The descriptions of Israel Hernández-Llach are either glowing or demeaning, and in some cases both. From the Miami Herald:
At just 18, Israel Hernández-Llach was already an award-winning artist, on the threshold of acclaim in Miami Beach art circles. He was a sculptor, painter, writer and photographer whose craft was inspired by his home country of Colombia and his adopted city, Miami.
And in the next paragraph:
He was also a graffiti artist, known as “Reefa,” who sprayed colorful splashes of paint on the city’s abandoned buildings while playing cat-and-mouse with cops, who, like many property owners, consider graffiti taggers to be vandals, not artists.
But according to Miami Police Chief Ray Martinez:
Hernández-Llach was confronted by officers about 5 a.m. as he was vandalizing private property, and he fled, leading officers on a foot chase. It ended at 71st and Harding when he was cornered by police and ran toward the officers, ignoring commands to stop.
Whether one views graffiti as an urban art form or criminal vandalism tends to color one’s view of what happened next. It shouldn’t. Regardless of the artistic merit of graffiti, it has two insurmountable counterpoints: first, it’s illegal. Second, the “canvas” is someone else’s property. And it’s not like Hernández-Llach didn’t appreciate either point, as he did his tagging in the wee hours of the morning and had a lookout to warn him. He took his chances in the name of his “art.”
If he wanted to make the argument that tagging was an art form that shouldn’t be criminalized, then he should have been prepared to be caught and argued the merit of his actions. Instead, he fled. That ends the debate. If Hernández-Llach was unwilling to take the weight for what he was doing, then he cannot avail himself of the argument that what he was doing should not be a crime.
But neither is that the issue, because after cops caught up to him and cornered him, things took a turn for the worse.
[Lookout] Félix Fernández said he saw about five police officers chasing Hernández and shoving him against a wall. Then he saw his friend on the ground, surrounded by police.
“He is a very skinny guy, very small” Fernández said.
According to the police, this is what happened:
“The officers were forced to use the Taser to avoid a physical incident,’’ the chief said.
He was hit once in the chest and collapsed, Martinez said, at which point officers noticed he was showing signs of distress. He was transported by fire-rescue to Mount Sinai Hospital, where he was later pronounced dead.
Note the subtle but critical aspect of the police explanation that serves to change the story from the facile and wanton use of a Taser to an attempt to manufacture justification, that cops were “forced to use the Taser to avoid a physical incident.”
The phrase “physical incident” is a tricky one. While it says little about what actually happened, it says more about what did not happen. No cop was threatened with harm. No cop feared for his life. The First Rule of Policing was not invoked. At most, there was the potential that the police might have to touch Hernández-Llach, though the sub rosa implication is that, having already been forced to run through the streets and work up the dreaded sweat, the police might have been put through more grueling physical activity to catch him again.
Most cops aren’t in shape for so much physical activity. All that running makes them unhappy, and when they’re unhappy, they tend to seek a means of stemming further unhappiness. A Taser comes in handy at that point.
One reaction to the death of Hernández-Llach was that no one should die for graffiti, which would be relevant had the cops executed him purposefully, but that’s not what happened here. Rather, this was a far more banal use of a Taser, a quick and easy way to end the unpleasantness of a chase, that shouldn’t, according to Taser International, do any harm, unless of course the target was on drugs (because drugs are evil and make anything that happens to drug users an acceptable by-product as their own fault) or had some underlying pathology for which no one can be blamed. Either way, you can’t blame the cops or Taser International for their use of less-than-lethal force.
And therein lies the rub. Use of a Taser is use of force. Use of force has limits for a good reason. It’s not be used for convenience, for the benefit of fat cops who are too tired to give chase and too lazy to manage their perp. What’s missing here, even from the police perspective, is that Hernández-Llach employed force of any sort that justified the use of force in return.
The worst that might have happened, had Hernández-Llach taken off again and left the cops in the dust, is that a vandal got away. From a law enforcement theory perspective, it’s understandable that police don’t want to create an incentive for anyone violating the law to flee, and so they shouldn’t condone flight as a viable method of eluding arrest. And yet, tagging is not a crime that puts others at risk of harm, and therefore not a crime warranting use of force in the absence of a threat of harm. Grab him if they can? Sure. Corner him? Why not? Put out an APB and get half the Miami police force as back up? Whatever.
But do not use force to subdue a person who threatens no one with physical harm.
As it happens, 18-year-old budding artist Israel Hernández-Llach died. Even if he hadn’t died, but merely suffered the pain of being tased, feeling the dart penetrate his body, hitting the pavement as his body contorted from the debilitating shock, it would have been wrong. Tasing isn’t benign in itself, but the infliction of substantial pain on a human being that can only be justified because force is met with force. The fact that it’s not non-lethal, but less-than-lethal, drives this point home. If a cop wouldn’t have pulled his Glock and aimed at center mass, then he had no business pulling his Taser either.