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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Audit says Houston police more likely to taser blacks

September 9, 2008
By ROMA KHANNA, Houston Chronicle

Houston police officers use their Tasers on black people more often than any other suspects, confirming trends that have roiled community controversy since the stun guns came into widespread use four years ago, according to an audit released Monday.

The audit also, for the first time, analyzed the race and ethnicity of Houston Police Department officers who used their stuns guns and found that black officers turned to their Tasers less often than Anglo or Hispanic officers, particularly in encounters with black suspects.

The one-year, $210,000 study overseen by Controller Annise Parker examined some 1,400 incidents in which Houston police officers used Tasers between December 2004 and June 2007. During that time, the audit found, 67 percent of the people officers shocked were black, while encounters with black suspects made up just 46 percent of all police interactions.

On the whole, the audit team found Tasers to be an effective tool for controlling suspects and noted that officers used stun guns in less than 1 percent of all encounters with the public. But the team also identified issues such as the racial disparity, the public's perception that Tasers are an alternative to the deadly force of firearms and shortcomings in HPD's policies to monitor officers' Taser use.

"We need further analysis of the patterns we have discovered — that there are racial and ethnicity differences in how officers use Tasers and in who they are used on," Parker said Monday after presenting the audit to City Council's public safety committee. "We need to know why that difference exists."

Executive Assistant Police Chief Charles McClelland denied the significance of those findings, saying race plays no role in Taser use.

"A Taser is race neutral," he said. "What triggers an officer's response is a suspect's actions."

A notable flashpoint
Parker initiated the audit last year after public calls for tighter restrictions, if not a moratorium, on Taser use after several controversial incidents. One flashpoint for conflict was the November 2006 encounter between officers and Texans offensive lineman Fred Weary during a traffic stop. An officer shocked Weary, who was arrested and charged with resisting, only to have a judge later dismiss the charge as baseless.

After that incident, Mayor Bill White called for an independent review of Taser use.

HPD has armed most of its officers with the stun guns since December 2004, one year after officers shot and killed two unarmed teens. Police Chief Harold Hurtt, who reduced officer shootings in his previous post in Phoenix, endorsed Tasers as a way to curb some such shootings, and City Council approved a $4.7 million contract.

Despite public suggestions that Tasers could reduce the use of deadly force, HPD considers them intermediate weapons that can be used anytime an officer would use a baton or physically confront a suspect.

"There is a disconnect between how the department expects Tasers should be used and how citizens expect they will be used," Parker said. "We have been building on this myth that they are (an alternative to deadly force), and they are not."

The audit team found that the number of officer shootings has remained steady since the introduction of Tasers. They did, however, identify 53 incidents in which officers could have fired their guns but instead deployed a Taser.

Parker's team offered a series of recommendations to better monitor Taser use, including the suggestions that HPD study each incident in which an officer shocks the same suspect more than four times and that it track officers who use their Tasers frequently. The audit found that two HPD officers have used their Tasers more than 13 times — far more than any other officers on the force.

"The department ought to be aware and monitor (such) officers," Parker told the public safety committee.

The audit also recommended that officers be taught to fully evaluate the situation before each repeat deployment of the Taser and to weigh whether switching to another tactic might be more effective. Parks also asked HPD to put greater emphasis on real-life scenarios in its Taser training.

McClelland pledged to seriously review the audit's recommendations. But Parker said she is unsure of what will happen because of her experience after past audits that have identified problems, particularly with data collection, at HPD.

"The department has been resistant to change," she said. "I am not at all confident they will make changes at that level."

But change is exactly what Wilbert Allen Foxx hopes will come from the audit. Foxx was charged with trying to disarm an officer after a February 2005 incident in which he was repeatedly shocked. Jurors found no evidence of wrongdoing and acquitted him of the charge, but, to this day, Foxx said the incident has changed his life.

"I was in college in Atlanta, but I had to stay here to fight the case," he said. "I lost my scholarship, and I still am working to graduate. There are consequences to the way these Tasers are used, and somebody, some system, needs to make sure they are used right."

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