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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Use of Tasers undermines trust in police

August 22, 2010
BY KEN GREEN, Columbia Daily Tribune

It was disappointing but not surprising that the Columbia City Council rejected the Taser-Free initiative as an ordinance and left the matter to voters in the Nov. 2 election.

By law, citizens have the final say on what weapons police use. Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton correctly said in a Tribune article: “I understand where we get our authority to use force, and that is from the citizens.”

We appreciate the work of our police force, and we thank the officers for their service. The Taser-Free Columbia campaign hopes to restore to our officers the citizens’ trust, which has been compromised by police use of the Taser. And we do respect, as the mayor said, “the officer’s right and the family’s right for the officer to come home safely.”

Other residents of Columbia, however, also deserve to come home safely. After being shot with a Taser for 31 seconds, a 23-year-old Moberly man died in front of his family. How many Taser-injured people make it home, forever changed, to a family forever changed? The excessive force of excruciating pain caused by the Taser affects people and their friends and families, causing outrage, fear, hatred and lack of cooperation — attitudes toward our police that are spreading throughout our community.

What really brings day-by-day safety to our police is the confidence and support of the community and its families toward officers they feel can be trusted to be fair, to use only reasonable force and, only if necessary, to have the good of our community and its residents at heart. Taser use degrades community confidence and trust in police.

Unfortunately, before voting, council members did not address the issues of Taser unreliability and liability.

As we have learned more about Tasers and other conducted electrical devices, the question is: How will any amount of additional training, or better rules and strict adherence to those rules, or more transparency, adequately control the Taser when the weapon itself so easily lends itself to abusive use, has poor quality control, lacks standards, is unreliable and is therefore unsafe? A friend and former policeman who trains officers in weapon use shared with me: “Tasers tempt and enable many officers to discard their broader force-continuum responsibilities instead of using conflict resolution and other less dangerous conventional forms of defusing a situation.”

Tasers are not firearms. There are no mandated state or federal requirements for training or use of these weapons, so every community is on its own in deciding whether or how to allow conducted electrical devices. At the grass roots, people are discovering their flaws and dangers.

Last year, the Memphis, Tenn., city council banned Taser use. This year, San Francisco’s police commission voted “no” to Taser use by officers after hearing several researchers and advocates warn against their lethal and legal risks. And recently the Las Vegas, N.M., police chief decided to put away Tasers after seeing police departments across the country face lawsuits over their use. “Hearing all of the litigation behind it, we just decided to not go with it,” he said.

Litigation is happening here in Columbia and Mid-Missouri as well. Our city has already settled a Taser case for $300,000. And two other potentially million-dollar Columbia Taser cases — Derrick v. Giger & Logan and Marine v. Laforest — are in process. The civil court awarded $2.4 million to the Harlan family in Moberly, where the medical examiner ruled the death of Stanley Harlan a homicide. Potential ripe grounds for additional Columbia lawsuits involve people who were tased and, subsequently, were not charged with crimes.

A federal court recently ruled, in Bryan v. McPherson, that the excruciating pain caused by the Taser in itself constitutes excessive force. The court is reviewing whether an officer’s “qualified immunity” in Taser lawsuits should be eliminated.

We must realize every time the Taser is drawn, litigation against Columbia and even against individual officers and individual members of the city council is possible. The Taser-Free campaign is not about neutering officers’ use of an effective force continuum. It’s about helping the police return to a safer force continuum and giving them back the respect of the community.

When officers pull a Taser, they are to warn: “Taser! Taser! Taser!” Should not the Taser warning we hear be, “Lawsuit! Lawsuit! Lawsuit!”?

Columbia’s annual autumn growth spurt brings thousands of new U.S. and foreign students, as well as new employees who will call this city home. We don’t want these populations to begin avoiding Columbia because of highly publicized police use of excessive force and litigation. It is in the urgent interest of newcomers and of everyone to join the groundswell of consciousness about Columbia police use of force and the relationship between police and the public, including the many dangers of Taser use.

Written in 1829, Sir Robert Peel’s brilliant “Nine Principles of Policing” still provides a moral compass for the ethical relationship between police and the public. Peel stresses that citizens should be responsible for eliminating situations that foment crime and that the police, as citizens, focus on the safety of the whole community. His seventh principle says, in part: “Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police.”

We the People for Taser-Free Columbia ask Columbia voters to examine this issue and vote “yes” on the CED/Taser-Free ordinance on Nov. 2.

Ken Green is a member of People for Taser-Free Columbia.

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