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Thursday, September 09, 2010

Palo Alto police change Taser policy

September 9, 2010
Gennady Sheyner, Palo Alto Online

Recent incidents in which Palo Alto police officers fired their Tasers at suspects would have violated the city's new policy for deployment of the controversial stun guns, Independent Police Auditor Michael Gennaco concluded in his new report.

The report details five recent incidents of Taser use, including one in which an officer fired a Taser at a "young" burglary suspect who tried to run away from the officer. Some of these Taser deployments would have been appropriate under the previous department policy, which permits Taser use when suspects are "actively resisting," which includes such actions as "tensing" or "bracing" to resist arrest. The new policy creates a stricter standard and requires that the suspect "pose an immediate threat of physical injury before firing a Taser is appropriate."

In the case of the unnamed "young man," the officer who fired the Taser appears to have violated even the original, less strict, policy. The officer fired the weapon after the young man ignored an officer's order that he stop and began to run away. The officer missed, but the unnamed suspect, hearing the sound of the Taser, stopped running, lied down on the ground and allowed police to handcuff him. He had a small knife and a screwdriver in his pocket and was arrested for possession of burglary tools, according to the auditor's report.

Though a police supervisor initially determined that the officer's use of the Taser fell within the Department's policy, Police Chief Dennis Burns had "misgivings" about the incident and ordered a new review, which concluded that the officer failed to comply with the existing policy because the officer had minimal evidence at the time about the suspect's intent to burglarize and because the suspect's flight did not constitute "exigent circumstances" or "active resistance or active aggression." The auditor agreed with the review's findings and the officer was forced to undergo new training and receive counseling.

In other cases, officers appeared to have followed the department's previous Taser policy (which was in effect at the time of the incidents) but would not have been in compliance with the revised policy. In one case, officers tried to handcuff a male suspect who appeared "angry, intoxicated and agitated" and who became "verbally confrontational" with the officer. Two officers grabbed the man's hands and bent him forward; a third officer, under direction from his supervisor, fired a Taser at the man's back.

Though the supervisor said the suspect in this case was "actively resisting" by "tensing" during the arrest, both Gennaco and managers in the department had "significant concerns" about this Taser incident. They concluded that the Taser deployment was "minimally within the original policy" but would have been in violation of the new policy.

Gennaco reached a similar conclusion in another case, in which a suspect hit a police patrol vehicle with his car, ran a red light and hit three parked cars and a light post before stopping his car. He then tried to run away, but other officers soon apprehended him. The officer whose car was hit caught up to the suspect while the other officers were handcuffing him. Though one hand was already in a handcuff, the suspect's "muscles tightened" while officers were trying to secure his left arm. The officer whose car was hit then fired a Taser at the suspect, who was then arrested without further incident.

After reviewing the incident, the department and Gennaco concluded that "had this Taser deployment been undertaken under the new revised policy, the application would have been out of policy."

Gennaco wrote that the police department's revised policy also provides guidance on "multiple cycling" of the Taser. Under the new policy, an officer must reevaluate the circumstances and consider whether the suspect still poses an "immediate threat" before a Taser is fired for a second time.

"The new policy restricts use of Taser to more appropriate situations that are consistent with recent legal opinions," Gennaco wrote. "Now that the revised policy has been issued, the Department has begun to provide the necessary training to familiarize officers with the new requirements."

The report also mentions an incident in which an officer's firing of the Taser appeared to be "timely, appropriate and in compliance with the Department's policy, then and now." This case involved two brothers, one of whom the police knew had a history of mental illness (his mother told the police he was "possibly violent, suicidal and delusional"). After leaving his vehicle, the older brother approached a female officer and "raised his arms over his head." The female officer pulled his hands down and other officers moved in to try to restrain the older brother, who began to wrestle with them.

At this point, the female officer fired a Taser at the older brother's back, but the darts "made insufficient contact and were ineffectual." The younger brother joined the fray but was quickly pulled away by an officer. Other officers arrived and tried to place the older brother into the police vehicle but could not do so. Ultimately, paramedics and firefighters arrived, secured the older brother to a gurney and took him to a hospital in an ambulance.

Gennaco said he reviewed tapes of the entire incident from beginning to end and was "impressed by the officer's calm professionalism during the incident and their patience in dealing with a mentally disturbed individual."

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