Friday, April 08, 2005

Tasers 41% of Use-of-Force Cases at APD

Austin police use Tasers in 41% of all use of force incidents engaged in by their officers, with a small handful of officers accounting for the lion's share of the cases. That figure has risen from 23% last year, Tony Plohetski at the Austin Statesman reported this morning. Overall, the number of minor use of force incidents declined, but Chief Knee told the city council only five Tasering incidents occurred last year when an officer would have otherwise been justified in using deadly force. The rest were in situations where no one's life was in danger.

In other words, Austin police are WAY overusing Tasers in confrontations with the public, and not only in cases where they let officers avoid shooting people. Tasers have become officers' first resort instead of their last. That's evidence, IMO, of inadequate policies and training.

Tasers have only ever been tested on healthy people, but more than 100 folks nationally have died after being attacked with one, often when they have pre-existing medical conditions or have been using amphetamines. A large number of Tasering incidents occur in Austin because of mere "verbal noncompliance," meaning the officer issued an order and someone didn't immediately comply. Elsewhere Tasers' problems are bubbling to the surface despite the company's claims that pumping 50,000 volts through the human body is perfectly safe. Wrote Plohetski:
Last month, the U.S. bureaus of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection adopted a ban on stun guns for their 20,000 agents and officers, largely because of questions about their safety.

Amnesty International says that at least 100 people have died after they were shocked by Tasers.

Suspects in other Texas cities have died in recent months after receiving Taser shocks.

A Midland man died last week after police in Fort Worth shocked him after he trespassed, resisted police and tried to punch an off-duty officer who was assisting in his arrest.

According to published reports, officers did not summon an ambulance after the man said he was having trouble breathing, but called for one after his problems continued.
Facing growing criticism over implementing unproven technology on a grand scale, Austin Police Chief Stan Knee unveiled new restrictions on officers' Taser use:
  • Tasers can't be used on misdemeanor suspects.
  • Handcuffed prisoners can't be Tasered (something officers resisted)
  • Officers can no longer Taser fleeing suspects unless they're armed.
That's better than a sharp Taser prong in the eye, but it's not enough. Tasers are potentially lethal force and should be treated that way. They should only be used when lethal force is justified, and the only alternative is for the officer to shoot the suspect. Instead, Austin officers Taser suspects, or threaten to Taser them, as a first resort rather than t last one.

The Central Texas chapter of the ACLU, Amnesty International and Austin Spokes, a community group concerned with Tasers, held a press conference after Knee's briefing to air concerns.
"People could be on some kind heart medication that raises their heartbeat rate, and being Tased would be all it takes to put them over," said Debbie Russell, an ACLU board member. "There is a lack of medical information, and there is a lack of information on how they are being used and who they are using them on."

Ed Jackson, a spokesman for Amnesty International who was at the council meeting, said, "It is a patently bad idea to use the public as guinea pigs for unproven technology."

At the end of the day I think Tasers have a place on the police use of force continuum, but once the real dangers of the technology are sorted out, I think that place will be just before officers fire their service weapon, not the first time a suspect gives them any backtalk, which appears to be the current Tasering standard at APD.


Travis Fell said...

Dear Grits,
Welcome back from DC.

I am glad to see that you take a less draconian view than local activist groups on Tasers.

I have a few questions tho'...
You mention that Tasers are often wrongly used in "verbal non-compliance" situations. What is the appropriate use of force in that case?

You also said "should only be used when lethal force is justified, and the only alternative is for the officer to shoot the suspect". How did you reach this conclusion? Did you include the issues and concerns of local law enforcement groups, a key stakeholder in this debate, in drawing this conclusion?

Finally, the Statesman story said use of hand holds have decreased during the same period, implying that this decrease was caused by increased Taser use. But are there any policies at APD that may have independently affected the training in and use of hand holds and restraints (like decreased
standards for officer fitness, strength, height, weight, etc.)?

Peaceably yours,
Texas T

Travis Fell said...

D'oh! I messed up the third paragraph in my previous comment. It shoulda' said:

You also said "Tasers should only be used when lethal force is justified, and the only alternative is for the officer to shoot the suspect". ....

Peace out, T

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Hi Tommy, You asked: "in 'verbal non-compliance' situations. What is the appropriate use of force"

For starters, all departments had use of force continuums and policies dealing with such matters before Tasers came on the scene, so independently of my opinion protocols exist. But to answer your question, if the officer had legal authority to issue the order, that individual broke the law and can be taken into custody. Almost always that can be done without Tasering anybody.

Next, "How did you reach this conclusion? Did you include the issues and concerns of local law enforcement groups, a key stakeholder in this debate, in drawing this conclusion?"

I've written on this before, but IMO, we know Tasers are a) potentially lethal, because 103 died in North America when officers tasered them, and b) are less lethal than gunshots. The Supreme Court has issued reasonably clear if much-ignored-at-crunch-time standards for when lethal force may be used, and long-established policies for use of lethal force restrict it to when someone's life is in imminent danger. So, if you accept the premise that Tasers are potentially lethal force, I think those standards should apply. Logically, then, Tasers should be used at the same threshhold as, but before, an officer's service revolver.

As to the police union's position, their only concern is maximizing officer safety, which to the police unions means Tasering anybody the moment an officer feels threatened. There are grey areas where an officer is alone facing a violently combative suspect when it would be unsafe to get into close quarters. But those circumstances are very narrow, and in any event, again, protocols exist for dealing with that, and it's not a huge problem: police officers' jobs are safer than groundskeepers in the park.

Finally, I understand there have been additional changes in policy and training such as you described that may have some effect, though honestly I hear so many claims that training will solve everything I become cynical. The problem is APD tolerates and often promotes the worst actors no matter how badly they behave, not that the vast majority of good cops aren't sitting through enough training.