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Friday, April 09, 2010

Taser backer persists

April 9, 2010
By Edward Russo, The Register-Guard

Eugene attorney Jeff Salisbury understands why some residents want to curtail police use of Tasers. The electric stun guns are “powerful and painful,” he said.

But Salisbury, who played an influential role in Eugene’s decision to equip the city’s police with Tasers, disagrees with a possible ballot proposal to restrict the weapons’ use by officers.

Proponents are organizing a petition drive to ask Eugene voters to pass an ordinance classifying Tasers as deadly weapons, the same as firearms.

The signature-gathering drive for the petition could start Saturday in downtown. Proponents will need to gather 12,062 signatures of Eugene voters by July 15 to place the proposal on the Nov. 2 ballot.

Since Eugene police began carrying Tasers two years ago, officers frequently have used the stun guns, which have replaced pepper spray as the weapon of choice by officers when confronting resistant people. If successful, the ballot measure could prompt police to curb or even eliminate their Taser use.

Salisbury said the ballot measure doesn’t make sense.

“Tasers are not lethal; they are a non-lethal alternative to deadly force,” he said. The ordinance “would stand truth and logic on its head.”

Salisbury’s role in Eugene’s Taser debate came about through tragic circumstances.

His 19-year old, Ryan, had struggled with bipolar disorder for more than a year and had attempted suicide before the early morning of Nov. 14, 2006, when he suffered a psychotic break and lost control.

Jeff and Denise Salisbury had called police for help while they were barricaded inside a bedroom at their south hills home with their two younger sons and another child.

After police arrived, Ryan Salisbury walked toward officers with a kitchen knife in his hand, ignoring their orders to stop. He wasn’t halted by several hits from beanbag rounds. An officer then shot him five times as his parents watched from a bedroom window.

Afterward, Jeff and Denise Salisbury and others urged the police department to equip officers with Tasers so they would have an alternative to shooting someone in similar life-and-death situations.

The police department agreed. Since 40 officers started carrying them in 2008, the stun guns have been used mostly without controversy to subdue and control people that officers believe could injure other people, officers or themselves.

But two high-profile incidents involving the same officer focused public attention on the weapons and prompted the likely petition drive by south Eugene resident Randy Prince.

The proposed ordinance would allow police to use Tasers only in situations where firearms, or deadly force, would be justified.

A police officer, therefore, could use a Taser when dealing with a mentally troubled person who posed a deadly threat, as Ryan Salisbury did, Prince said.

“A Tasering would have been much more effective and could have been used in that situation, where a team of officers was dispatched to deal with a mentally ill, knife-wielding subject,” he said.

But people have died in other cities after being stunned by Tasers, Prince said, so it’s reasonable to put the weapons under the same deadly force rules as firearms.

Under Eugene Police Department rules, officers use Tasers to get people to comply with officers’ orders, Prince said. That creates the chance for officers to abuse the weapons and use them on people who shouldn’t be shocked, he said.

But Salisbury said the classification of Tasers as deadly weapons would hamstring police.

He’s concerned that police officials would take Tasers away from officers if the weapons had to be operated like firearms, eliminating them as an option.

On the other hand, if police are allowed to keep Tasers but only are permitted to use them in life-and-death situations, officers “may opt for the gun instead of the Taser since both are classified as deadly,” Salisbury said. “So why not use the gun anyway?”

“Having the Taser keep its non-lethal status will make it easier and more clear to the officers that they should try to use it before resorting to their .45 (caliber pistol), a truly lethal weapon,” he said.

Salisbury does, however, favor changing how the city disciplines officers who violate the department’s Taser rules. Under department policy, the police chief decides if an officer has violated the rules, and the chief imposes discipline.

Instead of the petition drive to restrict the use of Tasers, Salisbury said, concerned citizens should ask city officials to institute “clear and well-defined sanctions” for officers who violate Taser guidelines. And instead of the police chief handling discipline, the task should be given to a “quasi-independent authority comprised of police and nonpolice representatives,” Salisbury said.

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