November could have killed someone the night of February 7, 2015, when—driving on a suspended license, with a blood-alcohol level more than twice the legal limit—he led police officers on a high-speed chase in Chesterfield that ended when he rolled his car several times and crashed. A few months ago he pleaded guilty to drunken driving, running away from the cops, and driving on a suspended license.
For such behavior, he deserved a long stretch in a hard cell—especially given his long record of prior offenses for DUI and assaulting officers. Rosa Parks he ain't. Few people would dispute that. But only a demented sadist would contend that, for his crime, November should have been burned alive.
Yet that's what happened. November's car was leaking fluids when Chesterfield police officers caught up to him. They dragged him away from the vehicle because, as one of them allegedly said later, there was gasoline "all over the road and the vehicle was smoking." November's lawyers claim other officers present said they, too, could smell gasoline. County attorneys deny that any of the officers noticed signs of leaking fuel.
According to a $95 million lawsuit November's lawyers have filed, November was lying on the ground when fire trucks rolled up and startled him, and he tried to stand. The police say November resisted arrest and struggled with them, and he recently was convicted on that charge. Either way, several officers evidently swarmed him. At about that moment, another officer—Ryan Swope—ran up. The lawsuit alleges that Swope gave November no command or warning before he yelled, "Taser! Taser! Taser!" and fired his stun gun.
Soaked in gasoline, November went up in flames. He apparently burned for half a minute before firefighters put out the fire. By then he had third-degree burns over nearly 90 percent of his body. He spent the next six months in the hospital, and in agony.
At this point, some people might be inclined to say that November brought his suffering on himself. If he hadn't been drinking and driving—if he hadn't run from the cops—he would be a happier man today. Those things are true, but they are not the whole truth.
For one thing, those things also would be true if Swope had drawn his sidearm and shot November in the head, killing him. November acted stupidly, but stupidity doesn't justify anything and everything in response. Yet a review found Swope acted in accordance with department policy.
For another, there's apparently more to the story. And if the complaint filed by November's lawsuit is to be believed, a lot more. Example: The complaint says Swope had only recently returned to duty and was on disciplinary probation for several incidents of misconduct. Chesterfield Police Chief Thierry Dupuis later fired Swope for his connections to an outlaw biker gang. And, the complaint adds, Swope was one of the most prolific taser users in the department.
The complaint also makes some broader claims—e.g., that Chesterfield officers often have used tasers simply to make people comply with orders more quickly, and even on people who were handcuffed at the time. In one instance, the complaint says, the very officer in charge of taser training "himself tased an unarmed suspect who sat on a toilet in a small bathroom, with no means of escape. The man initially complied with (the officer's) command to stand up and show his hands. However, (the officer) tased the suspect because the suspect did not immediately exit the bathroom, but requested to first complete going to the bathroom."
Whatever the extent to which such allegations are true in Chesterfield, they are certainly true nationwide. Police officers have used tasers on teenagers, the elderly, the mentally ill, and pregnant young women. Roughly one person a week in America dies after being tasered; the dead include a Richmond man tasered outside a South Boston hospital even after he was secured in a squad car. Indeed, officers often taser individuals who have been handcuffed, even (in one instance) a woman who was wheelchair-bound. Individuals have been tasered for jaywalking, for panhandling, and for even less. Those who get tased usually are unarmed.
In many such instances, officers would never dream of drawing their sidearms and shooting the individuals they taser. That would be a grossly excessive use of force. And therein lies the irony of the proliferation of tasers: They are supposed to be a step toward more humane policing. Yet because they are (usually) non-lethal, tasers might actually make excessive force more likely rather than less.
Granted: When tasers are used properly they can make a huge improvement over other means of compelling compliance, such as billy clubs. Temporary incapacitation is better than the permanent kind. The question is whether tasers are being used properly or wantonly. We'll get some more insight into that question when Miles November's case goes to trial.
This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.