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Of Tasers and Dots

January 28th, 2010 by dk

The Chinese students’ quandary has haunted me for weeks. Eugene attorney Ilona Koleszar recounted it to Register-Guard reporter Jack Moran, after the students met with Eugene Police Chief Pete Kerns. Kerns told the student who was Tasered and his roommate that the police “find no fault with the students in this incident.”
The students appreciated the meeting, but near the end they got agitated. They pressed Kerns. “They said, ‘We don’t think you’ve told us whose fault you think this is,’ ” Koleszar recalled.
Kerns met with the students to apologize, but not to accept blame. The department’s internal investigation also did not blame Officer Judd Warden. The blame currently rests with policy and training. In other words, we’re blaming “the system.” It’s nobody’s fault.
Sound familiar?
After Underwear Bomber Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab nearly succeeded in blowing up an airplane heading for Detroit, President Obama admitted that the system failed “in a potentially disastrous way.” Vital intelligence was gathered, but the system failed “to connect the dots.”
Likewise, in November, the U.S. Senate opened its investigation into the Fort Hood massacre with this decree: “Our purpose is to determine whether that attack could have been prevented, whether the federal agencies and employees involved missed signals or failed to connect the dots….”
“We failed to connect the dots” cleverly absolves each dot-keeper. The blame is fixed to a mythical Connector of All Dots. It’s mythical because that Dot-Connector cannot be wrong. Ever. Once a U.S. Senator lands on a no-fly list, or a misspelling creates a confusion, the dot system becomes fallible, and we lose trust in the system. We worry that additional costs are incurred or our liberties are curtailed “for no good reason.”
Only a Dot-Connector with infinite resources and infallible wisdom can be counted on to always connect the dots before a tragedy connects them for us. Good luck with that.
Return now to our Taser controversy.
Police do difficult and dangerous work, day in and day out. We shouldn’t expect them to do it perfectly. They are everyday heroes, but their mistakes can be no less outsized. Cops must connect dots, some of which may be fuzzy or misplaced, in real time. Mistakes are inevitable. The “system” should shield officers not from blame, but from revenge.
We don’t throw a parade for every officer who saves a life. We’d run out of ticker tape, because it happens every day. And we shouldn’t fire a cop who makes a bad judgment in a split second. But the system should allow Warden to accept responsibility, take the blame, say it was his fault, admit he was wrong, ask for forgiveness, apologize, be sorry — whatever you want to call it — without springing a trap of legal liability.
Accepting responsibility is just one more act of everyday heroism we should be able to ask of our police officers. Instead, we blame the system, arguing that everyone shares responsibility, so nobody has to own it.
Kerns says the policy for Taser use is being re-evaluated. But even that gets complicated. Policy is being reviewed by the Eugene Police  Commission, which is appointed by the City Council. Any recommendations proffered by this citizen panel goes to the Chief, who works for the City Manager.
Meanwhile, the Sept. 22 incident with the Chinese students was analyzed by the police department’s internal affairs division. The department’s findings were then adjudicated by the Chief of Police. The finding and the process used is now being evaluated by the Civilian Review Board and the independent Police Auditor. The board and the auditor may make separate or joint reports to the Eugene City Council.
Then, based on the multiple policy reviews and the sundry incident reports, the policy may be changed by the city council. Oh, and did I mention that a recent Ninth Circuit Court ruling about Taser use may also have to be considered?
Everyone agrees there are lots of dots to be connected. But the students’ concern is simpler — more like a single welt.
“They don’t want the publicity, but they feel more and more like something wrong happened here,” Koleszar said.
Don Kahle ( writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard. He blogs.

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