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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

ACLU: Rules vary on police Taser use

June 29, 2011
JJ Hensley, The Arizona Republic

A patchwork of policies governing the use of Tasers has left some Arizona police officers reaching for the electronic weapon at the first sign of trouble and others using the weapons when lives are threatened, according to a study by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona.

The varied regulations mean officers in Phoenix might try to subdue a disobedient suspect with a baton or pepper spray before reaching for the Taser, but a suspect taking the same actions might receive an incapacitating electric charge if confronted by police in another jurisdiction, according to the ACLU report made public Tuesday.

Citing its research, the ACLU is now pushing for more uniformity in police training in use of the weapon.

Steve Tuttle, Taser's vice president of communications, responded, "While we all agree that good policies and recurring training are crucial for successful Taser programs, the position of the Arizona chapter of the ACLU appears to be at odds with U.S. Department of Justice's recently released report which supports the use of Taser devices based upon the study of 24,000 field uses showing Taser technology protects law-enforcement officers, reduces injuries to suspects, and may prevent injuries to bystanders."

The ACLU report examined data from 20 police agencies on their use of force from 2000 to 2008.

The study found:

- Police agencies do not have consistent and clear guidelines on using Tasers on the young, elderly or ill.

- Arizona police agencies are inconsistent when it comes to use of Tasers on handcuffed, threatening or fleeing suspects.

- Arming more officers with Tasers did not equate to fewer deadly encounters with police. Agencies rolled out the product quickly in the early 2000s, and Taser use increased before reaching a plateau and declining in the latter half of the decade as questions arose about its use. The number of encounters that turned fatal for suspects remained the same in many agencies. That raises questions about whether Tasers were deployed in favor of batons or guns, ACLU said.

"Tasers should be placed higher on the use-of-force continuum and should be used as appropriate," said Annie Lai, an ACLU attorney who wrote the report and invited police agencies to work with the ACLU on more uniform training.

"We're not trying to handcuff officers, we're trying to give them more tools," she said.

Establishing uniform guidelines in Arizona would also make it easier for cash-strapped and rural police departments to provide training tailored for Arizona police officers, Lai said, in addition to whatever training comes with the weapon.

But declaring a blanket Taser policy for law-enforcement agencies throughout Arizona might not be feasible because an officer working patrol in Phoenix and handling a domestic-violence call would encounter different scenarios than a state Department of Public Safety officer dealing with an uncooperative driver along the side of a highway, said DPS Capt. Steve Harrison.

DPS officers receive Taser training every other year, Harrison said, from DPS officers who have been certified as instructors through the weapon's manufacturer. The training DPS officers receive is tailored to fit scenarios DPS frequently encounters, Harrison said.

But even the agency's tailored training cannot prepare officers for every situation they encounter, which is why officers are encouraged to look at the "totality of circumstances" before deploying any less lethal use of force such as a Taser, baton or bean bag, Harrison said.

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