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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Sheriff's Office, feds agree to new Taser rules

When the U.S. Justice Department announced its inquiry into the Orange County Sheriff's Office use of stun guns in 2007, it was a first of its kind review.

October 13, 2010
By Walter Pacheco, Orlando Sentinel

After a three-year Department of Justice probe into the Orange County Sheriff's Office use of Tasers, an agreement has been reached that calls for Sheriff Jerry Demings to implement more than a dozen new policies for Taser stun gun use by his deputies.

The DOJ agreement with the Sheriff's Office, which was formalized in September, lists 19 policy, training and accountability provisions that include new procedures and amendments to their current rules on Taser use.

They include:

*The Sheriff's Office must develop a policy requiring that deputies give a verbal warning before deploying a Taser.

*It must alert medical personnel before deploying Tasers at subjects suspected of being under an extreme state of mental and physiological excitement.

*It must develop a policy that prohibits the use of Tasers on passive subjects, those in handcuffs or otherwise restrained.

*Tasers cannot be used in a "punitive or reckless manner," such as using it to awaken a person or as a "prod."

*Only one deputy can deploy a Taser at a time.

The report also shows tweaks to some of the Sheriff's Office existing training and accountability procedures.

When the U.S. Justice Department announced its inquiry into the Orange County Sheriff's Office use of stun guns in 2007, it was a first of its kind review.

The changes to the Sheriff's Office policies on Taser use stemmed from that federal investigation, into "an alleged pattern or practice of excessive force" by sheriff's personnel, according to a 2008 report from the DOJ's Civil Rights Division.

That report included 35 recommendations which have been folded into the recently-crafted agreement.

In the 2008 report the DOJ had warned the Sheriff's Office against using Tasers on someone under the influence of drugs or showing signs of extreme agitation, bizarre or violent behavior and imperviousness to pain, among other symptoms — known as "excited delirium."

It also advised the Sheriff's Office not to stun suspects who are restrained or in handcuffs, or to stun them more than once, which increases the chances of harm.

Those two recommendations are included in the final agreement.

Critics of Tasers contend they are dangerous, particularly when used on suspects who use drugs or suffer from heart problems.

The stun guns have been controversial since Taser International started selling its product to thousands of law-enforcement agencies across the United States in 1999.

The devices, which deliver electrical jolts of 1,200 to 5,000 volts, have been connected to more than 70 deaths across the country, including five who died after being stunned by Orange County deputies.

Several incidents involving the deployment of stun guns placed the Sheriff's Office under scrutiny:

*José Aníbal Amaro, 45, died in Oct. 1, 2008 after deputies shocked him three times with a Taser. Reports show he was foaming at the mouth and running in and out of traffic.

*A deputy sheriff on Oct. 13, 2008 stunned a man who was threatening to jump off a 25-foot embankment onto State Road 408. The deputy, who was standing in a fire-rescue bucket truck, caught the man after shocking him.

*John Mattiuzzi, an out-of-state filmmaker, was stunned twice and struck with a baton on Sept. 21, 2008 after taking pictures of a crime scene with his phone. Police warned him twice to move back, then chased and subdued him after he ran from officers.

*A deputy sheriff working as a resource officer at Moss Park Middle School stunned an unruly 11-year-old girl injuring her nose, after she swung at the deputy in March 2008.

Officials at the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida also had launched their own inquiry of Taser use by the Sheriff's Office, but the results of that probe are not known.

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