad alleges that he was targeted for an ID check because of his appearance. The independent investigation needs to determine to what degree race was a factor that night.
Even if the investigation is able to justify shocking Tabatabainejad the first time, the repeated assaults were clearly an excessive use of force. Furthermore, the fact that police didn’t realize stunning Tabatabainejad once would effectively render him incapable of obeying their commands to stand up suggests their training regarding Taser use was severely inadequate.
In any situation, power can give way to abuse. Equipping officers with Tasers lends itself to this type of excessive brutality. Here on campus, the University’s Department of Public Safety does not carry Tasers, though the Ann Arbor Police Department does. Given the AAPD has deemed Tasers an essential police weapon, oversight and extensive training of AAPD officers is crucial to avoid a similar incident here.
Equipping police officers with Tasers is not inherently bad – used properly, such nonlethal weapons can prevent fatalities. But the incident at UCLA demonstrates that police officers armed with Tasers must be both extensively trained and subject to oversight. Using a Taser on a student who fails to show identification at school library is simply excessive, as the independent investigation of the incident at UCLA will likely prove.