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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Taser maintenance issue raised in Palo Alto independent police auditor's report

March 19, 2011
Jesse Dungan, San Jose Mercury

Palo Alto's independent police auditor is keeping an eye on Taser maintenance following an incident in which one of the devices malfunctioned when it was used on a combative suspect, according to a report released this week.

"It hasn't risen to the level where we think things have really gotten haywire and no one's taking care of their Tasers, but if we do see a pattern, we may recommend more needs to be done," said Michael Gennaco, one of the report's authors.

The auditor's report details complaints against the police department, changes in policies and Taser use by officers, but it does not provide times or locations of incidents.

The incident that caught the auditor's attention involved a nearly hour-long search for a burglar, which ended with officers and a police dog trying to nab the suspect. He resisted arrest when confronted in a fenced-in area, didn't show any pain when bitten and may have been under the influence of a controlled substance, according to the report.

During the seven-minute scuffle, two officers used their Tasers, including a sergeant whose device didn't produce an electric shock when he fired it at the suspect's back. The other officer fired her Taser at the man's chest and cycled it for 10 seconds, but it had little effect. She then pressed the Taser against the man's back as he continued to struggle.

The officers were justified in their use of Tasers and the police department did a good job of documenting the incident, according to the auditor's report. Another officer used the camera on his Taser to record part of the incident.

But the report noted, "One of the two Tasers deployed did not seem to work at all. After the incident, there were problems downloading the data and getting an accurate time stamp on it. The department has acknowledged these issues from previous Taser uses and we will continue to monitor its efforts to perfect maintenance and infrastructure for this weapon."

Palo Alto police Lt. Sandra Brown said Friday the incident examined by the auditor was an anomaly. The sergeant's Taser experienced some sort of software malfunction, which may have been a manufacturer problem, and the device later had to be rebooted. There is no widespread mechanical problem with the Tasers used by members of the Palo Alto Police Department, she said.

However, the department has taken steps to improve maintenance since Tasers were introduced four years ago, Brown said. For example, officers on Thursday were trained how to take apart and clean their stun guns, she said.

Previously, officers turned their Tasers in to be cleaned periodically, but that practice resulted in less frequent maintenance.

Brown said officers also "spark test" the devices before their shifts to make certain they're in working condition.

According to the auditor's report, no officers have fired a Taser since the police department revised its policy to reflect recent court opinions about stun gun use.

"It would be entirely speculative to conclude whether this is the result of fear of criticism by officers, a misunderstanding of the policy, or simply the absence of appropriate circumstances in the field necessitating the use of a Taser," the report states.

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