In October 2007, a Polish man named Robert Dziekañski landed at the Vancouver airport tired and confused after a long flight. After spending many hours waiting for his mother to meet him in the baggage area—a secure area that she couldn’t enter—he became agitated. Bystanders couldn’t help him, as he spoke no English. The local police wound up shooting him a total of five times with their electroshock weapons, resulting in his death.
There has been an ongoing discussion in Iceland about whether the police should be allowed to carry electroshock weapons. Such weapons generally shoot out needles connected to wires, through which high voltage, low current electricity is pumped into the target. In most cases, receiving such a jolt causes people to lose voluntary control of their muscles and fall to the ground. But sometimes—if the victim has a certain range of heart or lung problems, for instance—the shock may be lethal, for instance due to cardiac arrhythmia leading to cardiac arrest or ventricular fibrillation.
Between 2001 and 2007, Amnesty International recorded 150 deaths due to electroshock weapons, most of which occurred as a result of irrational use of force—such as in Robert Dziekañski’s case. As the supposedly non-lethal weapons appear to be lethal, some countries, such as Germany, have banned them.
I have no qualms with police carrying electroshock weapons, such as Tasers, but under certain conditions. Firstly, police who choose to carry electroshock weapons should be subject to them once a month, via a trial shot. This is to ensure that they are fully aware of the force involved, and also to guarantee that the weapons are non-lethal.
Secondly, I’d suggest that if the police get to carry “non-lethal” weapons, the general public also be allowed to do so, under the same conditions. This is mostly to put the public on equal footing with the state, and to prevent the police from being flippant about abuse of power.
Finally, it would be useful to have at least fifty insulation suits available to the public per Taser in circulation, during peaceful protests, as a defensive measure for people who are exercising their right to free expression.
You see, there is not a single society in the history of mankind that has been improved by increasing the amount of violence the state applies to its people.
When police are armed, it serves to give them the upper hand against violent domestic enemies of the state and to ensure public safety. The discussion in Iceland is dominated by the idea of organised crime in the form of motorcycle gangs. I know little about these motorcycle gangs, but I think I have a reasonable expectation that if people are committing crimes that could be deterred by Tasers, it would be equally possible to arrest the criminals in question and bring them to justice.
If the worry is that the gangs are violent, well, the Icelandic police force already has lots and lots of guns. You’d be surprised. They have H&K MP5 submachine guns, H&K G36 assault rifles, Glock 17 pistols (which have no safety toggle by the way, just a drop catch to prevent accidental discharge), Steyr SSG 69 sniper rifles, Blaser R93 sniper rifles and Mossberg 500 shotguns, for instance. They should be able to handle a couple of gangsters—heck, they should be able to handle a minor war. The fact that they don’t ordinarily carry them around is a good thing.
So we are forced to ask ourselves: If the supposed organised crime syndicates are not the actual problem, then from whom does the threat come that is to justify further arming of the police force? And weapons that, due to their “non-lethal” quality, are frequently used by police to enforce their whims rather than the law.
The answer is not obvious. Protests in Iceland have mostly been peaceful, and almost without exception have escalated only when police have aggravated the situation. What is the threat that can be solved by electrocuting people? Drunk people on Laugavegur?
When the police explain the threat model, we can start a civilized discussion about whether it is justifiable. Until then, it is not, and even floating around the idea of arming the police is ludicrous.