The Language of Electrocution

Like just about everyone else, it seems, I've been following the UCLA library debacle. I spoke with my sister the day after it happened—she's a librarian in the UCLA system—and learned that she deals with heavily armed campus police officers in her library, too.

In my post from a couple of days ago on the topic, I took care to describe what happened as a case of electrocution not tasering.

This is because of my concern that the use of the instrument's name (taser) to substitute for the action (electrocution) creates an antiseptic representation of this form of state sanctioned police violence. When "the student was tasered" stands in for "the student was electrocuted," I read the message as slightly removed from the jolting, transfixing shock of electrocution. We see this, similarly, in the lingo "sentenced to die in the electric chair" or "sentenced to the chair"; the chair, not the electricity, does the acting.

Another problem I have with how the events are being described concerns what is described as the motivation for the repeated electrocutions. In this article from today's LA Times, a piece that has been picked up by a number of other papers, we see the electrocutions described as for the purpose of subduing the student.

Hoping to calm the furor created when UCLA police used a Taser to subdue a student studying in Powell Library, the university's acting chancellor announced Friday that a veteran Los Angeles law enforcement watchdog would head up an independent investigation of the incident.

You need only to watch the video to get a very different impression of what happened: a subdued student (cuffed, in fact) was repeatedly electrocuted in order to get him to stand up and peacefully leave the library. The logic of this—electrocuting someone gets them to stand up?—is beyond reason.

Library patrons here at UIUC, particularly those not keen on being electrocuted in front of their classmates, may be somewhat relieved to read this local FAQ:
*Does [UIUC] Library Security Carry Tasers or any other Weapon?*

Neither Library Security, nor Campus Police carry Tasers. Library
Security guards carry pepper spray, only to be used in the event they
feel their lives are in danger. Campus Police carry equipment comparable
to that issues to members of municipal police departments.

UPDATE: Click here to check out the Petition to Ban the Use of Taser Guns by the UCPD.


  1. Hey:

    Can you post a link on your blog to this online petition to ban the use of taser guns by UCPD + have a transparent and independent investigation of the UCLA tasering?

    Here's the link:

    To read and sign petition, go to: http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/stoptasersUCPD/

    On Tuesday, Nov. 11, several UCPD officers arrested, handcuffed, and repeatedly electrocuted a UCLA student with a taser gun in a UCLA library because he did not show police officers his UCLA ID card and refused to leave the library.

    For a video of the incident, go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W3CdNgoC0cE

    The incident shocked those who witnessed the abuse (as can be clearly seen in the video) and those who have seen the video. What happened to this student clearly shows how taser guns lend themselves to police abuse.

    Taser guns are dangerous and cruel. Up until this day, over 189 people in the US have died as a result of being shot with a taser gun. In addition, taser guns cause great pain and muscular paralysis on those shot.

    Imagine if UC police stopped and tasered every student who forgot to carry around their UC id!

    If you are outraged about this incident and would like to do something to improve our UC communities, you can start by signing this petition addressed to UC President Robert Dynes, the UC Regents, and the UC chancellors asking the university administration to do the following:

    1. Permanently ban the use of taser guns by the University of California Police Department.
    2. Form an independent review board that will investigate the tasering of UCLA student Mostafa Tabatabainejad at Powell Library on Tuesday, November 14, 2006.
    3. This independent review board should also review and recommend changes to policies regarding verification of student status by UCPD officers.
    4. Consider setting independent review boards in every UC campus with the assigned role of independently investigating serious allegations of police abuse.
    5. Extend a formal apology to UCLA student Mostafa Tabatabainejad for the physical and emotional harm done to him that evening.

    Please join us in supporting these demands by:

    1) Signing the online petition.

    Again, to read and sign petition, go to: http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/stoptasersUCPD/

    2) Forwarding this email to as many people in the UC community as you can.

    Thank you for joining our call. Together, we can make our UC campuses safer and more peaceful communties.

  2. Anonymous10:48 AM

    First, let me say that I think tasering anyone without extraordinary cause is hideous, cruel and abusive. As an electrical engineer, I have experienced several electrical shocks in my life, a couple from extremely high-voltage (30KV) sources, which I was fortunate to survive, having been so careless as to expose myself to the risk.

    However, being shocked by taser is NOT being "electrocuted." One who is electrocuted is dead from electrical current passing through his body. Any other use of the term can be considered ignorant, lazy, or inflammatory. I doubt your ignorance or laziness--you're at UC--but I suspect you intend to inflame your readers. A pity. The situation is bad enough without your verbal abuse.

    Second, as an EE I have a personal and professional interest in how tasers are used and in what physiological AND psychological effects their use has on people. I have seen no objective evidence so far that experiencing a taser discharge (not "shot with a taser gun" as the preceding comment stated) has directly caused the death of an individual. I stipulate that the taser can cause severe pain and temporary loss of muscular control. But the frequency and current are at levels that are extrememely unlikely to cause permanant injury to a healthy adult (or nearly adult, in the case of a college undergraduate -Sorry, trying to lighten up a serious matter) human being. I remain open to new information but I think you may not be.

    None of my comment lessens my sadness at seeing and hearing the recorded incident. One has to wonder why the police felt justified in their actions. One has to wonder what the student did initially to bring such attention to himself. Lacking no more information than what I've seen here, I temporarily suspend my judgement. I wish you good fortune in your efforts.