When Nothing Adds Up

Occam’s Razor is a principle of logic that says the simplest solution that accounts for all known facts is usually correct.  It’s neither absolute nor necessarily easy to figure out what is fact or assumption, given many people’s tendency to replace reality with the crutch of “common sense,” but this isn’t about the joys of lex parsimoniae.

Whether it’s a picture or the story that goes with it, or a combination thereof, when what purports to be “known facts” are so inherently contradictory or nonsensical that Occam’s Razor can’t be applied, there is a problem.  That’s what comes of Tim Cushing’s post at Techdirt, and it’s very ugly:

The picture of this young man is a known fact. Here are the others Tim offers:

1. He was caught shoplifting at a Wal-Mart along with his 19-year-old cousin. He was positively identified by Wal-Mart Asset Protection.
2. He was arrested and cuffed.
3. He ran from the cops before they could place him in the squad car.

But there are two more known facts:

4. He was tased.
5. He was tased in the face.

This is known because the District Attorney said so, and we accept it as fact because it’s a statement against interest.

Bucks County District Attorney David Heckler tells NBC10 that police officers yelled warnings at the teen and fearing for his safety, they fired a stun gun to subdue him. The D.A. says the Taser struck the boy in the face and with his hands cuffed, the boy had no way to brace himself against falling face-first.

As Tim correctly points out, “none of this adds up.”  The young man’s mother says the police “brutally beat him.”

“If he did fall on his face, why does he have scrapes and bruises all over his whole face, everywhere. Why is his nose broken? Why is his nostril lifted off his face? Why is both of his eyes black and swollen?”

This adds nothing to the equation, as it’s just plain wrong, which is fine because it’s a mother talking and she’s not expected to be reasonable or objective.  But we are still left with a series of contradictions that make it impossible to come up with any cogent explanation, based on the known facts, to explain what happened here.

Two questions in particular can’t be answered:

If he was running away from police, how did he get tased in the face?

If he was running away from police, how does that give rise to fear for their safety, thus justifying the use of force? Or does he mean that the officers feared for the young man’s safety?

There is one point, however, that would appear very clear. If a person is handcuffed behind his back, and then tased, he is incapable of protecting himself during his fall from severe harm.  Or, if the circumstances are right, worse.

While there are many assumptions, mostly about evil cops, that people will project onto this scenario, the only solution one can come up with by applying Occam’s Razor is that the use of a taser on a handcuffed individual is likely to result in needlessly severe harm.

And if that’s the only takeaway from what happened here, it’s enough. Don’t tase handcuffed people.  There is no excuse for this happening, even when the person tased is an evil Wal-Mart shoplifter and takes flight from police. Catch them. Don’t kill them.

10 comments on “When Nothing Adds Up

  1. kunal

    For the simplest explanation of your first question, I’d imagine he ran from police officers and also ended up running towards other police officers, in which case the target would be the front of his body. If I saw police chasing someone who was running towards me not only would I not know the status of his hands at a glance (handcuffed or not) but I might react in a way not dissimilar to the reaction of someone who feels unsafe. It could be an honest mistake, although it’d be weird if information about other officers wasn’t available. This is all purely speculative as I have no idea what actually happened, but it seems a probably enough scenario in my head.

    1. SHG Post author

      So when asked about “known facts,” your immediate reaction is to speculate wildly without any basis whatsoever? Great.

      1. kunal

        I don’t know how many officers were or were not there. Your conclusion was that in any and all conditions the tasing of a handcuffed individual is wrong. I’m not convinced a handcuffed person can’t still cause bodily harm to those around them, or that everyone with a taser is guaranteed to know the status of the target’s wrists. Your takeaway was that even though you have limited information, this entire scenario can only happen when something wrong is done. “Don’t tase handcuffed people. There is no excuse for this happening…” just doesn’t sit with me as a true statement. Granted my scenario isn’t necessarily related directly to what happened, but you applied your conclusion to every handcuffed tasing target, not just this one.

        1. SHG Post author

          That’s a very different statement, having nothing to do with my first question. So officer ignorance, begetting theoretical potential for fear, is worth taking a known risk of severe harm or death by tasing a handcuffed defendant. How about the idea of not killing or maiming anybody until you know whether there is a threat of serious harm or death? Or is that unacceptable risk that also doesn’t sit well with you?

          1. kunal

            There are a few different dialogues happening, my fault primarily because my two responses were from different trains of thought. Firstly, I think there is a theoretical situation that roughly fits your difficult to reconcile conditions as I described in my first post. Occam’s razor states that simplicity should be valued until it can be replaced by stronger explanatory arguments, I wasn’t asked about “known facts” (I wasn’t really asked anything at all) and I didn’t speculate wildly without basis, my basis was a basic understanding of a possible situation and my speculation was tamed to reason as much about your two un-answerable questions as possible (while staying relatively simple).

            My second post was a reply to your conclusion, and your reply makes sense to me if its applied to this specific occasion. I agree entirely that tasers should not be used until “you know whether there is a threat of serious harm or death”, which would not excuse the taser use, in my first comment’s hypotheticalm happening. My first post isn’t an example made up of good decisions, just believable ones. To go back to the meat of my second comment, you’ve already issued two ideas which when combined reach the same conclusion I do (in a way). “until you know whether there is a threat of serious harm or death” and “Don’t tase handcuffed people. There is no excuse for this happening”. The combination leads me to believe that once you know whether there is a threat of serious harm, handcuffs or not, that your second quote (the generalization) isn’t universally applicable. Handcuffing does not completely rule out the potential for serious harm, as a small person who has been headbutted before I can confirm this to be true, so your post’s conclusion might very well be true in this case but isn’t true in every case.

            To summarize, I lured you into a badly structured discussion and didn’t explain myself well at all. The first post was a possible situation that reconciled your questions, the second comment was a response to the universal applicability of your conclusion. The situation in the first post does not excuse the use of the taser, it only explains a series of events that could lead to the use of the taser described that seem plausible to me. I hope I’m explaining my thoughts better here.

            1. SHG Post author

              Lured? Not at all. So let’s take the two comments separately. The point of Occam’s Razor (it’s right up there in the first sentence) is that “the simplest solution that accounts for all known facts is usually correct.” That means, neither what seem possible or probable to you (or me) changes what is known. As soon as we introduce bias, it’s worthless speculation.

              As to your second comment, while I appreciate the potential of a damn good headbutting, is tasing the solution? You tase. They fall. Head hits ground. There seems to be a myriad possible ways to better address the head butt. That said, neither of the cases involve here had any threat of violence, but happened as a handcuff suspect fled. We both know why they get tased. So while I accept the theoretical possibility that there may be an instance where it’s appropriate to tase a cuffed suspect (though I suspect there will always be a better means of protecting from harm), as rules go, don’t do it is a pretty good one.

            2. kunal

              Second comment, agreed.

              First comment, the worth of a speculation is subjective. Its definitely worthless in the context of this specific case. Its not a logical conclusion drawn from everything I know about this case, its a believable conclusion crafted with the sole purpose of answering your two questions which simply didn’t strike me as un-answerable. (Some amount of information from this case is in the hypothetical because it was on the mind, you could create an entirely different scenario that has nothing in common with this one that answers the questions).

              When you said the two questions can’t be answered, I took it to mean that you’re implying some other information here that led to those two questions must be flawed, or that these cops are probably just evil. Although I guess all I did was blame incompetence before intent. Put another way, if you had written “Two questions in particular have not been answered:” then my first comment would never have been written. In hindsight, I should have just asked what exactly you meant by “can’t be answered”. I’m not so good at discussions by mail.

            3. SHG Post author

              Speculation is fun for cocktail parties. For answers, we need facts. No amount of individualized “reasonableness” of speculation makes it any less speculative.

  2. Michael

    I like Occam’s Razor, but another of my favorites is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If you’re going claim that a reasonable person would have seen the need to taze a handcuffed shoplifting suspect in these circumstances, you’d better have a very good and detailed explanation of why that is.

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