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Sunday, July 03, 2011

EDITORIAL: Zap happy?

July 2, 2011

The Taser stun gun has proven to be an effective police alternative to the use of deadly force. Studies document its ability to reduce injuries to both officers and suspects in dozens of cities and counties where it has been deployed. But its safe use requires extensive training and adherence to guidelines to protect both user and target.

As the Chronicle's James Pinkerton reported last week, the use of stun guns by the Harris County Sheriff's Department has frequently diverged from national safety guidelines formulated by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) and the U.S. Department of Justice's National Institute of Justice. Among 621 incidents where Tasers were used by deputies to subdue people from 2009 through early June, Pinkerton documented numerous cases where the application of the 50,000-volt shocks countered the best practices recommendations.

According to the 2011 guidelines, officers should use a Taser for only one cycle, or five seconds, before evaluating whether more shots are needed. According to the DOJ-PERF document, use of one weapon for more than 15 seconds or multiple Taser stuns "may increase the risk of death or serious injury. Any subsequent applications should be independently justifiable, and the risk should be weighed."

In Harris County, deputies stunned 43 suspects three or more times. In 10 incidents, two or more officers used Tasers on a person at the same time. A DWI suspect was Tasered 24 times. In 2006 deputies stunned a mentally ill African-American man, 31-year-old Herman Barnes, 32 times. He subsequently died, and his survivors are suing the county. The Taser manufacturer was dropped from the suit because its training manual for officers included a warning against multiple stuns.

A 17-year-old auto-theft suspect was shocked six times, including a final jolt applied to his groin. That gets us to federal guideline 28: Personnel should not intentionally target sensitive areas (e.g., head, neck, genitalia).

Although the Taser manufacturer warns agencies to avoid applying shocks to the chest because of widespread, and unproven, claims that they can trigger heart attacks, deputies zapped at least 30 people in that area.

Whereas the guidelines advise the use of Tasers only when suspects are actively aggressive or resisting arrest, deputies stunned 79 suspects who were passive or verbally aggressive, including some who were fleeing. According to the guidelines, fleeing should not be the sole justification for stunning suspects, because of the risk of serious injury.

In spite of all these incidents where the use of Tasers seems questionable, only one county deputy has been disciplined, and in that 2005 case it was because the officer hadn't informed superiors that he had stunned a suspect.

Sheriff Adrian Garcia responded to Pinkerton's story by claiming that the department "gives grave consideration and attention" to the federal guidelines. He cited the acknowledgment in the federal report that guidelines are flexible and subject to modification in particular circumstances. There's a huge difference between Sheriff's Department deputies being flexible in specific circumstances and blatantly ignoring safety rules for Taser use outlined by both the federal government and equipment vendors.

Multiple stuns applied in numerous cases, including shocking a teenager's genital area, don't strike us as flexible law enforcement. Words like "inhumane" and "irresponsible" come to mind. The fact that no officer has even been reprimanded in these incidents is an indication that much tighter supervision of county Taser use is needed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yesterday, I had the chance to speak to a very nice RCMP officer who assured me that the taser is a very, effective weapon. I agreed with him and told him that my son was killed by one. He told me that he was absolutely speechless!..I and said "don't worry, the words have all been said. Then I told him that my son was #58 to die after being tasered in North America and that total now stands at 665!!!" I could see that he was speechless.....Riki Bagnell Mother of Robert Bagnell