Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Sparks fly between old lady and Texas cop

A traffic stop for speeding in Travis County, Texas, led to the Tasering of a 72-year-old great-grandmother by a deputy. Feisty Kathryn Winkfein apparently so frightened the law-enforcement officer when she "used some profanity" and "got violent" that he felt it necessary to subdue her with a potentially dangerous jolt of electricity.

Winkfein was reportedly doing 60 in a construction zone where the posted speed limit was 45 when she was pulled over. She was ticketed but declined to sign the ticket, leading the police officer to place her under arrest lest civilization collapse for want of the surrender of a penny's worth of ink.

At this point, the stories diverge. According to Precinct 3 Constable Richard McCain, Winkfein cursed and refused to cooperate. She says nothing of the sort occurred. "I wasn't argumentative, I was not combative. This is a lie," the woman told a news reporter for Fox 7.

Either way, it's difficult to see how the issuance of a speeding ticket to an elderly woman devolved to the point where a grown, trained law-enforcement officer could be considered justified in subjecting the speeder to an electric jolt intended to disrupt her nervous system -- no matter what command of profanity she displayed.

Given that the speeding ticket had already been issued, it's also difficult to understand what purpose was served by prolonging the encounter and demanding a signature. A similar incident in Utah in 2007 between a state trooper and a motorist also resulted in a Tasering after the driver declined to sign a speeding ticket. In that case, the officer escalated the matter to a violent conclusion even though Utah law doesn't actually require a signature. Texas law apparently follows the same reasoning, considering the signature merely a promise to appear in court, not a necessity for the validity of the ticket itself.

Jared Massey, the Utah motorist, was ultimately awarded $40,000 as compensation for the abuse he suffered at the hands of Trooper Jon Gardner.

The use of Tasers is controversial because, while they are often presented as non-lethal devices, they are actually less-lethal alternatives to firearms. According to Amnesty International, "[s]ince June 2001, more than 351 individuals in the United States have died after being shocked by police Tasers." Tasers can interfere with proper cardiac function, even resulting in death. Logically enough, people with pacemakers, such as might be expected among older people, are at particular risk, according to a 2007 study.

A research paper prepared for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (PDF) found that some Tasers give an even bigger jolt than intended, with resultingly higher risks to the proper function of the heart.

As such, Tasers make the most sense in situations where force has to be used, as alternatives to shooting or clubbing a suspect; they aren't appropriately applied to suspects who have simply annoyed police officers.

After being Tasered along the road for failing to put pen to paper, Kathryn Winkfein was taken to jail and booked for resisting arrest and detention. Not surprisingly, she's hired a lawyer.



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