Friday, February 19, 2010

San Francisco Police Consider New Taser Policy

The San Francisco Police Department may decide to follow the recent trend in other cities and arm its officers with Taser stun guns, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Currently, San Francisco, Detroit, and Memphis are the last remaining large cities in the United States where the police departments do not use Tasers. San Francisco Police Chief George Gascon has been pushing for Tasers, arguing that cops who carry them are less likely to have to resort to using guns. According to some studies, using Tasers may reduce police-involved shootings and save lives.

Tasers still face significant criticism in the city of San Francisco, a place known for liberal-mindedness. At a meeting of the San Francisco Police Commission, representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union voiced their concerns that Tasers are not actually non-lethal weapons. The ACLU says that more research needs to be conducted to determine exactly what role Tasers played in 400 in-custody deaths that have occurred since 2001. At the present time, all that is known is that all of those 400 deaths were associated with the use of Tasers.

A policy on Taser use by San Francisco police officers would take 90 days to develop; deployment could take at least a year.

Taser stun guns work by shooting 50,000 watts of voltage into the body, disrupting muscle control. Typically, people who are shot with a Taser fall to the ground. It is not uncommon for someone who has been tasered to incur head injuries, bruises on the face, or broken noses or teeth. Additionally, in some cases, fatalities have occurred.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Man Dies After Arizona Police Taser Him

A man was tasered by an Arizona highway patrol officer and then died, The Arizona Republic has reported. According to the Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS), Mark Andrew Morse, age 36, had a run-in with the highway patrol outside Phoenix early Thursday morning, February 4th. The facts are sketchy at best, but DPS says Mr. Morse was stopped by highway patrol when he was seen walking in a carpool lane. According to DPS, Mr. Morse was tasered after he became “combative” and refused to follow instructions. After that, all that is known is that Mr. Morse was taken into custody, that he was exhibiting breathing problems, and that he was later pronounced dead at John C. Lincoln North Mountain Hospital in Phoenix.

Despite DPS’s claims about Mr. Morse’s behavior on the morning of February 4th, his family has demanded more information. They expressed disbelief that Mr. Morse was capable of behaving the way DPS claimed he did. Mr. Morse’s cousin said, “We're just trying to understand what happened and why it’s been kept so hush-hush.” Mr. Morse, who grew up in Phoenix and lived in Arkansas, was in town to introduce his fiancĂ©e to his mother.

Taser stun guns are increasingly carried and used by law enforcement officers throughout the United States, despite the fact that their use has been associated with hundreds of deaths. Individuals who have been injured or lost loved ones as a result of Tasers have successfully brought claims for personal injury and wrongful death damages. In some cases where law enforcement officers have used Tasers inappropriately, victims have brought claims of excessive force and collected significant settlements and verdicts to compensate for officers’ misconduct.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Ex-Cop on Trial for Homicide After Taser Death

Police departments across the country have increasingly issued Taser stun guns to officers with the idea that these weapons can be used in emergency circumstances, rather than resorting to the use of a real gun. In theory, if an officer feels he is being threatened, firing a Taser is a good alternative to firing a gun, since a Taser is less likely than a gun to cause serious injury or death.

Unfortunately, cops’ increased use of Tasers in recent years has demonstrated that this theory is deeply flawed.

For one thing, Tasers do, and have, caused deaths. In fact, since 2001, about 400 deaths have been attributed to the use of Tasers. Lawsuits have arisen throughout the United States as families seek justice for the loss of their loved ones.

Secondly, it has become increasingly clear that law enforcement officers are taking their use of Tasers beyond situations where it would be a substitute for a gun. There is concern that police may be more likely to use Tasers on a suspect, thinking they are safer than handguns. Yet, every time a Taser is used, there is a possibility of causing a death. (Taser’s own representative acknowledged the potential for fatalities when he referred to the stun guns as “less-lethal weapons.”)

Furthermore, a handful of officers have used their Tasers in completely inappropriate situations, such as where there is no real threat to safety. This is frightening territory. In January 2008 in Winnfield, Louisiana, for example, a police officer named Scott Nugent used his Taser to stun a 21-year-old man who was already detained in handcuffs. Nugent shot the Taser nine times, killing the young man. Now an ex-cop, Nugent will stand trial in June on charges of manslaughter and malfeasance, according to The Associated Press.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

School District in North Carolina Debates Use of Tasers as Discipline Tool

In North Carolina, students at Guilford County schools have seen Tasers used to “quell unruly students” four times during the current school year, according to the Winston-Salem News. The Guilford County Sheriff’s Department provides “resource officers” to Guilford schools to keep the peace and deal with students who are acting out. The resource officers now carry Tasers and – with four incidents in a matter of months – have clearly demonstrated their willingness to use these weapons as they see fit.

Parents are worried about the use of these “less-lethal weapons” in their schools. One parent said, “It’s a scary thing. [T]here’s a possibility of death. I don’t know how we can live with ourselves if one of our students died.”

Another parent pointed out, “We’re here saying it’s ok to shoot 50,000 volts of electricity to a child, and it’s not right…I’ve never felt the need to have 50,000 volts of electricity to handle children.”

Parents are right to be concerned. Since 2001, it is believed that around 400 deaths have been caused by Tasers. Even where fatalities do not occur, significant injuries are possible. When a person is shot with a Taser, it is common for the person to fall down, which always carries a risk of head injury or other harm. For example, in December, an Ohio man died of a skull fracture when he fell down after being Tasered.

Tasers send an electric pulse with around 50,000 volts, which lasts for about five seconds. The electric pulse essentially gives the target a very intense shock, which causes pain, muscle contraction, and temporary paralysis. According to heart experts, Tasers can cause cardiac arrest.

The Guilford County School Board is debating the current Taser policy. The board may vote to end the resource officer program with the Sheriff’s Department and hire a private security company. The use of a private company would give the school board more control over whether officers could use Tasers, and under what circumstances.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

NAACP to Hold Taser Forum in Modesto, California

In response to the death of three inmates at the Stanislaus County Jail over the past year after being tasered, the Modesto/Stanislaus NAACP and local police agencies are holding a public forum on January 21st to discuss the use of a Taser by law enforcement. See the Modesto Bee article for further information regarding the public forum.

Law enforcement in Central California has come under intense scrutiny following these deaths involving the use of a Taser, as well as an incident in Merced where an unarmed man with no legs was tasered while sitting in his wheelchair. Fortunately the amputee recovered, but the incident made national headlines and provoked questions regarding the use of excessive force.

Taser Studies and Statistics

A Modesto Bee reporter wrote an interesting article highlighting the potential risk of death associated with the use of a Taser. The following are studies and statistics mentioned in the article:

  • According to statistics from Amnesty International, 360 people have died in the United States since 2001 after being tasered. In a report released in 2008, Amnesty International researcher Angela Wright stated, “Tasers are not the ‘non-lethal’ weapons they are portrayed to be..” “They can kill and should only be used as a last resort.”
  • A study by the National Institute of Justice found that many of the deaths were associated with repeated or continuous discharge of the Taser.
  • According to a study of California police and sheriff’s use of the Taser conducted by Dr. Zian Tseng and Dr. Byron Lee, professors of cardiology at the University of California at San Francisco, the probability of a Taser discharge leading to death are much greater if the Taser darts hit the chest on both sides of the heart, the darts penetrate deep into the skin, if the person has a prior heart condition or is on drugs, or if the device is discharged multiple times.
  • To reduce the potentially lethal risk of using a Taser, the ACLU of Southern California has suggested limiting the number of officers who can Taser a suspect at the same time and limiting the number of times a person may be tasered.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Taser Launches Police Surveillance System

In response to numerous incidences of Taser-related police brutality in recent years, Taser International, Inc. has released a police surveillance product called AXON, The Economist reports. AXON is a “tactical on-officer network computer,” which records a video of every incident in which a police officer uses his or her Taser. The computer uploads the footage to a secure, access-restricted website called, where it can be viewed by approved personnel.

Taser International says AXON will benefit both police officers and the public at large. Officers would have evidence to vindicate them from false charges of police brutality; and the public would benefit from the greater accountability derived from officers wearing surveillance cameras. Of course, it’s clear that the greatest benefit will go to Taser International itself; AXON is a pricey product which the company expects to help raise revenues to $1 billion annually – ten times what the company currently brings in.

AXON raises important concerns. Clearly developed in the aftermath of Taser-related injuries and numerous incidences of police misconduct, AXON is a product that may give law enforcement agencies a way of justifying their continued use of Tasers. Yet, a product that allows law enforcement to maintain a record of every time a cop tasers someone does not change the fact that Tasers are weapons that have the potential to kill. (A representative of Taser International even referred to Tasers as “less-lethal weapons.”)

Beyond the fact that recording a video does not make the Taser device any less deadly, the use of AXON also does not necessary mean that footage will be available when members of the public want it. Put more bluntly: Can the public trust law enforcement agencies to keep all videos they record? A blogger for AlterNet has insightfully pointed out that, where Taser International and law enforcement maintain control over the video recording and database, there is no way for the public to ensure that videos implicating cops will not be erased.

Tasers are believed to have caused 400 deaths since 2001. The use of Tasers in Canada has caused so many problems that law enforcement officers no longer carry Tasers in that country. Nevertheless, half of police officers in the U.S. carry a Taser in addition to their gun, and the existence of AXON is likely to give U.S. agencies more incentive to expand their Taser programs.

Of course, AXON is a product specific to law enforcement and therefore does nothing to prevent dangerous use of Tasers by civilians. In 42 states, anyone can buy a Taser if they register with Taser International and clear a felony background check. At least a handful of the Taser incidents that regularly appear in the news arise out of civilian use of the device. For example, an Orlando woman was recently arrested after she attacked her ex-boyfriend with her hot pink Taser.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Ninth Circuit Ruling Restricts Use of Taser By Police

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week that a California police officer may be held liable for injuries caused to an unarmed motorist who was tasered during a traffic stop. The decision is forcing police agencies throughout California to examine their policies regarding the use of tasers. The court’s opinion defines when the use of a taser is appropriate and limits the use of the taser to situations where the person presents an obvious danger.

The ruling stems from a 2005 incident in which a former Coronado, California police officer stopped a motorist for failing to wear a seatbelt while driving. The driver, Carl Bryan, testified he did not hear the officer order him to remain in the vehicle. He exited and vehicle and stood about 20 feet from the officer. Bryan became visibly agitated and upset with himself, but did not make any verbal threats. The officer claimed he tasered Bryan when Bryan took a step toward the officer-a claim that Bryan has denied. Bryan’s face hit the pavement, resulting in bruises and four shattered front teeth.

The justices did not rule on whether the police officer acted appropriately, but it paves the way for Bryan to pursue a civil lawsuit against the officer and the City of Coronado.

Under the new ruling, tasering a fleeing suspect or a suspect who refuses to comply with an order to lie down during an arrest appears to be prohibited, since the suspect would not pose an obvious danger in these scenarios.

The ruling sets forth clear legal guidelines for when an officer may use a taser, and defines scenarios where the use of a taser would be prohibited. The justices further stated that the use of a taser poses a much more serious use of force than pepper spray-this opinion runs directly contrary to the policies of many law enforcement agencies in California and throughout the nation. Several law enforcement agencies throughout California have announced plans to review their policies regarding the use of tasers in view of this recent appellate court ruling.