June 10, 2010
Norb Franz, Oakland Press
Macomb County’s second-largest police force has dropped Tasers from its daily weaponry.
The Warren Police Department recently discontinued use of the stun guns after Arizona-based Taser International notified the city that the “general useful life” of the 152 devices carried by officers has expired.
After receiving an email that X26 and M26 Tasers more than 5 years old with certain serial numbers are past the recommended “deployment lifecycle,” police administrators and training division staff weighed whether Warren — which is Michigan’s third-largest city and has the most criminal incidents in the county — should eliminate Tasers, after six years of use.
Police Commissioner Jere Green cited multiple reasons for his decision to order all patrol officers, shift commanders and others on the street to turn in their Tasers. Warren’s top-ranking police administrator emphasized he will not risk officers’ safety if there’s potential for a delay when a Taser trigger is pulled; that use of Tasers failed to produce the desired results nearly a quarter of the time they were deployed; and that he doesn’t have the money in his budget to replace the aged models with new ones.
“If it doesn’t work, it’s going to give the bad guy time to go to plan B,” Green said. “We don’t have much wiggle room on the road for mistakes.”
The Taser model used by Warren police fires two barbs with 25 feet of wire. If both probes penetrated the target’s skin or clothing, the device delivers 50,000 volts for five seconds. All were purchased using drug forfeiture funds.
Police officials said their review found that the Tasers were used unsuccessfully 23 percent of the time they were used by Warren officers. The failures ranged from batteries and cartridges that became disconnected, to both probes not striking the target, to suspects wearing several jackets preventing complete penetration.
“It wasn’t really a no-brainer,” Green said. “It was a tough decision to make.”
Use of Tasers, formally regarded as an electronic control device, is touted as a non-lethal use of force. But the devices and police have made headlines together when a person dies after being struck.
Two people have died after being shot by a Taser fired by Warren police.
Last September, Richard Kokenos, 27, of Warren, died after a city police officer stunned him with a Taser as he attempted to break out of a squad car after being handcuffed, according to media reports.
A neighbor of Kokenos on Kendall Street said Kokenos had appeared “freaked out” while knocking at his door, asking to use a telephone. When the neighbor returned with a phone, Kokenos knocked on a door next door, went to a third house before returning to the second house, then walked to nearby Eureka Street, where he reportedly was seen slamming his body against the home.
In the other incident, Robert Delrico Mitchell, 16, bolted from a car during an April 2009 traffic stop by Warren police on Eight Mile Road. Mitchell was cornered by officers inside a vacant house on Pelkey Street in Detroit. Officers ordered him to show his hands after he told police he was 15 years old, Warren police said. An officer tried to grab him, but the teenager pulled free, police said. Mitchell pushed away and turned like he was heading to the front door to run again, and one of the two additional officers who arrived at the house fired a Taser, detectives said.
Mitchell fell unconscious. Police said officers and paramedics performed CPR, but he died.
The incident triggered a public outcry from Mitchell’s family and members of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality. Ten days after her son’s death, Cora Mitchell filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the city of Warren and its police department, claiming police violated his constitutional rights and used a “code of silence” to cover up the incident.
An attorney for the family alleged the Taser was a factor in the teen’s death. Attorney William Goodman died of “cardiac arrhythmia induced by (a thin heart wall)” with the “use of an electrical delivery device a contributing factor.”
A toxicology test showed Robert Mitchell had marijuana in his system, but the illegal drug was not a contributing factor in his death, Warren police said.
In 2007, 47-year-old Steven Spears, a bodybuilder and hairdresser from Shelby Township, died after he was involved in a tussle with police that included the deployment of a Taser by township police. Autopsy reports attributed his death to cocaine use. Spears’ family filed an excessive force lawsuit against the township and settled the case for $1.95 million.
Green, the Warren police commissioner, stressed the Mitchell case was not a factor in his order to halt Taser use by the city’s officers.
Warren also is engaged in a lawsuit filed by the city against Taser International.
The decision leaves officers in Warren without the device intended to temporarily incapacitate suspects who resist arrest without making direct contact. Patrol officers and shift commanders still carry batons and chemical spray.
Cpl. Matt Nichols of the Warren police training division said nearly all officers eagerly turned in their Taser and only about three officers expressed concern about being ordered to turn in their Taser. “Once we explained it … they freely handed it over,” Nichols said.
Warren could have purchased Taser’s newest model designed for law enforcement use at a cost of approximately $800 including the holster, four cartridges and after a $250 trade-in allowance.
A Taser International spokesman did not return a phone call seeking comment for this report. In an email to Warren police, the company wrote: “We were contacted by several agencies seeking help in determining how many of their Taser ECDs are approaching or have passed the recommended five-year lifecycle. We learned that we could better serve our customers if we took the time to run a proactive analysis of agencies’ ECDs so they could better plan for the future.”
Last month, Michigan became the 45th state to allow residents to arm themselves with Tasers. Under the new law, anyone trained in the use of a stun gun and with a license to carry a concealed pistol can carry a Taser for personal protection.
The consumer model reportedly can incapacitate a person reportedly with 1,200 volts for 30 seconds — far less electricity than the police model.
Use varies around Macomb
A Macomb Daily survey of police departments in Macomb County showed all make Tasers available to patrol officers and commanders, but in a few departments carrying the stun guns is optional. Several communities keep only enough for each shift.
The Fraser Public Safety Department has had Tasers since about 2005, Lt. Dan Kolke said.
“When a Taser is over five years old, we’re just getting rid of it and buying a new one,” he said.
“I don’t see a need to take them out of service,” Faber said. “We’ve had no problems with anyone not wanting to use them.”
The Utica Police Department has seven Tasers, which are signed out by officers at the start of their shift.
New Baltimore Police Chief Timothy Wiley said the Tasers purchased by the city in 2004 were replaced in 2009. The seven units are assigned to the department’s road patrol officers and commanders, and the city’s school resource officer.
In the St. Clair Shores and Richmond police departments, carrying the stun guns is optional.
New Haven Police Chief Michael Henry and his Romeo counterpart, Chief Grag Paduch, both carry a Taser.
Henry said his village’s police department traded in Tasers for new models four years ago.
“The ones we turned in were operating well. We didn’t have any problems,” he said. “My concern was the warranty had expired on them.
“That means more liability for the (village) government.”
Taser International’s recommendation that older models be replaced has been a controversial topic in Michigan police administrative circles.
“Some say it might be a sales pitch by the company. Others say there’s nothing wrong,” Richmond Police Chief Dave Teske said.
At the annual Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police convention in February, Taser touted its latest models designed for law enforcement agencies.
Center Line Public Safety Director Paul Myszenski said his department’s Tasers are more than four years old.
“We have no reason to get rid of them, but we will address that when we get to that five-year mark,” said Myszenski. He noted that officers still have a baton and pepper spray on their belts.
“The biggest tool an officer has is his mouth and his brain,” said Myszenski, explaining that officers can often talk an uncooperative suspect into complying with police orders. “Nothing’s going to be 100 percent. There’s always risk involved.”