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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."

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