Monday, August 27, 2007

Are police overusing Tasers?

While some police accountability activists have called for a moratorium on Taser use by law enforcement, I've always believed that the tool has a place on the use of force continuum and generally can improve officer and public safety.

But precisely where on that use of force continuum Tasers should lie remains a source of contentious debate, and many departments today use Tasers as a tool of first resort instead of last. That only marginally improves officer safety beyond more judicious use, but reduces the public's safety and security significantly.

Officers should only use Tasers when significant use of force is otherwise justified - i.e., when a suspect becomes violent or endangers themselves or others. When used to gain compliance from nonviolent suspects, especially if they're restrained, Tasers can amount to a torture device, as I suggested to one of the founders of Taser International last year. An officer can squeeze off limitless additional shots of voltage over and over, and sometimes the outcomes go sour.

Examples of using Tasers unnecessarily to gain compliance in Texas and beyond may be found in a USA Today article on police use of Tasers yesterday ("Taser incidents renew debate over usage," Aug. 26):
Chained to a 55-gallon drum to protest the proposed development of a vacant lot, Jonathan Crowell wasn't threatening anyone. But he refused police orders to unshackle himself and leave, so they zapped him with a Taser, then charged him with trespassing.

"It wasn't just a short burst," said Crowell, 32, of Dummerston, recalling the July 24 incident. "Five seconds is a long time to be electrocuted. My whole body was contorting and flapping around. You can't think of anything else but that pain. It's really scary. I felt like I was being tortured."

Increasingly, police facing stubborn lawbreakers, belligerent drunks or violent suspects are reaching for stun guns to shock them into submission. In one recent incident, a hospital security guard in Houston used a Taser on a defiant father trying to take his newborn home, sending father and daughter to the floor.

Police say Tasers are valuable tools for avoiding hand-to-hand struggles that can injure officers and citizens. Small, portable and often effective even when merely brandished, Tasers -- which fire tiny, tethered cartridges that transmit electrical currents -- have become common in law enforcement in recent years, with some 11,500 police agencies using them.

But critics say Tasers are being used as a weapon of first resort, sometimes on frail or mentally ill people. ...

In the Houston incident, which occurred April 13, William Lewis, 30, was trying to take his newborn home from Woman's Hospital of Texas because he and his wife felt mistreated by staff.

He was told not to take the baby, and was trying to leave when David Boling, an off-duty police officer working security, shot Lewis with the stun gun as he held the child.

"It's very easy to blame police officers for the inappropriate use of a Taser, but we need to take another step back and look at how it's been introduced to them," said Dalia Hashad, a human rights violations specialist with Amnesty International.

"They're under the impression that it's a bit of a magic tool, that you'll shoot someone with 50,000 volts and they'll be rendered incapable and no harm will be done."

Amnesty International USA has counted 250 cases in the last six years in which people died after being stunned with a Taser, but doesn't track whether the shock caused the deaths, according to Hashad. According to the manufacturer, Taser International Inc., the devices have been listed as a contributing factor in about 12 deaths.

Hashad says police should exercise more restraint in using Tasers on the mentally ill, and those with medical conditions who can die from the shock.

The guy chained to an oil drum, the father holding the infant who won't comply with a security guard's orders, these are instances where using a Taser as a first resort instead of the last one amounted to torture in the former case, and excessive force in the latter. Can you imagine if the Taser prongs hit the newborn instead of the father? As it was he dropped the child, who could easily have been killed in the event.

Tasers, for now, are here to stay, so it's important law enforcement get their policies right on their use - it's not for every situation where a suspect is defiant. I'd also like to see other creative, applied research to develop weapons that reduce the chance for torturous use or lethal outcomes.


Tracey Hayes said...

why did anyone have to stop the man from leaving the hospital at all? I'm guessing they had his name and address, is this a situation where any restraint had to be exercised at all? I think the question we might ask is are we over using force in general?

Anonymous said...

Maybe we should just give the Police Water Guns.Will that make everybody happy.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Maybe we should change the use of force continuum to allow (require?) ruthless beating and repeated Taserings of snarky cheap-shot artists who write anonymous blog comments. That would make me happy. ;)

Anonymous said...

Tracey Hayes asked a couple of important questions. How much power do Doctors and Hospitals have over us when we are in their care.

This man wanted to take his baby soemwhere else for care. Why was he stopped? Why don't parents have the right to make decisions regarding the care for their children? What right did the Hospital Security Staff have to stop this man.

Most people don't know how much power over their own life they give up when they are in a hospital.

This whole scenario is a horror story. The public has a right to understand what law was broken.

Anonymous said...

As with everything, a great tool like the TASER gets abused making its legitimate uses suspect. Thank you, bad apples!

JT Barrie said...

In my experience police are all about enforcing rules on "someone else". If you want to punish "someone else" you call in the police. If you want to improve relations and get along you negotiate as equals with the police on the sidelines as a motivational tool to curb bad behavior. Why would anyone want to use police for hostage negotiations? Ministers or people trained in nonviolence would do a better job. Police have always been a tool of abusive power. They have always been used by the wealthy and powerful to punish those who threaten their power. Giving them another tool with fewer legal restraints to inflict pain and guess what they do: they abuse this tool!
If only they taught police how to respect the citizenry they are sworn to serve. Instead they make distinctions between citizens they can hassle and those they hassle at great risk. If only everyone got the respect from police that the mayor and CEOs of large corporations currently get.