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Friday, June 19, 2009

EDITORIAL: Subdued to death

"As nonlethal weapons go, the Taser is by far the most lethal."

June 19, 2009
Salt Lake Tribune

The commands from police came in machine gun bursts -- loud, agitated, insistent, repeated. "Come here! Get down on the ground! Get down on the ground, now!" But Brian Cardall, naked and disoriented, didn't, and arguably couldn't, obey.

Cardall had an excuse for his actions -- stopping traffic, stripping, behaving irrationally. He had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He was suffering a mental health episode.

The same can't be said for Ken Thompson, the Hurricane police officer who shocked Cardall with a Taser capable of delivering 50,000 volts, then jolted him again when the Flagstaff, Ariz., resident allegedly attempted to rise.

After Thompson arrived at the scene along State Road 59 in southern Utah at 1:17 p.m. June 9, it took just 42 seconds until he deployed his stun gun. Within minutes, Cardall was dead, the third Utahn to die after being shot with a Taser.

Not to reduce Cardall, 32, to a statistic. He was much more -- scholar, researcher, artist, musician, husband, son, father of one with another on the way. But the statistics are telling.

As nonlethal weapons go, the Taser is by far the most lethal. According to Amnesty International, which tracks Taser deaths and advocates for a moratorium on their use until the devices can be more extensively studied, at least 350 Americans have been subdued to death with the instruments since 2001.

Thompson says Cardall stepped toward him, a claim that one witness confirms, and another disputes. Cardall's family says Thompson used unnecessary force. The attorney hired by Hurricane says the officer acted appropriately.

Cardall was unclothed, so he was obviously unarmed. He was young and in shape, but hardly a physical menace. And his wife had told dispatchers that he had taken medication that would calm his behavior if given time. But Cardall ran out of time.

We won't attempt to try the case here. The Washington County Critical Incident Task Force is investigating. The county attorney will review the reports and decide if the use of force was justified under Utah law. A jury, either criminal or civil, may be asked to render a final verdict.

But there's a more wide-ranging problem to be addressed.

Arizona-based Taser International has sold stun guns to more than 13,400 police, military and corrections agencies in 44 countries. And while the company contends that its products are safer than other "nonlethal" weapons, the death toll continues to rise.

Law enforcement agencies that arm officers with Tasers need to revisit their use-of-force policies, which often put Tasers on par with pepper spray. It's time for police departments to reduce the seemingly casual use of the device; to make it the weapon of next-to-last resort.

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