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Cops Kill 18-Year-Old Artist with a Taser. His Big Threat? A Bottle of Spray Paint
At the time, Israel Hernandez-Llach was armed with nothing more than a can of spray paint. He was five and a half feet tall and weighed 150 pounds. He was tagging the wall of an abandoned McDonalds with the letter “R” at 5 a.m. when the police chased him down, tased him, and watched him die.
Tasers are touted as a non-lethal law enforcement tool. And yet, a family and a community grieve for a well-loved and respected young artist because of the excessively aggressive actions taken by the Miami Beach Police Department.
There are many questions that need to be answered.
Let’s start with the use and misuse of Tasers. Even if you think Tasers may be appropriate in some instances, they create a potentially dangerous situation when used incorrectly. The reality is that Israel is one of around 500 people who have died after being shot by police Taser since 2001 – clearly “non-lethal” is a misnomer that fails to accurately describe the risk these devises pose to the people who are subjected to their voltage.
Part of the tragedy is that police never should have tased Israel in the chest. A study last year specifically found that sending shocks to the chest—such as the one Israel received—can cause cardiac arrest and sudden death.
The Miami Beach Police's policy states the officers should consider the level of danger posed by a given situation to determine the forcefulness of their response. In Israel’s case, police were not apprehending a violent person who posed a dangerous threat to them or the public—they were confronting a teenager with a can of spray paint. Israel was running, but the International Association of Chiefs of Police issued guidelines suggesting that Tasers should not be used on people who are only running from police, and very selectively even on those who pose a threat of imminent physical violence.
Tasers can kill, and it’s important that cops take this seriously. Without clear training and limitations, officers may use Tasers not because it is appropriate and necessary in a specific situation, but because it is an easy weapon to use and within reach. Tasers should not be the go-to weapon of choice in any and every situation. The risk is too great that using a Taser will turn a minor, nonviolent offense into one punishable by death.
The larger, more haunting question is whether we should accept that law enforcement officers routinely use such aggressive force to police people suspected of low-level nonviolent offenses. Israel’s death is the latest in a long, tragic series of incidents in which the Miami Beach Police Department appears to have used excessive, disproportionate or lethal force. And aggressive police tactics are not just a problem in Florida.
When police decide how much force to use, they are subject to the 4th Amendment’s reasonableness standard, according to Graham v. Conner. In that case, the Supreme Court laid out the following test: to determine whether the force used was reasonable, courts must weigh the intrusion on the individual’s interests against the government’s interest. The government’s interest is measured by looking at the severity of the crime (here, tagging), whether the person posed an immediate threat to the officers or others (here, an unarmed, cornered, 150-pound unarmed teen), and whether the person was resisting arrest by fleeing (Israel ran, but was facing police when he was tased). While an investigation into the incident is still underway, it is hard to imagine that the cops’ interest in apprehending a teenage graffiti artist outweighs the artist’s interest to be free from lethal force.
Aggressive tactics are used to police minor, nonviolent crimes every day, in every state. Israel’s tragic death should serve as a reminder that lethal force is never a justified response to any minor, nonviolent offense.
Statement from the ACLU of Florida on Israel Hernandez-Llach’s death.
Israel was a well-loved and respected part of the Miami art scene, under the street name “Reefa.” More on the response to his death from the art and street communities in Miami is here.