Monday, November 29, 2004

APD Gone Taser-Happy

Austin police still use force against blacks more than twice as often as against whites, and force was used against Latinos more often this year than in years past, the Austin Real-Estatesman reported Sunday (reg. required). But police reporting of use of force and suspect injuries are down, according to documents released by the police department. The paper followed up on its investigative series analyzing use of force, first published 10 months ago. Here's the crux of the paper's findings:

Officers reported using force 25 percent less often so far this year, according to new statistics derived from forms officers fill out whenever they use force to apprehend a suspect, ranging from pushing and shoving to deadly force.

Injuries to police and civilians also have gone down by about 30 percent.

In turning to new technology — Tasers, or electronic stun guns — to supplant other types of force, the department appears to have saved the lives of two suspects who might otherwise have been shot. But two criminologists questioned whether Austin police are resorting to the stun guns too readily.

In all, officers filed 866 use-of-force reports between New Year's Day and Sept. 27.

A comparison of the latest reports with the 6,447 filed between May 1998 and October 2003 finds:

•The likelihood that force would be used on a person encountering police fell by one-third.

•The number of excessive force complaints filed by citizens fell by half, from about 6 complaints a month to 3, city records show.

•Blacks remained twice as likely to encounter force as whites. Hispanics were 65 percent more likely to encounter force than whites, up from 25 percent previously.

•Taser use skyrocketed, up from less than 1 percent of use-of-force incidents to 23 percent.

•Use-of-force rates plunged in the downtown area, where the largest share of violent encounters with police occur.

UT Arlington professor Dr. Alex del Carmen, who analyzed the statistics for the newspaper, said that while the number of use of force incidents had declined, the amount of force used in each incident increased significantly, largely because of the Tasers.
Several items here merit discussion. First, using Tasers in 23% of use of force incidents amounts to outrageously overusing the technology. By contrast, the Fort Worth Police Department has used Tasers just 103 times since 2001, reported the Star-Telegram. At least fifty people have died since 2001 from police Taser use nationwide. That figure includes three Texans, most recently a homeless man, Tasered and killed for stealing electricity for heat on a cold day. Tasers are not non-lethal, and everybody needs to stop calling them that.

Tasers should be a last resort instead of pulling a gun. Since officers never fired their guns in 23% of force incidents, it's clear APD is training officers to use Tasers under much less restrictive guidelines. The paper found APD officers use Tasers before they use batons, which is totally inappropriate -- and it's a failure of department policy, not the fault of the officers. Obviously, that's what they're being told to do. Tasers are potentially lethal force, and they should only be used in incidents that justify lethal force.

Though there's no commentary about it, the Statesman actually had a photograph of an officer inappropriately using a Taser.
Check it out:

That gal is unarmed and fully restrained to the point where the officers are quite casual about her; she's not struggling. But she's obviously panicked, and she should be. The officer in the foreground is threatening her with a lethal weapon.

The other question raised by the statistics, though unfortunately not by the reporters and editors who compiled them, is whether Austin police still report all use of force incidents and injuries to suspects. Before the original Statesman series, Austin officers believed those reports were secret. So now that they're out in the open, use of force magically declined? It seems improbable that use of force and injuries would go down that much in the first year after the statistics were analyzed, at least not for purely organic reasons like better training.

What seems more likely is that officers simply aren't filling out reports in all cases, and that injuries to suspects that previously were documented may no longer be recorded. We've seen that in Houston, Cincinnatti and elsewhere when officers were required to gather racial profiling data about traffic stops for the first time -- officers decided of their own volition to skew the statistics from the ground up, significantly influencing the numbers. That could be happening here.

Chief Knee attributed the decline to Taser use. Certainly they're overusing it, so it may have had some impact. I doubt that's the whole story, though.

The worst part about implementing Taser use in response to excessive force incidents, in this author's view, is that it ignores the real problem: Chief Knee and the department tolerate a handful of abusive officers on the force, tarnishing the reputation of other cops who're trying to do the right thing. The Statesman quoted ACLU of Texas' Ann del Llano:
"'The answer is in discipline, not training,' said del Llano, stressing that there should be consequences for officers who break the rules. 'The smartest people in the world are not going to follow their training if they don't have discipline.'"

That hits the nail on the head. Police sometimes have to use force; nobody denies that. What sucks is that when officers use excessive force in an inappropriate fashion, they're not only not punished, but often lionized by department brass. The worse the injury to the citizen, the more lavish the praise Chief Knee and his staff shower on the offending officer. This pattern has repeated so often it looks like a scripted media ballet performed after every police killing of a suspect.

I'm glad the Statesman is following up on their story, since APD use of force patterns appear to be in extreme flux. Hopefully we won't wait until the first unnecessary death, or, rather, the next one, before the department gets a handle on excessive Taser use.


Gritsforbreakfast said...

If the process worked, no one would be complaining. It's almost impossible to fire a bad cop in Austin, no matter what he or she does, under the current labor agreement. So what then? That's why the criticisms sound universal, even though only a few cops actually cross the line. It's city policy, enshrined in their weak police discipline system tolerating the few bad cops that causes the problem. So how does one criticize it without sounding as though you're attacking the whole system?

Anonymous said...

Hopefully they fried the fucking hippy cunt.