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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Court upholds ruling: Tasers kill

March 27, 2012
Julie O'Neill, wcpo.com

A new legal blow to the maker of Tasers as controversy grows over the weapon's safety.

Taser International lost its appeal Tuesday in the most costly case against the company to date.

Last summer, a jury awarded the family of Darryl Turner, who died after being tasered, $10 million, ruling that TASER knew its weapon could kill and did not properly warn police.

On appeal, the U.S. District Court Western District of N. Carolina Charlotte Division ruled in favor of the plaintiff on all objections, but did rule the damage award “excessive" and reduced it in half to $5 million.

"This is a huge victory for safety," said plaintiff attorney John Burton, "…and people concerned that this device is being given to police with false assurances of its safety."

Burton added, "The judge viewed the evidence and said the jury was justified in its conclusion."
Dr. Douglas Zipes, an electrophysiologist who testified for the plaintiff that Tasers could kill, said the reduction of the award was fair, and that the court's ruling "totally vindicates what we said, that Taser causes sudden death and the judge accepts that concept."

There has been no comment yet from Taser International.

WCPO-TV’s I-Team has been investigating the safety of Tasers since the death of 18-year-old Everette Howard of North College Hill after he was Tasered on August 6, 2011.

Nearly eight months after Howard’s death, the Hamilton County Coroner’s office has still not ruled on a cause of death.

A preliminary autopsy report viewed by 9 News showed the Coroner’s office appeared to rule out everything but the Taser.

The late Coroner Dr. Anant Bhati said days before his recent death that his office was waiting for the opinion of a specialist who was viewing slides of Howard’s heart.

Dr. Bhati said he had high respect for Dr. Zipes and that he believed Tasers could kill, though he was not ready yet to rule that a Taser did kill Everette Howard.

Tasers are electronic control weapons which send electricity into a subject for the purpose of incapacitating them, so that police officers can get them into custody without hands on contact.
The weapons are used as non-lethal force options by 16,000 police agencies globally, including here in the Tri-State.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Fort Worth police buying Tasers with safety feature

March 13, 2012
Mitch Mitchell, Star-Telegram

FORT WORTH -- New Tasers that automatically shut off after a five-second discharge will soon be in the hands of Fort Worth police, an important safety feature that should prevent sustained shocks to unruly suspects.

Police administrators said 250 Tasers will be given to patrol, neighborhood and zero-tolerance officers by midyear. The X2 replaces the X26, both manufactured by Taser International.

"The X2 is essentially the same as the X26 in that it deploys the darts using the same mechanism," Sgt. Mark Wilson, Fort Worth police in-service training supervisor, said in an e-mail.

"The voltage is the same and the darts themselves had no major design revision. The main two points we were looking for was the automatic cut off at five seconds after being deployed, even if an officer holds the trigger down. That was a safety issue that was very important for us."

The other change Fort Worth police sought was the addition of a second cartridge.

Taser International has described the weapon as less lethal because the 50,000-volt shock it deploys for a short time is safe.

The older model did not prevent a longer shock. In 2008 in North Carolina, a teenager died of cardiac arrest after a police officer shocked him twice with a Taser, first for 37 seconds, then for five.

The issue came to light in Texas in April 2009, when Fort Worth officer Stephanie Phillips fired her X26 at 24-year-old Michael Patrick Jacobs Jr., a mental health patient who was acting erratically at his east-side home. The barbs struck Jacobs in the chest and neck. Phillips told investigators that she inadvertently held down the trigger for 49 seconds and then shocked Jacobs again for five seconds after he failed to comply with officer commands. Jacobs died.

Fort Worth Police Chief Jeffrey Halstead, who was in his first full year as chief, said he promised residents that what happened to Jacobs would never happen again.

He began lobbying Taser International in October 2009 for technical applications that would solve extended-deployment issues.

During a meeting of the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Denver, Halstead said, he proposed that the X26 be programmed so that the maximum duration of a shock, without releasing and pressing the trigger again, would be 10 seconds.

Taser International officials said it would be too problematic to reprogram the thousands of X26s that were already in use, said Maj. Paul Henderson, Fort Worth police chief of staff. However, Halstead's ideas were incorporated into the new X2 and X3, a three-shot device.

"We did add a five-second cutoff and an audible alert to the X2," said Steve Tuttle, Taser International vice president of communications. "Chief Halstead was a thought leader on this issue and helped us develop this safety improvement."

Another new feature is the ability to discharge the device at two targets without reloading -- if an officer misses, for example, or the darts make an incomplete connection.

While Halstead's lobbying may have been persuasive, another factor in the company's decision may have been potential liability. In July, a jury in the North Carolina case found Taser International at fault, awarding the teen's family $10 million. Jacobs' family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the police and Fort Worth. Without admitting fault, the city settled in 2010 for $2 million, far more than the city had ever paid in a wrongful-death suit.

Amnesty International has recorded 500 conducted energy device deaths in the United States since 2001, with the largest number (92) in California, followed by Florida (65) and Texas (37).

Creative and patient

The Fort Worth police department, which employs about 1,500 sworn officers, has more than 1,200 X26 Tasers on hand. But while the older Tasers do not meet the needs of the Fort Worth department or other police departments nationwide, budget constraints meant there was no money for the new technology, Halstead said.

Taser International reached a deal with Fort Worth that gave the city a 30 percent discount and allowed it to pay for the X2 over time, Halstead said. That let the city get the new Tasers without large upfront expenditures, he said.

"The economy is hurting us right now," Halstead said. "We are just having to be a little more creative and a little more patient in how we bring these innovations to our city."

This year, the city budget shows that Fort Worth will spend $80,930 -- nearly $16,000 more than last year -- for Taser replacement.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the Chicago Police Department, the Houston Police Department and the Woodbury, Minn., Police Department have all purchased the X2, according to Taser International.

Even with the safeguards, controversy continues over use of the Tasers.

According to Fort Worth police figures, Tasers were used 1,841 times by officers between 2005 and 2010, and in two-thirds of the incidents where someone was arrested, they were used with minorities. Since 2001, five people in Fort Worth police custody have died after a Taser shock

The Rev. Kyev Tatum, president of the Tarrant County chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, continues to call for a moratorium on the devices, which he equates to instruments of torture.

"Tasers promote lazy policing by officers who are not well-trained or well-supervised," Tatum said. "Police used to take pride in de-escalating a situation. Now, it seems police are creating tensions that escalate situations. We still think Tasers are unconstitutional. And we know that black and brown people are the ones most likely to be Tased."

Marcus Hardin, grandfather of Marcus Swiat, once an advocate of banning Tasers, said he has given up that fight. Hardin's grandson was shocked eight times by a police officer with a Taser on May 24, 2008, according to testimony during his trial on charges of resisting arrest, where he was found not guilty. A municipal judge dismissed a public intoxication charge against Swiat that arose from the same incident in downtown Fort Worth. The fight to ban Tasers was a losing proposition void of a platform to make his case, Hardin said.

"This is an improvement," Hardin said of the X2. "And I'm all for improvement."

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Ray Samuels: A Police Chief and Leader Who Championed Rights For All

While I never had the pleasure of meeting Ray Samuels, who unfortunately died in February 2012, I have long admired him in a big way for his willingness to take a stance against tasers, even as a high ranking law enforcement official (former chief of police, Newark, California). I have likewise never personally met Aram James, who wrote this wonderful tribute to Ray, but we've been in touch with each other for many years and I call him a friend. The world could sure use a few more like Ray and Aram!

Ray Samuels: A Police Chief and Leader Who Championed Rights For All
Silicon Valley De-Bug • Profile
Aram James • March 7, 2012

Ray Samuels, former Newark Police Chief, passed away recently at the age of 58. Aram James, a civil rights organizer and former public defender, found a friend and trusted ally in Samuels through their common campaign against the Tasers, and shares his memories of the man he calls both a friend and inspiration.

First and foremost Ray Samuels was my dear friend—his sudden and unexpected passing has saddened me to the core (Ray died on February 17, 2012.) I think what stands-out most for me about Ray Samuels are his humble qualities – his decency as a human being, his lust for life and learning and his insatiable curiosity about other human beings. Ray always had a desire to be a problem solver, and he had no arrogance or pretense. His routine instinct was always to look out for the other guy first.

When Ray retired as the Police Chief of Newark California in August of 2008, we had only known each other for a little more than a year and half, but our friendship already seemed strong and special. When Ray announced his retirement as police chief, he invited me to attend his retirement party at a small restaurant overlooking the water/bay in his hometown, the historic and charming Benicia, California.

As soon as Ray spotted me he seemed slightly surprised that I was attending the event by myself. Ray then took me from table to table introducing me to a mostly law enforcement crowd. At each table he went out of his way to let the folks know that I was a retired public defender—and he seemed proud of this fact. When we finished the introductions Ray quickly decided that I should sit right across from him at the head table. In Ray’s own way he decided it was important to take care of me first, to make me feel comfortable at this mostly law enforcement event. Needless to say, I had a great evening.

Even though Ray Samuels never stepped through the doors of De-Bug/ACJP Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project — he was a friend and inspiration for our organizing efforts, particularly in our campaign/battle to ban Tasers. His words and wise counsel over the years that I knew him extended well beyond our battle against Tasers, and became an overall understanding of how to best work towards ensuring police accountability and a more equitable criminal justice system. I wasn’t the only one at De-Bug/ACJP touched by Ray’s wisdom and commitment to justice. In a letter to Ray while trying to learn more about use of force issues, Raj Jayadev wrote, “Please know your very honorable stance against Tasers, and the intelligent arguments against their use has helped tremendously as we try to carry the torch here in San Jose.”

Ray Samuels’ words and concept development regarding the risks posed by Tasers were frequently reflected back to the community by the ACJP team in numerous community talks and presentations, press conferences, TV interviews, radio call ins, in addition to articles written jointly and separately by Raj Jayadev and Aram James i.e., Did Court Deal Fatal Blow to Tasers for Police? (New America Media—posted Jan 7, 2010).

Yes, our friend Ray Samuels defied -- across the board -- the often negative and frequently legitimately held stereotypes maintained by those in the community who must interact with our police in a less than mutually respectful environment.

Ray inspired by his words, his credibility, and his courage to speak the truth as he saw it -- even if it ran contrary to the strongly held views and conventions of his colleagues in his profession (policing). Ray embodied and nurtured a wider angle view of policing and police practices then not just most police officers -- but of the majority of institutional participants in the criminal justice system. His wisdom and articulation of the issues was not just supported by theory but by decades of practice in the hardscrabble of law enforcement. Ray sought out the facts, not to support his world view but as an investigator seeking to discover the bigger truth. And Ray had the writing skills of an artist and a poet to back up his points.

Case in point, in the beginning of 2007 I contacted –cold called-- then chief of the Newark California Police Department, Ray Samuel after reading his comments regarding the controversial weapon Tasers. Here are his words:

“What scared me about the weapon is that you can deploy it absolutely within the manufacturer’s recommendations and there is still the possibility of an unintended reaction. I can’t imagine a worse circumstance than to have a death attributed to a Taser in a situation that didn’t justify lethal force.”

At the time I read Ray’s words in the press I was preparing to speak to the Palo Alto Taser Task Force assembled to make a recommendation to the Palo Alto City Council regarding whether to purchase Tasers for all members of the Palo Alto Police Department. I thought, why not take a chance and try to contact him? Maybe a conversation with Ray Samuels would give me a fuller understanding of the Taser issue.

After my initial phone conversation it became clear that Ray Samuels had a gold mine of information on the Taser controversy at the tip of his tongue. As we talked, it was evident to me that anything he had to say regarding the risks that Tasers posed to the health and safety of the community would be seen as 10 times, if not 100 times, more credible on the subject then anything I -- a retired former public defender, whose public perception was one of a radical police critic activist -- might offer.

Prior to my presentation to the Taser Task force on March 27, 2007 there had been at least three prior task force meetings, with all of the formal presenters being strongly pro-Taser, and mostly speakers from either the Palo Alto Police department or other local police agencies.

At those meetings I spoke during the oral communications portion of the meeting re Ray Samuels’ view that Tasers were dangerous and constituted too high a risk to justify their introduction into the already weapon heavy arsenal of the PAPD.

On the date of the March 13, 2007 Taser Task Force meeting, then Palo Alto Police Chief Lynne Johnson commented that she had talked to Ray Samuels at a recent statewide police chief’s conference, and that Ray Samuels was now leaning towards introducing Tasers in the city of Newark, California. Having discussed the issue on the phone with Ray on several recent occasions, I was in a state of disbelief regarding Lynne Johnson’s statement. My distinct impression was that Ray would not so quickly have changed his view.

Shortly after the March 13,2011 meeting I contacted Ray Samuels by phone and he assured me he had not changed his position—and the he was not in fact “leaning towards Tasers,” as Police Chief Lynne Johnson had represented.

I asked Ray if he would write a letter outlining his current position on Tasers, so I could present his letter as part of my presentation to the Taser Task Force. Given chief Johnson’s misrepresentation of Ray’s position, I felt it was important that I have a written statement of Ray’s current position to avoid any possible ambiguity.

Ray’s letter, it turns out, was my David against the City’s Goliath.

When I finally had my opportunity to give my presentation to the Taser Task Force, I used Ray’s late arriving letter (the day before the presentation), as the centerpiece of my quickly reorganized presentation.

(See Ray's letter here:   http://truthnottasers.blogspot.com/2007/07/anti-taser-letter-from-newark-police.html )

Once I read the letter to the Taser Task Force, the reaction was one of disbelief and denial –after weeks of pro-Taser propaganda Ray’s fact based letter simply turned the Task Force member’s world view upside down-- they were in a state of shock, unwilling and unable to absorb the straight talk outlined in his letter. Rather than ask substantive questions re his positions, they attempted to attack both my and Ray’s credibility. Did I have Ray’s permission to read the letter to the Taser force? Was the letter really prepared for the Taser Task Force? Why wasn’t Ray at the meeting to answer questions about his letter?

In the end, the Taser Task Force voted 7-2 in favor of recommending to the city council that the Palo Alto Police be allowed to purchase Tasers. The two individuals who voted in opposition to Tasers did so in large part -- if not exclusively -- on the basis of the letter Ray had written. In fact, one member of the Taser Task Force actually drove to Newark to consult personally with Ray.

On May 7, 2007 the city council ultimately voted 5-4 in favor of bringing Tasers to Palo Alto. Ray made himself available to any member of the city council who wanted to discuss his letter and his views on Tasers. The then mayor of Palo Alto called Ray on the day of the vote and had a discussion about Tasers. The mayor was ultimately one of the 4 votes in opposition to Tasers. Ray’s amazing and precise articulation of the dangers of Tasers, outlined in his letter, almost single handedly prevented the introduction of Tasers into the city of Palo Alto.

Reflecting back, at my friendship with Ray, his words may best express why I feel so honored to have had Ray Samuels for a friend and why I will so dearly miss him. Here is what he wrote in an e-mail exchange with Raj Jayadev after I had introduced them to each other in September of 2010.

“With regard to Aram, the two of us have developed a relationship over the last four years that I cherish. We often disagree on issues, but we have the utmost respect for one another and acknowledge that surrounding ourselves with people that agree does nothing toward our goal of being lifelong learners. Nor does it do anything to validate the causes we believe in.”

Ray’s friendship will be with me forever. His advocacy for human rights such as through the opposition to the death penalty and the opposition to Tasers, his call for openness in police misconduct proceedings, and all of his other causes, will continue to be moved forward by others as part of his legacy. He broke barriers with his extraordinary articulation of the issues and his willingness to so freely share his view with others.