By Kate Ayers and Leah Bartos
Campus police officers’ repeated use of a Taser stun gun on a UCLA student has sparked outrage in campus communities and prompted university officials to launch an independent investigation of the use of force in the incident.
Mostafa Tabatabainejad, a 23-year-old Iranian-American student, was arrested at about 11 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 14, when he failed to produce his student ID card during a routine check at UCLA’s Powell Library.
According to a UCLA press release from the following day, his continued resistance to arrest "made it urgent to remove Tabatabainejad from the library," creating a situation in which the "officers deemed it necessary to use the Taser in a ‘drive stun’ capacity."
The incident, captured on a student’s cellphone video recorder, was posted on YouTube.com on Nov. 15 and has been viewed over 490,000 times as of press time. The video shows Tabatabainejad screaming and writhing as officers repeatedly shock him and respond to bystanders’ demands for their badge numbers with threats of Tasering them as well.
Tabatabainejad’s attorney, Stephen Yagman, is planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit against the UCLA police department, as Tabatabainejad, a U.S. citizen by birth, felt he was targeted for his Middle Eastern appearance. Although Yagman said he could not offer details about his decision to take the case, the allegations against the officers seem consistent with his firm’s focus.
"Our practice specializes in suing police for misconduct. That’s about all we do," Yagman told City on a Hill Press (CHP).
UCLA Acting Chancellor Norman Abrams has named Merrick Bobb, a Los Angeles law enforcement watchdog who is best known for his examination of the Rodney King beatings in the early ’90s, to head the independent investigation of the Powell Library incident.
Terrence Duren, the UCLA police officer who shocked Tabatabainejad with the Taser stun gun, has reportedly used aggressive disciplinary tactics before, including choking someone with his nightstick outside a fraternity in 1990 and shooting and wounding a homeless man in a campus study hall three years ago.
Sabiha Ameen, UCLA student and president of the Muslim Students Association (MSA), is among the students who have demanded an independent investigation and have been engaging in dialogue with the UCLA administration and police department. In the coming weeks, Ameen and other members of MSA plan to meet with Bobb.
"We just want to make sure that Merrick Bobb is taking student concerns into consideration, not just concerns of the administration and the UCPD," she said, emphasizing that student safety is one of her greatest concerns. "If people don’t feel physically safe on their campus, how can they feel like they’re free to express themselves intellectually?"
While many students are questioning the appropriateness of Taser use in this situation, law enforcement officials maintain that such methods are necessary to ensure civilian safety.
"Tasers and other less lethal law enforcement weapons such as pepper spray and batons are used by officers to help subdue these types of situations," said Zach Friend, a spokesperson for the Santa Cruz Police Department. "What if you were being attacked? You would probably permit a police officer to use pepper spray or a Taser on your perpetrator. These issues all arise out of a concern for public safety."
Despite the American Civil Liberties Union’s report that revealed 148 Taser-related deaths in the United States and Canada since 1999, the weapon’s manufacturer defended the use of the stun gun.
"Medical and law enforcement experts have concluded that Taser technology is among the most effective use-of-force interventions available to law enforcement officers to halt violent situations that pose a safety risk to an officer, suspect or innocent citizens," Steve Tuttle, Vice President of Communications for Taser International, Inc., wrote in an e-mail to CHP.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a national community-run organization, has also called for an independent investigation of the UCPD’s Tasering at the Powell Library.
"I understand that law enforcement is in a position to protect not only themselves, but other people as well . . . [But] this is a huge, gross use of force. We can’t put students in a situation where they’re faced with this kind of response," said Affad Shaikh, civil rights coordinator for the Southern California branch of CAIR.
Shaikh explained that Tabatabainejad had passively resisted his arrest by going limp. While Los Angeles Police Department policy clearly states that Tasering can only be used in instances of active resistance, the university police policy remains much more ambiguous.
"It has come to my understanding that UCLA police are more aggressive when it comes to these policies than LAPD," Shaikh said.
UC Santa Cruz police officers, however, do not carry Tasers.
"UCSC police officers have not felt that they have the need to use tasers to enforce laws and campus regulations," UCSC spokesperson Jim Burns told CHP via e-mail, explaining that the "degree of crime" on the Santa Cruz campus does not warrent such tactics.
Some have linked the UCLA incident with the arrest of three UCSC students and police use of pepper spray and batons to quell a protest of the UC Regents’ visit, Oct. 18.
Foaad Khosmood, external vice president of the Graduate Student Association at UCSC, helped draft a resolution that called for suspension of the officers involved in both incidents. The resolution passed 11-1-2 in the University of California Students Association (UCSA) – an organization composed of graduate and undergraduate students from all the UC campuses.
Khosmood said that the resolution originally concerned only the UCSC protest, but as the Powell Library incident occurred a matter of days before the UCSA meeting in Berkeley, he decided to include it.
"The two incidents are linked in that in both cases police violence was used against unarmed students, causing harm against the students and causing outrage in their communities," Khosmood said. "It seemed there was an excessive use of force in both cases."
The resolution makes specific reference to Tabatabainejad’s Iranian-American ethnicity, and to that of Alette Kendrick, who was arrested at the UCSC Oct. 18 protest and is of African-American ethnicity. Khosmood, however, said it was too soon to tell whether these are essentially race-related issues.
"I can’t say for sure. However, it is extremely suspicious," Khosmood said. "We need to at least do an independent investigation to find out if that is true."
Shaikh of CAIR also cautioned against jumping to such conclusions.
"From the information that we have, I couldn’t tell whether it was race-related or not. That’s why we need an independent investigation," Shaikh said. "If it was, then we can work to prevent it from happening in the future."