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Friday, March 05, 2010

Palo Alto tightens policy on Taser-use by police

March 5, 2010
by Gennady Sheyner, Palo Alto Online

Palo Alto police officers will no longer be allowed to fire Tasers unless the person they use it against poses an immediate physical threat, police officials said this week.

The department has just finished revising its policy for Taser use, Police Chief Dennis Burns said. The revisions, which were several months in the making, establish stricter standards for when officers are allowed to use Tasers.

The department's current policy, which was adopted in 2007, relies on the vague "reasonableness" standard and allows officers to use only the force that "reasonably appears necessary, given the facts and circumstances perceived by the officer at the time of the event, to bring an incident under control."

But a recent court ruling and several controversial incidents on Taser use in Palo Alto prompted the department to raise the standards and clarify the policy.

The new policy specifies, "Absent exigent circumstances, the TASER X26 should only be used against persons who pose an immediate threat of bodily injuries."

The revised policy will be presented to the City Council in the coming weeks, police said.

Palo Alto police began using Tasers almost two-and-a-half years ago and have used or attempted to use them on 12 different suspects over that time period, according to a new report from Independent Police Auditor Michael Gennaco.

Most of these cases involved unruly and uncooperative suspects who attacked officers or refused to leave their vehicles. But Gennaco's newest report, released Wednesday night, also describes one case in which a Palo Alto officer mistakenly applied a Taser against an intoxicated man near a local nightclub. According to the report, the man had been trying to punch the bouncer at the nightclub when officers arrived and asked him to back away.

The man was allegedly swaying in place and mumbling, "What's the problem?" when an officer trained his Taser on him, the report states. The man allegedly moved his hands to his chest area, at which time the officer deployed the Taser.

The man fell to the ground and "failed to put his hands behind his back as ordered." The officer then deployed the Taser in "stun drive" mode against the man's leg, according to the report. The man was then taken to the hospital, received a medical check-up and was released for booking into jail, the report states.

Gennaco, who reviews every case of Taser deployment, said his review prompted him to conclude that this use of Taser "was a mistaken application of the current PAPD policy to the factual situation." After reviewing the reports and video footage of the incident, Gennaco said he believed that the man was "simply gesturing to his own chest while referring to his own experiences in the narrative" when he was shot with a Taser.

The second use of Taser was also questionable, Gennaco wrote, because it was "unclear whether the man had time to comply with commands after his fall to the ground."

Gennaco recommended that the officer who fired the Taser receive more training on Taser deployment and be "debriefed on his failure to give warnings in this case." The officer should also be warned that future questionable Taser uses would likely lead to a formal internal-affairs investigations and possible disciplinary action.

Gennaco has been working with the police department to clarify its Taser policy. The department also considered last December's ruling by the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals against a Coronado, Calif., police officer who fired a Taser at a man after pulling him over for not wearing a seatbelt.

The court concluded that stunning a subject with a Taser is only justified when a suspect poses "an immediate threat to the officer or a member of the public."

Burns said the department had been in the process of revising the policy even before the federal court issued its ruling. He said he hopes the new guidelines will reduce instances of misapplied Taser use and clarify the standards for deployment.

"We want to give the officers more defined guidelines about where Taser use is appropriate," Burns said.

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