The Last Word on “Taser Boy”

Today the New York Times weighed in with an editorial on the Phillies taser incident, not surprisingly siding with the kinder, gentler majority who have argued against the position taken here, sometimes, like my passionate friends over at Popehat, in a not so kind or gentle way. “The best course there [Philadelphia], as anywhere, is smarter, more attentive security in the stands,” the Times said. “Maybe it’s also higher Plexiglas, stiffer trespassing fines, less beer. Force must always be the last resort. Tasering a showboating kid is just plain excessive.”


I have concluded that the condemnation of the tasering of the fan is driven, in significant part, by the “Ick Factor,” an unfocused sense that something must be unethical because it is new and unpleasant. Here, it consists of the  distaste at the whole idea of tasers generally, which involve barbs in the skin and all that twitching. Why is tasering  necessarily “excessive”?  The Times never really makes its case, other than to say that the taser is a “powerful weapon.”  Does “powerful,” in the sense that “it works,” equate to “excessive”? That is pretty much the argument from the Times and others. It just is excessive, that’s all, because it feels that way. It isn’t going to kill a 17-year old, and it’s better than being hit with a billy club; it may be not much more painful than a hard tackle, but even if it is, it is a lot less painful for the tackler. But it appears to be the majority opinion that it is wrong to cause a field-runner unnecessary discomfort.

Instead, says the Times, because people like Steve the Taser Boy feel that they are justified in making others endure their pathetic romps for attention, clubs are obligated to spend more on training and hiring security personnel, ticket prices should be a bit higher for all, and maybe Plexiglas should interfere with the enjoyment of the 99.99% of baseball fans who are well-behaved and considerate of others. All for Steve! So he can “goof off.”

This leads inevitably to the tyranny of jerks, but it is true that American culture has gone quite a way down the road to that destination. If we decide we want it, we’ll get it.

The arguments on Ethics Alarms and elsewhere kept returning to the false issue of “punishment,” presenting the tasering as excessive “punishment” for the crime of trespass. It is not punishment, and the police officials I spoke to were insistent that it should never be used as or represented as punishment. It is a tool to stop a crime in progress when lesser measures have failed.  The fact that it isn’t punishment, however, does not mean that it isn’t a disincentive. Fans don’t run out on the playing fields of NBA  or NFL games because they are afraid to: those guys are big, and it seems risky. But baseball made the initial mistake, decades ago, of coddling the fence jumpers, so there never has been any fear. There is nothing wrong with using fear as a disincentive to commit a crime, especially for those, like Steve Consalvi, who are not inclined to obey the rules just because they are the rules, though that’s what civilized people do. I argued, and believe, that one factor in favor of the tasering in Philadelphia is that it establishes that there are consequences for defying lawful police authority. If stunning one silly teen helps to send that message (though I agree that one should not be tased specifically for that purpose), then that is another point in its favor.

Arguing that the taser was not wrong is not the same as arguing that it is always right. The very next night after Steve got tased, another fan ran out onto the field and was subdued without incident. That is obviously preferable. I agree with my police experts who said that the officer just stunned Steve because he was frustrated or annoyed, that was wrong. But if it was provoked by one of many other factors—a hostile or threatening comment from Steve; a feeling, even an erroneous one, that he posed a threat of might injure him; the conviction that he couldn’t stop him within a reasonable time; or even a legitimate fear that he might be facing harm himself, like sudden chest pains—his conduct was defensible. The police department has also concluded that it was consistent with its procedures. I know that many are, unfortunately, inclined not to respect law enforcement, but this deserves due weight.

I find myself wondering if there would be such an uproar over this incident if it involved, for example, a teen running amuck on the stage of the Met, during a performance of Madam Butterfly. I think some of the minimizing of Steve’s offense is rooted in a lack of respect for sporting events and the people who care about them. I think some is based on the strong cultural trend, a destructive one, that believes that individual welfare should trump the welfare of groups, business, and society generally. I think some is the “Ick Factor,” as I said at the beginning. I think a lot of it comes from the fallacy of allowing benign motivations to mitigate acts that are nonetheless harmful or potentially harmful. So many people “know” that Steve couldn’t possibly mean any harm, and believe that should be the presumption. It will be the presumption, until some stadium runner actually does harm, and then that will be the presumption. I don’t think stadium security should presume harmlessness now, either.

I am cheered by the fact that Steve’s family in essence did what I wrote that I hoped Steve would do, which was to apologize for his actions and not attempt to demonize the ball club or the police. The fine for running on the field has been increased, which is a lot better than wrapping the field in Plexiglas. These are all good developments, whereas firing the police officer for using excessive force and declaring Steve a martyr for the joys of goofing off while inconveniencing thousands, would not be.

I might be wrong about this, of course.

But I don’t think so.

2 thoughts on “The Last Word on “Taser Boy”

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