October 19, 2011
Robert A. Baker / The Post-Standard
Syracuse, NY -- Police in Syracuse and seven other police departments in New York are overusing and misusing Tasers and are inadequately trained in the use of the stun guns, the New York Civil Liberties Union said in a report to be released today.
Officers are using Tasers on people who are not a threat, targeting vulnerable areas of the body, administering excessive numbers of shocks and excessively long shocks, failing to give prior warnings, and using Tasers on vulnerable populations and a disproportionate number of people of color, the report states.
“If you look at Syracuse’s Taser policy, like most of the policies we reviewed, it does not comport with what experts say is appropriate use of Tasers,” Corey Stoughton, the report’s author, said.
The report calls for agencies to expand training beyond Taser International guidelines and for New York state to regulate and monitor Taser training and the use of force policies in departments statewide.
Syracuse Police Chief Frank Fowler declined to comment until he’s had a chance to read the report, which was embargoed until today.
The report, called “Taking Tasers Seriously: The Need for Better Regulation of Stun Guns in New York,” was based on 851 Taser-use reports filed by eight police departments across the state from 2005 to 2009. The departments are Syracuse, Albany, Glens Falls, Greece, Guilderland, Nassau County, Rochester and Saratoga Springs. The report, which The Post-Standard has received a copy of, will be released at 11 a.m. today.
The departments were picked for their size and each department has a liberties union office in the area, a spokeswoman said. The NYCLU also looked at the use-of-force policies and the Taser training procedures in the eight departments as well as the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office and the Suffolk County Police Department.
There are 350 law enforcement agencies that carry Tasers in New York, the report says. Two-hundred people, including a Central New York man, have died after being stunned by a Taser, according a U.S. Department of Justice statistic cited by the report. Tasers deliver up to 50,000 volts of electricity, either from probes that are shot from the gun or by placing the device directly against the skin of the target.
The report cited two Syracuse incident as examples of inappropriate Taser use:
•In 2009, a 15-year-old boy was hit by a Taser probe fired by a Syracuse police officer in an attempt to break up a fight at Fowler High School. The officer was aiming for another student. The NYCLU is representing the boy and his mother in a federal suit against the Syracuse Police Department. The family could not be reached for comment.
•A mentally ill man who was shocked at least a dozen times by three Syracuse officers using Tasers. Charges were never filed against the man, the NYCLU said. The NYCLU report calls the incident “particularly disturbing.”
According to Syracuse Police Department Taser-use reports on the incident, police were called a “mental complaint” Aug. 5, 2006, in the city. The 6-foot 2-inch, 260-pound, 53-year-old man refused officers’ orders to get on the floor. One officer noted that the man was “highly agitated” and “became combative” after a first use of the Taser had no effect. The report does not identify the man or say where the incident took place.
In the reports, the three officers gave their estimates on how many times they each used their Tasers: five to six times, three to six times and four to five times. After the Tasers were used, the man was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, the report states.
Although the advocacy group did not study cases involving the Onondaga Sheriff’s Office and the now-defunct Clay Police Department, incidents involving those agencies are singled out:
•The death in March 2008 of Christopher H. Jackson, who was pronounced dead after he was hit by a Taser used by a Clay police officer inside Jackson’s home in Norstar Apartments in Clay.
•The January 2009 use of a Taser on a mother in the town of Salina by Onondaga County sheriff’s Deputy Sean Andrews after the woman was pulled over in a traffic stop. The deputy pulled the woman from her van and used a Taser on her in front of her children. The incident made national news and the county settled a resulting lawsuit for $75,000.
The two cases were pulled from news stories because they are examples of the points the NYCLU is trying to make, Stoughten said.
In reviewing the Taser-use reports statewide, one statistic stood out, Stoughton said.
“Sixty percent of the reports had not documented information for using the Taser,” said Stoughton, a senior staff attorney with the NYCLU. “That’s crazy.”
Instead of being used as a non-lethal weapon of last resort, “you’re seeing Tasers being used as a pain compliance tool for people who are passively resisting or are restrained,” Stoughton said.
In Syracuse, 56 percent of the people involved in a Taser incident with Syracuse police were black. That is disproportionately high considering blacks make up 25 percent of the city’s population, the NYCLU said.
In Albany, where blacks make up 28 percent of the population, 68 percent of the people who were shocked were black. In Rochester, 48 percent of the people who were shocked were black. Blacks comprise 38 percent of that city’s population.
Each time a Taser is used, departments document the incident in a Taser-use form. While those forms are compiled, the NYCLU found “almost no police departments surveyed” required a review of the data to assess their Taser programs.
The Syracuse and Greece police departments “actively interfere with attempts to provide sufficient information” through the forms they use to report Taser use, the NYCLU said.
The form the Syracuse department uses to report Taser incidences has little room for officers to describe the incident, the NYCLU said. And, when the officers have room, they often neglect to justify why multiple cycles of Tasers on individuals were justified.
The report calls for greater oversight by the state on the use of Tasers and Taser training of police.
Misuse of stun guns is linked directly to inadequate use-of-force policies and inadequate training on the use of Tasers, according to the report. Most departments rely solely on training materials prepared by the manufacturer, Taser International, to train police, the report states.
“The training Taser International provides is, literally, how to operate the weapon,” Stoughton said. “It doesn’t cover appropriate use or the dangers of multiple and prolonged shocks.”
The U.S. Department of Justice and the Police Executive Research Forum both warn departments that they should not rely solely on the Taser training manual, “but it appears that’s what we do in New York State,” Stoughton said.
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Wednesday, October 19, 2011
October 19, 2011