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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Report Shreds Argument Tasers Result in Less Use of Lethal Force by Arizona Police

June 29, 2011
Kevin Gosztola, Fire Dog Lake

ACLU of Arizona Report Finds Arizona Law Enforcement Lacks Guidelines for Taser Use on Children & Pregnant Women

Law enforcement and correctional agencies in Arizona, the state where TASER International has its corporate headquarters, often use Tasers “preemptively” against citizens, according to a recent ACLU of Arizona report. Even if citizens do not present an imminent safety threat to officers, officers will use the Taser. They’ll also use it “offensively as a pain compliance tool,” a use TASER International anticipates in its training material and agency policies.

The report, which the ACLU of Arizona claims is the “most comprehensive survey of Taser use by law enforcement agencies in Arizona to date,” illuminates the following key findings: Tasers are widespread among law enforcement, providing officers with Tasers does not guarantee lower levels of use of lethal force, officers often receive inconsistent guidance on when it’s appropriate to use a Taser, agencies lack clear guidance on Taser safety including the use of Tasers against vulnerable populations, law enforcement is too reliant on TASER International for training and agencies lack data collection and other mechanisms for monitoring Taser use.

The ACLU of Arizona recommends the implementation of a “strong accountability mechanism” for Taser use that would include data collection. It suggests law enforcement re-assess where the use of a Taser should be on the “use-of-force continuum.” Furthermore, it calls for more regular training on Taser use and the establishment of a statewide body to review Taser use and develop policies and training resources for law enforcement.

The finding that Taser proponents are completely off when they argue in favor of Tasers because deployment of lethal force will decline is perhaps the most significant finding of the report. The report calls attentions to the fact that “TASER’s marketing campaign has always been that Tasers are a safe alternative to the use of lethal force. Indeed, the company’s slogan, ‘Saving Lives Every Day,’ is emblazoned on its corporate headquarters in Scottsdale.”

Taser shocks have most often been used in the place of “less-lethal uses of force, such as baton strikes, chemical sprays, and the like” and situations when “situations where lethal force would not be justified (i.e., in the absence of an immediate threat to officer or public safety).”

After completing an analysis of Phoenix Police Department use-of-force reports, The Arizona Republic found 377 incidents involving the use of a Taser. In nearly nine out of ten of the incidents, the subjects had posed no imminent threat to officers with any weapons. For example: “A shoplifter who stole four cans of soup from a Food City, and fled on a bike who was shocked as officers dragged him to the ground; a 15-year-old boy at Alhambra High School who was shocked in the back as officers attempted to arrest him on a marijuana charge; and an intoxicated man who ignored commands to leave a bar and was shocked in the back as he walked away.”

ACLU of Arizona notes TASER International has insisted its weapons are “non-lethal.” A file released by LulzSecurity, a computer hacker group that recently released data from the Arizona Department of Public Safety, shows since the release of an October 12 training bulletin from TASER International, law enforcement has been aware they should not be aiming Tasers at any person’s chest.

In the bulletin, TASER International suggests the 50,000-volt weapon could possibly lead to someone going into cardiac arrest. Officers in Phoenix adopted the new guidelines immediately, although Mark Spencer of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association did not initially instruct line officers on the development. Instead, Spencer only had praise for Tasers as he said, “It really minimizes harm, not only to officers but to suspects.”

TASER International, after issuing the bulletin, worked to spin the findings saying, “We have not stated that the Taser causes (cardiac) events in this bulletin, only that the refined target zones avoid any potential controversy on this topic.”

To the question of whether law enforcement could still deploy a TASER into a subject’s chest, TASER’s position was that officers should not “intentionally” target “when possible.” The recommendation, according to TASER, would go a long way toward “reducing risk management issues and avoiding litigation.” (What, in emails released by LulzSec, could be characterized as a policy of CYA.)

The TASER weapon’s propellant was changed from gunpowder to nitrogen in 1994, according to the ACLU report. This allowed TASER International to escape regulation from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and made it possible to “aggressively market the weapon as an alternative to lethal force” and escape testing of the product by the Consumer Products Safety Commission.

Vulnerable people, such as children, elderly, pregnant women and those with heart problems, are widely understood to be at risk of death or injury if they are subjected to the voltage of a Taser. The ACLU report shows the alarming reality that much of Arizona law enforcement lacks guidelines on what to do if faced with a “vulnerable” person.

Ten agencies were found to be silent whether to Tase pregnant women. Only four agencies explicitly ban tasing pregnant women. Twelve agencies were found to be silent on the tasing of children or the elderly. Only one agency explicitly prohibited tasing young or elderly people. And, eleven out of ten agencies had no policy on using a Taser on a subject multiple times, an action that has been seen as a key factor behind ECW-induced deaths.

Of particular interest to those who have followed the story of the SB1070 law and the issue of immigration in Arizona is the fact that Maricopa County, where the anti-immigrant Sheriff Joe Arpaio is in charge, has developed no policies or guidelines on when and when not to deploy a Taser in high-risk situations. Maricopa County is the only police department with over 500 sworn officers that did not offer its own training in addition to TASER International’s training. This is especially troubling given the fact that an Amnesty International 127-page report found Maricopa County had the highest number of reported deaths from Taser use in the United States.

Taser use has been posing increased liability for law enforcement. As of September 2010, five deaths from Taser use were occurring on average each month.

Courts have found Tasers constitute the use of “excessive force” and thus violate the Fourth Amendment, provided the Taser was used in an instance when its deployment was unjustified. Victims of Taser use can seek compensation but only if an agency’s use guidelines are deficient and if training is so poor that it could be considered “deliberately indifferent.

Memphis, Tennessee, San Francisco, California and Las Vegas, Nevada, have all opted to ban the use of Tasers.

To date, ACLU’s work on Taser use has been mostly on a state-by-state basis without a federal campaign. The report clearly demonstrates the risks posed by Tasers. More importantly, it shows the growing private influence of TASER International and how law enforcement has become dependent on using Tasers to make police work much easier, even if that means putting a person at risk of death or injury and violating the rights of an individual.

[A side note: A Los Angeles City Council voted in May 2010 to bar official travel to Arizona and consider the termination of contracts with businesses as part of a boycott in response to the SB1070 law. The Council made one exception: it would not cut off business with TASER International because, according to a councilman, “various local public safety agencies need its stun guns and no other company can provide the service satisfactorily.]

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