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Sunday, October 24, 2010

A question of safety - Columbia voters to decide fate of taser use

The company [Taser International] for the first time issued a warning to users to avoid deploying Taser probes into the chest area. “They want to sell the product, but they are still finding out the effects,” Parke said. “The truth is that they do not know the effects of the Taser. Until they can ensure it is not an uncertain weapon, then we should stop using it.”

October 24, 2010
Brennan David, Columbia Daily Tribune

Are Columbia residents safer when police deploy a Taser than when an officer has to get into an all-out brawl with someone resisting arrest?

Those are questions voters might consider Nov. 2 when they decide whether the use of conducted electrical devices, or CEDs, should be banned in the city. The issue comes to voters after a grass-roots organization and the city couldn’t reach common ground when it comes to the safety of Taser use.

People for a Taser-Free Columbia — the group seeking the ban — and those who support Tasers as a law enforcement tool each have data and anecdotal evidence to support their cases.

On the pro-Taser side, there are stories of aggressive suspects and violent situations that have been curtailed when police displayed or deployed a Taser. In those cases, the Taser is a safer choice because officers don’t have to wrestle with suspects to take them into custody, Columbia police training Sgt. John Worden said.

On the flip side, CED incidents gone wrong have raised eyebrows, including in two Mid-Missouri cases. In 2008, Columbia police tased Phillip McDuffy while he was on a bridge over Interstate 70. McDuffy — who’d earlier threatened to jump from the bridge — suffered two broken arms and a skull fracture and eventually reached a $300,000 cash settlement with the city. That same year, a 23-year-old Moberly man, Stanley Harlan, died after a struggle with police that included several Taser deployments. The city of Moberly agreed last year to pay $2.4 million to his survivors.

With some Taser deployments contributing to injuries or death, coalition organizer Mary Hussmann said she hopes Columbia residents realize CEDs are unpredictable.

After more than three years of discussion, one common denominator has surfaced: Both sides are committed to public safety, but each has a different idea of what constitutes a safe, lawful arrest.

If Proposition 2 passes, it will create an ordinance making it illegal for any Columbia police officer, assistant law enforcement officer or resident to threaten to use or activate any CED within the city limits. That includes, but is not limited to, Tasers, stun guns, stun belts or shock sticks.

A violation of the ordinance would be a Class A misdemeanor that could result in up to a one-year prison sentence.

The ordinance would affect personal CED owners: They, too, would be prohibited from using or threatening to use Tasers within city limits. However, individuals would still be able to own, sell or purchase Tasers. The law would be similar to the municipal ordinance on the books that allows residents to own a gun but not brandish or use it in the city limits. Because people would still be allowed to own Tasers, the ordinance would not conflict with the Second Amendment.

If voters approve Proposition 2, Columbia will join a handful of states and cities with bans or restrictions on Tasers and stun guns. Along the East Coast, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts have Taser bans. Some states, including Indiana and North Dakota, require individuals to obtain a license to carry Tasers or stun guns, and in other states, only law enforcement officers are allowed to possess them.

People for a Taser-Free Columbia argues that CEDs have caused unacceptable physical and psychological pain and that thousands of injuries and hundreds of deaths across the country have occurred after Taser use. The group also objects to the fact officers are allowed to use CEDs against children and the mentally ill, elderly and disabled “merely to obtain compliance.”

Although no death in the United States has been attributed solely to Taser use, supporters of the ban think it’s too risky to deploy a CED on a subject without knowing the person’s medical history. Substance abuse or other health factors combined with a CED deployment can be deadly, according to a U.S. Department of Justice report from June 2008.

Supporters of the ban also believe the device is cruel and is used to punish subjects resisting arrest, Hussmann said.

Columbia police say otherwise.

“We don’t want to hurt anybody, but we have a job to get done,” Worden said. “The public expects us to get it done with a justifiable and reasonable use of force. … If we thought this was unsafe, we wouldn’t subject our officers and citizens to it.”

Taser instructor Officer Jason Baillargeon said the Taser X26 requires 50,000 volts to deploy the probes and shoot them as far as 25 feet. Upon impact, only 1,200 volts are transferred to the subject, he said.

Hussmann counters that officers don’t know how many volts they transfer to the subject. She said she has seen several reports that claim as much as 80,000 volts can be transferred.

The amount depends on a number of factors, Columbia police Chief Ken Burton said Tuesday at a Columbia/Boone County League of Women Voters forum.

“No police use of force is completely reliable and completely predictable,” he said. “Every contact in which a police officer is required to use force in the course of their duties has several variables, one of which is the size of the officer. The size of the suspect. The mental state of the suspect. The physical condition of the officer and suspect are all variables that are completely out of our control. … The use of force by police is never a pretty thing.”

Between Nov. 15 and May 15, Columbia police deployed a Taser 12 of the 27 times officers displayed the device. In three of those cases, officers also combined deployment with a drive stun — when the gun itself is placed against the skin or clothing of a subject. Although internal investigations into officers’ conduct in these cases are incomplete, no injuries were recorded as a result of the Taser use.

During that same six-month period, 30 arrests involved physical strikes or “other” force. “Other” is a Columbia police category to classify any form of use that results in injury to the suspect. Of those arrests, seven resulted in injury to the subject or officer, police records show.

One suspect was allegedly high on PCP, and his arrest required a prolonged struggle that resulted in a concussion, abrasions and bruises to the officer, records show. In another case, a burglary suspect suffered a separated shoulder after he was tackled while resisting arrest.

Residents can expect more of those types of incidents if Proposition 2 is approved because officers would have to resort to strikes and other uses of force, police say.

“Rotator-cuff injuries, broken arms and fingers, ligament and tendon damage, lacerations, back injuries, broken noses, teeth and jaw are injuries that can occur,” Worden said. “You are wrestling a person into custody. If you can think about how you would get hurt in a fight, those things will happen.”

In 2009, Columbia police made 154,591 citizen contacts and 6,833 in-custody arrests, according to a year-end report. Only one baton use was recorded for the entire year; pepper spray was more common, with 85 uses. There were 46 strikes and 11 uses categorized as “other.”

The Taser was deployed or displayed 59 times for the year, 21 of which involved actual deployment. Officers were found to have acted properly in all cases. The 2009 report did not document injuries.

Columbia police began using CEDs in 2005, which, at the time, sparked some interest from the public. But more eyebrows rose when the Columbia City Council approved buying 44 additional Tasers with a $33,000 U.S. Department of Justice grant in 2008. The department had 38 CEDs when that grant was approved.

Hussmann said several concerned residents organized The Coalition to Control Tasers in response to the purchase because little was known about the devices. A justice department report released that year said there was no conclusive evidence indicating a high risk of serious injury or death from the direct effects of CED exposure but acknowledged the device is not risk-free.

“CED technology may be a contributor to ‘stress’ when stress is an issue related to cause of death determination,” the report concluded. “All aspects of an altercation (including verbal altercation, physical struggle or physical restraint) constitute stress that may represent a heightened risk in individuals who have pre-existing cardiac or other significant disease.”

The newly founded organization wanted reports of Columbia police incidents to determine whether CEDs were being properly used and whether they were safe.

But obtaining those reports was difficult, Hussmann said, because police wanted to charge hundreds of dollars to produce those records. The Missouri Sunshine Law allows such fees for public records.

In some cases, records were closed because charges were dropped or never issued on suspects who were tased. Those cases are especially of interest, though, because they might flag instances in which police did not follow protocol, Hussmann said.

“The real essence of what is happening with Tasers is in the details and circumstances of when they are being used,” Hussmann said. “A lot of tasing is not in the public view. The only way to get that is to come up with hundreds of dollars.”

With more officers carrying CEDs — 87 of 110 patrol officers have them — and the difficulty in obtaining CED records, the not-for-profit People for a Taser Free Columbia organized.

Also contributing to the group’s concerns was an October 2009 warning from Taser International, spokeswoman Catherine Parke said. The company for the first time issued a warning to users to avoid deploying Taser probes into the chest area.

“They want to sell the product, but they are still finding out the effects,” Parke said. “The truth is that they do not know the effects of the Taser. Until they can ensure it is not an uncertain weapon, then we should stop using it.”

Columbia police have adopted the guideline.

“Taser is recommending that this is better,” Baillargeon said. “I’m not sure why they changed the policy. Remember, this is not a ‘no shoot,’ but an area that should be avoided.”

People for a Taser Free Columbia eventually gathered more than 4,000 signatures of registered Columbia voters and requested that the city council approve the petition as an ordinance. The council denied that request, instead sending it to the Nov. 2 ballot.

During the same period, Taser policies within the Columbia Police Department were evolving as more information about the device became available. Initially, Columbia police used guidelines provided by Taser International, Worden said. Eventually, they began to adopt Police Executive Research Forum, or PERF, guidelines to distance the department from the manufacturer’s guidelines, which some considered biased.

“Our Taser policy has probably changed more and more than any other policy we have over the last two or three years,” Worden said. “We have gone from a very heavy Taser International policy to one that is PERF guideline-heavy.”

Despite solid policies, though, Worden acknowledged that officers will make mistakes.

Columbia police officers aren’t the only ones who would be affected if Proposition 2 is approved.

The Boone County Sheriff’s Department also would have to revisit its Taser use. Fifty-eight Boone County employees are certified to carry Tasers during patrol and other law enforcement activities that often bring deputies into the city limits to make arrests or follow up on investigations, Sheriff Dwayne Carey said. Deputies also are responsible for serving a significant number of court orders and ex partes within the city limits.

“I call it the fertile circle of Columbia,” Carey said. “It is not uncommon for part of a road to be in the county and the other half in the city. We would be asking a deputy in a high-stress situation trying to decide what use of force will stop the threat then have to think, ‘Am I in the city or county?’ ”

The Boone County Jail also is in the city limits and would fall within the requirements of the proposed Taser ordinance. CEDs were introduced to the jail in 2004, with three Tasers in service, according to jail statistics. Today, there are 11 Tasers at the jail.

Jail Chief Warren Brewer said most Taser use in the jail is in response to physical force that does not rise to the point of deadly force.

“Most individuals that are tased are in a situation where they are being combative or violently self-abusive,” Brewer said. “We have a 20-1 ratio. The last thing we want is for a firearm to get into the hands of 20 to 25 inmates.”

Prisoners have apparently caught on, and just seeing the device is enough to calm some situations. Records show Taser probe deployments have been cut in half since 2004; there were 18 deployments that year and nine last year. On the flip side, jailers have displayed the weapon six times this year, compared to zero times in 2004.

“Some individuals that might have been subject to use before of them don’t want to mess with them anymore,” Brewer said. “If necessary, they voluntarily comply. Word gets around.”

Brewer did not categorize the device as necessary for jailers — they got by for years without them. But the concrete and steel jail environment makes for a dangerous wrestling ring, he said.

The Missouri State Highway Patrol and the University of Missouri Police Department often assist Columbia police but do not carry Tasers or other CEDs. MU police Capt. Brian Weimer said the cost of CEDs, their upkeep and training are the biggest reasons for not investing.

The state highway patrol is also satisfied with the equipment and tools troopers already have at their disposal. Only the highway patrol’s gaming division and SWAT team use CEDs, spokesman Capt. Tim Hull said.

“Our gaming division uses them because of the close proximity of people in a casino setting. Pepper spray couldn’t be used in those situations,” Hull said. “Our SWAT team uses them for the obvious reasons, but road officers are not assigned Tasers because we have too many other options.”

Hull said those options include the baton and OC spray, also known as pepper spray. He also said the issuance of thousands of Tasers, their upkeep and the continued training would be a much more daunting task for the highway patrol than for a police force of 200 officers.

Taser use by the highway patrol would require legislative approval.

The proposed Taser ban in Columbia has drawn opposition from various city leaders and groups. Mayor Bob McDavid has publicly expressed concern about taking a tool away from police. The Columbia Chamber of Commerce this month announced its opposition to the ban, citing the need for a safe community to draw visitors and businesses.

Keep Columbia Safe also opposes the ban. That’s the group responsible for the April election victory to place cameras in downtown Columbia. Organizer Karen Taylor said CEDs are tools that aid law enforcement.

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