You may have arrived here via a direct link to a specific post. To see the most recent posts, click HERE.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

EDITORIAL: Here's key in taser use: police using good rules

September 28, 2011
The Charlotte Observer

We don't argue with the idea that Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers should be armed with the safest weapons available. So in that sense, the Charlotte City Council's decision to buy new Tasers that prevent officers from firing high voltages of electricity for more than five seconds at a pop makes sense.

But this move does not end concerns over the use of Tasers, associated with the deaths of two suspects in Charlotte in the past three years. These are not truly the "non-lethal" weapons that they are so frequently advertised to be.

Amnesty International says Tasers contributed to about 351 U.S. deaths between 2002 and 2008. The group also says 90 percent of those tasered were unarmed at the time.

Taser International, which provides most such weapons (and the company supplying the guns to the CMPD), points to a different view in a May study by the National Institute of Justice. In a look at Taser use by six police departments nationwide over a two-year period, the institute's researchers found 99.7 percent of those tasered suffered no serious injuries. Their conclusion: "The risk of human death due directly or primarily to the electrical effects of [Tasers] has not been conclusively demonstrated."

It's hard to reconcile those views. Yet even the study provides fodder for concerns. "Risk of human death ... not conclusively demonstrated" is not the same as no risk. And the study says data have shown significant health risks when Tasers are used against small children, people with diseased hearts, the elderly, those who are pregnant and some others. Researchers also acknowledged that many of the deaths after Taser exposure "are associated with continuous or repeated discharge of the CED..., especially when the individual may be under drug intoxication."

These are crucial caveats. In the March 2008 death of 17-year-old Darryl Turner, a CMPD officer tasered the teen for 37 seconds, a violation of police policy. The city paid the family $625,000 as a result, but admitted no wrongdoing. A federal jury ordered Taser International this summer to pay $10 million to the family. The company said it will appeal but in 2009 it released an advisory urging police not to shoot suspects in the chest, where Turner was shot. It also began pushing a version of its gun that allows only five seconds of current before officers can fire again.

The model the council agreed to has that feature and other safety measures including an audible "pre-warning" that the device is about to be used, said CMPD chief Rodney Monroe. Taser officials tout other benefits including the ability to fire a second time quickly without reloading.

Such features are welcome but they remain no substitute for officers having and following good guidelines about the use of these devices. In the past, that has been a problem for CMPD - and a costly one. If the officer in the Turner case had followed policy, the teen might be alive, the city wouldn't have had to shell out $625,000 to a grieving family, and the council might not be approving $1.83 million for new Tasers. That last cost is acknowledgment that officers could not be depended upon to abide by a policy of not tasering suspects past five seconds, the limit on a Taser blast unless the trigger is held down.

This move won't force officers to show good judgment and abide by strong guidelines. The new Taser allows more blasts in the Taser's battery life, and two blasts in quick succession. Studies show multiple Taser shots pose health risks even in healthy adults.

Tasers have been welcome tools to police officers in protecting the public, suspects and themselves. They have helped reduce the numbers of lethal incidents in which an officer is forced to discharge a gun. But Tasers carry dangers that should not be ignored. Training, officers following sound guidelines and vigilance about health risks are crucial to helping ensure tragedy does not result from Taser use.

No comments: