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Saturday, June 27, 2009

Georgia: State doesn’t fund law for taser training

June 27, 2009
By Jeremy Redmon, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Georgia’s Legislature never funded a law it passed in 2006 that requires the state to train police on how and when to use stun guns, weapons families have blamed in the deaths of two Gwinnett County jail inmates.

For training, the state is instead referring local police departments to stun gun manufacturer Taser International.

The head of Georgia’s police training center says the state training would last at least eight hours longer and cover more than Taser’s lessons, including if and when officers should use stun guns on certain people such as pregnant women. Taser officials say they train police to use the weapons safely but leave it up to them to write policies on when and on whom they should be used.

At the same time, an increasing number of Atlanta area law enforcement agencies are equipping their officers with Tasers and adopting widely differing policies on when to use them. Some policies are stringent while others are less so.

“It would be best to have our own state training on that and to develop some sort of standardized policy with a recommendation of when to use a Taser and when not to,” said Frank Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police.

Police promote stun guns as lifesavers that can help reduce injuries to officers and suspects. Critics, however, say the weapons are potentially lethal and can be easily abused since they sometimes leave no marks on suspects.

Police departments in Gwinnett and Fulton counties and in Alpharetta, Atlanta, Marietta and Sandy Springs use stun guns. Cobb County’s police department and sheriff’s office are planning to start using them this year. And DeKalb County’s police department is preparing to arm its officers with them this year after suspending their use in 2005, following the deaths of the two Gwinnett inmates.

When fired, some of the 50,000-volt stun guns have a range of up to 35 feet. They shoot barbed probes attached to wires that can shock a suspect for up to five seconds. The guns can also be pressed against suspects for a “drive stun.” The shock temporarily incapacitates suspects. Police officers who have voluntarily been stunned with the weapon say the pain is excruciating.

Burke Day, chairman of Georgia’s House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee, said he sponsored the legislation in 2006 to show Georgia would not tolerate police misusing the weapons following the deaths of the Gwinnett inmates. The Legislature passed Day’s law with a provision that says the state would not be required to offer the training until it is funded. The Republican lawmaker said he doesn’t see a need for the state training now but is considering calling for a legislative study committee to review how police are using stun guns.

“If there were a red hot problem — because the state probably couldn’t afford to pay right now for the training — I would suggest a temporary moratorium on using” stun guns, said Day, Tybee Island’s former police commissioner.

A review of last year’s use-of-force reports from several Atlanta-area police departments shows that officers used stun guns successfully without seriously injuring or killing suspects.

But human rights activists continue to link the weapons to injuries and deaths across the country. Amnesty International USA, for example, claims it has identified 357 people who have died after being stunned with the weapons. Among them was Elier Carlos Rodriguez Escamilla, 27, who died in 2007 after scuffling with Gwinnett sheriff deputies. During the struggle, the Norcross man was shocked with a Taser at least once. Gwinnett’s medical examiner ruled his death was accidental and caused by a syndrome called “excited delirium.” A combination of cocaine, alcohol and physical exertion brought on during the scuffle were too much for his heart, Dr. Carol Terry said.

Taser spokeswoman Hilary Gibeaut said the number of deaths Amnesty International has linked to stun guns is inaccurate. She asserted officials have listed the weapons as a contributing factor in less than 50 deaths and as the cause in only two disputed cases.

“Taser International believes in good policies, training, guidelines, and accountability, which are paramount to have a successful Taser electronic control devices program to protect lives and avoid unwarranted injuries,” Gibeaut said in a statement. “Most would agree that Taser devices and other electronic control devices are safer than punches, kicks, swarms, baton strikes, canine bites, impact weapons or even rubber bullets.”

Several Atlanta area police officers interviewed for this article said the training they got from Taser was thorough. Officers pay the company $295 to attend a course that teaches them how to become Taser instructors who can return to their departments and train their colleagues.

To become instructors, the officers must complete an eight-hour online course and then spend an additional eight hours training with a Taser master instructor. The courses are offered in Georgia and at the company’s training academy in Arizona. At least one part of the training is optional: getting stunned with a Taser.

That would be mandatory in Georgia, however, if the state decides to fund its own training program, which could cost $1 million, said Dale Mann, director of the Georgia Public Safety Training Center. “You need to know what you are giving somebody else,” he said. He wants each officer to get at least 24 hours of training, compared to Taser’s 16-hour requirement.

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley approved a law similar to Georgia’s last month; state officials are creating a training program there. Florida is now requiring officers to attend stun gun training based on state standards.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which marched to the Gwinnett courthouse in 2005 after the deaths of inmates Frederick Williams and Ray Charles Austin, called the lack of state training in Georgia “outrageous.” The SCLC said Georgia should suspend the use of Taser stun guns until the state training is in place.

Meanwhile, some Atlanta area law enforcement agencies have adopted policies for using the weapons that do not mirror national standards. The Police Executive Research Forum, a national research organization created by police, for example, has issued guidelines for stun guns that say they should generally not be used on pregnant women, the elderly and young children unless there are urgent circumstances. Taser says in its product warnings that pregnant women and the elderly are “especially at risk.”

The research forum — which developed its guidelines with the help of more than 50 law enforcement agencies that use stun guns, as well as doctors, researchers and others — also says the weapons should not be used on handcuffed people, unless they are “actively resisting” or showing “active aggression.”

The Alpharetta Police Department’s policy is silent on whether to use stun guns on handcuffed suspects, pregnant women, children and the elderly. The Atlanta Police Department, which has assigned only seven Tasers to its SWAT team, has a policy that does not address using them on handcuffed or elderly people. The Gwinnett police and sheriff’s departments and the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office’s policies do not specifically address stunning handcuffed suspects, children or the elderly. Officials from these agencies, however, say they require their officers to document each time the weapons are fired so they can be monitored.

“As policy developers, we do not want to restrict the deputies from utilizing their discretion in determining the appropriate use of force needed based on their training,” the Fulton Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.

Taser International says more than 14,200 law enforcement and military agencies use its products in more than 45 countries. The Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office, however, has decided not to be among those agencies because of the lack of state training in Georgia.

“We train our people for everything else based on state requirements, so why not this?” said Forsyth Chief Deputy Robbie Hamrick. “We just want to make sure we are getting the best information and best training from someone other than the manufacturer.”

Hamrick added rhetorically: “Why don’t we let nobody but Smith & Wesson train you on how to shoot a gun?”


How we got the story

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution started reporting on this article after Cobb County commissioners voted in April to authorize its Police Department to use confiscated crime money to buy Tasers for its officers. For this article, the AJC reviewed state laws and Atlanta-area police department policies and use-of-force reports and interviewed local police, state officials, human rights activists and representatives from Taser International Inc.

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