Martini Smith was 20 years old and pregnant when she was taken to a county jail in Ohio on a misdemeanor charge that was later dismissed. Once in a jail cell, she was ordered to take off all her clothes and jewelry and put on an inmate uniform. At least one male officer was present as her clothes were taken away, and she was topless when the guards told her to take out her tongue piercing.
But Smith couldn’t get it out. Her hands had been cuffed behind her back for six hours, she says, and her fingers felt numb. She couldn’t unscrew the stud.
“I will Tase you,” Stice said. The ring was slippery, Smith said, asking for a paper towel. The deputies refused. “I just want to go to sleep,” Smith cried.
“Why did you Tase me?” she moaned. “I wasn’t harming nobody. I can’t just take it out.”
Five days after being Tased, Smith lost her baby.
Six years later, she still has a scar from where the Taser hit her bare chest, plus the emotional scarring of a miscarriage that should never have happened.
Smith was awarded a small settlement for what happened to her, and the county that managed the jail agreed to “expand staff training and adopt new policies barring Taser use on prisoners who pose no reasonable threat, are not forcefully resisting, or are ‘limp or prone.'” But that only happened after intervention from the Department of Justice; before the DOJ got involved, an internal sheriff’s office review of Smith’s ordeal somehow “found no wrongdoing by guards and said the Taser use did not constitute excessive force.”
Smith’s story has come to light as part of an extensive investigation by Reuters into the use and abuse of Tasers by American law enforcement published as a six-part series this month. The probe’s findings are deeply troubling on both an individual scale, with stories like Smith’s, and at the larger, statistical level.
Reuters found more than 1,000 cases of people who died after being shocked by Tasers used by police in America. “A quarter of the people who died … were suffering from a mental health breakdown or neurological disorder,” Reuters reports, and in “nine of every 10 incidents, the deceased was unarmed. More than 100 of the [1,000+] fatal encounters began with a 911 call for help during a medical emergency.” (Of course, not every case of Taser use is fatal, which means thousands more unarmed and mentally ill people are being unnecessarily Tased by law enforcement and may be suffering serious physical consequences even though they don’t die.)
A big part of the problem here is that Tasers are often seen as a non-lethal weapon, a safer alternative to guns. That lowers the barrier to their use, as police officers and prison guards wrongly believe they’re reacting reasonably to the situation before them, Reuters explains:
Taser won immense popularity for its devices through a singular marketing focus: Instead of resorting to lethal gunfire or potentially dangerous physical confrontations, it told police departments, they could control combative subjects with a paralyzing stun.
Yet as the cases explored by Reuters reveal, stun-gun encounters can turn deadly. Often, those killed include people struggling with mental illness, emotional breakdowns or seizure disorders.
That mismatch between officers’ expectations and the reality of this weapon is dangerous and unacceptable. Far stricter rules for how police use Tasers, particularly on unarmed, nonviolent, and mentally ill people, must be part of departments’ “use of force” guidelines to prevent the kind of brutality suffered by Martini Smith.
Read all six parts of investigation here.