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Saturday, July 26, 2008

When tasers go wrong

July 26, 2008
By: James Turner, Winnipeg Free Press

Are police too quick to turn to the supposedly non-lethal weapon?

IT'S abundantly clear that 17-year-old Darryl Turner's last day on Earth was a bad one. Watching the last moments of his life unfold on silent surveillance-camera footage is stark evidence. On the publicly available footage, Turner, a dreadlocked youth from Charlotte, North Carolina, storms about the small grocery store where he works as a cashier. He pushes over a merchandise display in anger.

It's believed he's in trouble with the store's management for not paying for something he had for lunch that day.

It's the afternoon of March 20, and the boy is fuming. He's seen confronting the store's manager, even throwing something at his boss in a rage. Police are called, and an officer arrives. Jerry Dawson, a 15-year veteran of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, briskly enters the store, his hand already reaching for his Taser. Police said the officer issued commands for the youth to stop.

Turner continues to move around, walking past the officer, which is when the stun gun is fired, striking the boy directly in the chest. The teen is unarmed. At first, he shows no sign of being incapacitated. He continues walking away from Dawson. Then the teen collapses on the store's carpet. Attempts to revive him are unsuccessful.

A medical examiner's autopsy and toxicology report on the boy's death released to the Free Press shows he had no intoxicants in his system.

Download the medical examiner's report from North Carolina

The official cause of death is a heart attack precipitated by his agitated state and the use of the Taser. A recent review of the officer's conduct determined that although the use of the weapon was justified, he had jolted the boy for too long.

Dawson was recently handed a five-day suspension without pay by a police review board that determined his Tasering of the teen twice -- once continuously for 37 seconds, and another for five seconds -- went beyond what was necessary or proper under police policy.

He will not face criminal charges.

The police department told reporters in Charlotte that "the initial use of the Taser is not in question," and the weapons have been effective in reducing injuries to suspects and officers. Police also said if Turner had complied with officer demands, the weapon would not have been needed.

In an interview with the Free Press Thursday, the family's lawyer, Ken Harris, said it's not yet decided if a civil suit will be launched against police or Taser International, the company that manufactured the stun gun used on Turner.

What's really striking about Turner's death is how little time the veteran officer seems to spend assessing the situation or talking to Turner to try calming him.

Fast-forward to last Tuesday, when 17-year-old Michael Langan died after being Tasered by police behind 871 William Ave. after they found him brandishing a knife, and the same issue arises.

Did police do enough to de-escalate the situation before shocking him?

The boy's father, Brian Minchin, said Winnipeg homicide detectives told him the boy was "zapped" once, fell to the ground and his heart stopped. "They asked him several times" to put down the knife, which had a blade about eight centimetres long, Minchin said.

"He just started carrying a knife," Minchin said.

Not every police agency is an unabashed fan of the stun guns, and controversy surrounds what Amnesty International has called "a slippery slope" towards the Taser's increased use, and sometimes abuse, by police.

In the U.S., 11,500 law-enforcement agencies use conducted-energy devices such as the Taser. More than 250,000 of the stun guns are in active use, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. In Canada, 73 police agencies use the weapons.

The American Justice Department warned in a June report on Taser use that "there may be circumstances in which repeated or continuous exposure is required, but law enforcement should be aware that the associated risks are unknown.

"Therefore, caution is urged in using multiple applications," the report said.

In England, where police have undertaken an extensive campaign to reduce the "epidemic" of stabbings in recent months, the Metropolitan Police Authority has moved to combat the problem as its top priority.

However, the vast majority of beat constables don't carry guns or Tasers, instead relying on their batons and pepper spray when dealing with a threat. Officers are required to radio for a special-response unit if an armed response is required.

However, 10 police forces in England -- including the 31,000-officer Metropolitan force -- began a year-long pilot project late last year after the British Home Office approved the increased use of the weapons by officers not in specialty firearms units.

Halfway through the test project, the weapons are being used more often.

The Home Office said in May that Tasers were used 252 times between September 2007 and the end of February. The weapons were discharged in only 31 situations, meaning they were most often used to coerce suspects into standing down when threatening officer or public safety.

Last year, Winnipeg police used or unholstered their Tasers 173 times. They were discharged or touched to a suspect to cause "pain compliance" 103 times.

Compliance with police orders by talking suspects down from their actions and not using force is the mantra of English policing, according to experts and a British Home Office spokesman.

Tim Matthews said this week that historically, English people have shown an aversion to weapons -- a cultural preference that's always influenced how police operate.

"The policy in this country has long been that the police should not generally be armed. That gives a character to our policing that we should not readily give up," Matthews said. "A traditional bobby on the beat, if he needs support, he calls a unit on the radio." The use of weapons by English police is rare, Matthews said. "It must always be a last resort."

A recent paper published by University of Exeter professor Brian Rappert further describes the key difference between North American and British use-of-force policies. "In the U.S., most agencies have in place a use-of-force continuum, (but) in the U.K., the preference is for a less prescriptive 'conflict-resolution model,' " he writes.

What this suggests is that in some places, the belief is that a threat should often be quelled by talking first and shooting later.

Winnipeg police said Thursday that each situation is different and each requires officers to use their own educated judgment. "Ideally, de-escalating is the ideal situation, but they're trained to recognize if a force application is warranted to protect themselves or another person. (If it's warranted), then they're justified in doing so," said Const. Adam Cheadle of the officer safety unit.

It's not known yet what caused Langan, a boy standing 5-foot-6 and weighing 145 pounds, to die. The provincial medical examiner, Dr. Thambirajah Balachandra, said it could take months for additional tests to be completed before an official cause of Langan's death can be determined.

Police Chief Keith McCaskill said that historically, there's been "a number" of cases where officers have used their Tasers when dealing with suspects armed with weapons, including knives, and serious injury didn't occur.

"If the device wasn't there, a firearm would have been the only other option available to officers."

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