An 87-year-old woman was tased by a Georgia police officer earlier this month. Her story speaks to the need for cops to be brave and willfully self sacrificial in their work, not put their own safety and rights above that of the public.
Martha al-Bashara, a Syrian-born grandmother who speaks little English, was gathering dandelions for cooking in Chatsworth, Georgia. She had a plastic bag and what was described in the police report as a steak knife and by her family as a kitchen knife. Al-Bashara crossed into an empty lot near her home and began selecting the dandelions.
Someone who worked for the Boys and Girls Club that owned the property spotted her, and called 911. The caller told operators the woman was elderly, seemed to be picking something, and didn’t seem particularly threatening, but carried a knife.
When three cops arrived, a confused confrontation ensued. Al-Bashara, who is a naturalized U.S. citizen familiar to her neighbors, refused to drop the knife, and reportedly continued to approach Police Chief Josh Etheridge and two of his officers as they told her to stop and tried to get her to drop her knife. One of the officers eventually responded by firing his Taser at the woman’s chest.
This was a risky move, since people much younger than this woman have died as a result of being tased in the chest, which Taser advises against. While Tasers are a more humane alternative to guns, good evidence suggests they’re more dangerous than police departments and the maker of Tasers have claimed.
In this case, the 5’2″ 87-year-old lady seems to be physically fine, but her family says she was upset after spending several hours in jail then at the hospital, for fear she had caused her family trouble. Etheridge stood by the police’s decision to tase the woman, declaring that risking her life was the “least force necessary.”
He also claimed that if al-Bashara had forced the officer to back away, he might have tripped. “She could have been hurt just as easily, or even fell on the knife itself,” he said, or “held the knife in an aggressive manner, and then deadly force would have been used.”
The chief’s comments and the actions of his officer are completely wrong. U.S. police officers are a class of people with special rights. They bravely go where most of us fear to tread. They have done heroic things and saved countless lives. On the other hand, their job is also to enforce the law, no matter how dreadful. That ties them to prohibitionist insanities against drugs and prostitution. Increasingly, they enforce regulatory issues, sometimes clad in militaristic SWAT gear.
Yet cops appear to believe their lives are more important than ours. Police want respect and esteem — and obedience — but they, their fraternal organizations, their unions, their chiefs, their friends and family, and everyone waving a Blue Lives Matter flag, lean on cliches such as “split-second decision” to defend unwarranted force, and stress that officer safety is paramount.
It shouldn’t be. If police have extended legal rights (which they do), and are alway armed (which they are in the United States), then they need to be braver than the rest of us, and they need to prioritize the safety of everyone else before themselves. If they are unable or unwilling to do that, they should find a different career.
Yes, knives can be dangerous. A suspect (or an elderly lady?) can close a distance faster than most people realize. But if your sympathies are still squarely on the Chatsworth cops, and not on the deaf, homeless woodcutter in Seattle, a clearly suicidal man in Missouri, or the family of a mentally distraught man in Pennsylvania, who thought they were getting him an ambulance, but instead called the police that killed him, consider how British police responded to a different incident.
This 2011 confrontation between what was eventually dozens of police and one machete-wielding unhinged man is my go-to example of clever, restrained police. Watch the way the cops duck and weave, and use the nearby trash bins to protect themselves and to unbalance the man. They’re very clearly risking life or at least limb to bring someone dangerous in alive. While Googling the incident, I found a more recent example that sounds very similar, but this time only two cops safely subdued the man.
In the United States, neither of these machete-waving individuals would have lasted a minute, because the police on the scene would have been armed with guns, and therefore been able to use lethal force. Taking that option off the table forces police to be brave and to be smart. It also forces them to do something that police in America seem unable to do — from the killings of the homeless Kelly Thomas to the 12-year-old Tamir Rice — which is deescalate and in some cases retreat. Taking guns off the table would also force them to actually risk their lives for the people they swore to serve and protect.
We have more than 300 million guns in America. That means police have to worry about being shot more than they do in places like the UK. But it also means that gun-owners could do what police do. And they could do it just as badly and as selfishly as the worst cops. Or, we could consider hiring and training a class of people who are ready to risk their safety for the safety of the potentially dangerous, the mentally ill, or the old ladies picking dandelions.
If police can’t handle that, there are options. We might consider letting them earn the right to carry a gun, or to keep them locked in their cars. But more important than the weapons they use or don’t use is the mindset that they are at war with us, and that their lives matter more. Police are not supposed to make sure they get home at any cost, they’re supposed to make sure that we do.
Al-Bashara has a court date set for Sept. 19. Her family is considering suing, as the Chatsworth Police Department swears to self-investigate super hard. Al-Bashara’s great nephew Solomon Douhne summed it up well: “You don’t Tase an 87-year-old woman. … If three police officers couldn’t handle an 87-year-old woman, you might want to reconsider hanging up your badge.” Douhne is a former police officer.