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Saturday, June 05, 2010

EDITORIAL: Tinkering with the Taser's trigger

June 4, 2010
Bob Ray Sanders, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

The brand name Taser, manufacturer of the world's most popular electronic control device, is very much a part of the English lexicon today -- so much so that it is often used as a verb.

The "stun gun" products bearing that name consist of different models that deploy probes, from as far away as 35 feet, that can be discharged and emit 50,000 volts of electricity, usually disabling an individual in an instant.

The Taser is marketed as a nonlethal weapon that can help defuse disruptive situations and save the lives of both the user and the person who literally is being shocked into compliance.

Taser International, headquartered in Arizona, reports on its website that more than 15,000 public safety agencies in 40 countries rely on its devices "to help protect and serve."

The Fort Worth Police Department has more than 1,300 of the Taser X26 model and has deployed the weapons more than 1,350 times. Most officers insist that lives were saved because, in many cases, police would have had to use their firearms if the Taser were not available.

For four individuals in Fort Worth, and more than 345 elsewhere, the Taser didn't save lives. It reportedly contributed to their deaths.

Last month, the Fort Worth City Council voted to pay $2 million to settle a lawsuit filed by the family of Michel Patrick Jacobs Jr., a 24-year-old mental patient. Jacobs, who was 5-foot-5 and 140 pounds, died April 18, 2009, after being shocked twice with a Taser by a Fort Worth police officer. His parents had called police because he had become aggressive, a behavior that would occur when he was not taking his medication.

The financial settlement was the largest offer the city has ever made in a death or injury case. A federal judge is expected to approve the agreement in the next 30 to 45 days, according to Jacobs family attorney Brian Eberstein.

Jacobs' death was ruled a homicide by Tarrant County Medical Examiner Nizam Peerwani, who found that the initial shock to the body lasted 49 seconds because the officer kept her finger on the trigger. The Taser is designed to have a five-second deployment after a single click of the trigger but continues discharging if the trigger is held down. A second shock to Jacobs lasted five seconds.

I've called for a moratorium on Taser use until there can be a lot more independent study of the device and a lot more training by police officers.

That moratorium is not going to happen, but police are receiving more training about how to use the Taser and how to deal with mentally ill people.

But Fort Worth Police Chief Jeff Halstead is pursuing a plan that just might save other lives when Tasers are used. This revelation came in a recent meeting with the Star-Telegram Editorial Board.

Without talking about the Jacobs case specifically -- "because it is not final" -- the chief said he approached Taser International officials last October about modifying the device. During a meeting of the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Denver, Halstead said he proposed the Taser X26 be programmed so that the maximum duration of a shock, without releasing and pressing the trigger again, would be 10 seconds.

In other words, even in the case of a highly tense situation in which an officer continues pressing the trigger, the stun device would stop after 10 seconds. The trigger would have to be pulled again to cause an additional shock.

Last week, Halstead said through his chief of staff Lt. Paul Henderson that altering the device with a 10-second maximum shock "could reduce the risk of any potential complications caused by longer applications and reduce the risk of civil liability."

In rejecting his idea last year, Taser officials cited other possible liability issues if the company changed the weapon as suggested and said they would have to discuss the issue with their legal counsel, Halstead told the Editorial Board.

The chief's recommendation sounds not only reasonable and plausible, but prudent. I can't understand why Taser couldn't oblige him.

Halstead isn't giving up, he said. He plans a campaign, first by initiating conversations with chiefs of other major cities in Texas, and by raising the topic at the October meeting of the association of chiefs in Orlando.

With the widespread use of Tasers and the growing number of departments that are purchasing them, one would think any safeguard that could be applied would be taken under consideration by the manufacturer. Maybe it is, but we don't know that.

In my opinion, the stun gun is overused by officers, and often in situations where they would not have used a firearm if the Taser were not at their disposal. In the four fatal cases in Fort Worth, for example, I find it hard to believe that police would have shot these unarmed people, including a woman who was handcuffed.

But I've lost the argument for halting the use of Tasers in Fort Worth, so the next best thing is finding ways to prevent its misuse.

The police chief has offered a plan that might save lives. It's now up to the folks at Taser to make a move.

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