St George News

Law enforcement use of Tasers, acceptable risk?

ST. GEORGE — The use of Tasers by law enforcement as an alternative to lethal force yet gives rise to unsettled debate. The point of contention arises over whether injury and unintended death are an acceptable risk given the overall efficiency of the Taser to subdue a suspect, most often without residual harm.

Local anecdotes

By no means a survey of every use of Tasers by local law enforcement, two anecdotes offer results at opposite extremes.

Taser deployed without sustained injury – Just last Sunday, Mohave County Sheriff’s deputies arrested a 76-year-old man after using a Taser to take him into custody. The Deputies had been advised by occupants of two vehicles traveling Interstate 15 in Arizona that they were nearly run off the road by a white semitrailer. Deputies tried to wave the truck over, but it continued traveling, patrol units pursued it, caught up with it and attempted to conduct a traffic stop; but the truck continued without stopping.  One of the deputies pulled their patrol unit next to the semi and had the driver pull the truck over at Arizona mile post 25.  As the driver exited the semitrailer he ignored deputies commands over the public address system and stepped out of view, the Sheriff’s Office release said. Deputies located him standing between the cab and the trailer, where he reportedly resisted orders and would not comply with deputies’ commands, further resisting when a deputy grasped his wrists. 

A Taser was eventually used to subdue and place the man into custody.  Medical responded and treated the man. During conversations with him, the Sheriff’s Office statement said that the man said that he was not aware of running anyone off the road. He was arrested on misdemeanor charges of failure to obey a police officer and resisting arrest and was booked into the Mesquite Jail.

Taser deployed with fatal consequence – In 2009, perhaps the most familiar of Taser incidents to Southern Utahns occurred when police responded to a 911 call from the wife of 32-year-old Brian Cardall. Brian Cardall was having what has been described as a bipolar episode and his wife was concerned for his safety. As related by Brooke Adams of The Salt Lake Tribune, the Cardalls had pulled over on state Route 59 when Brian Cardall started acting out so that he could take medication. “Before it took effect, Cardall removed his clothing and began darting into the roadway,” Adams wrote.

Hurricane Police responded, delivered two shocks from a Taser pistol “near his heart,” and Cardall died at the scene. The Cardall family sued for wrongful death and, in January 2013, Adams reported the lawsuit settled for $2 million.  The details of the settlement involving the city have largely been kept confidential, Adams reported, it restricted the parties to the settlement to only publicly commenting that “the case was resolved;” the settlement did allow the Cardall family to continue their advocacy work with National Alliance on Mental Illness Utah, commonly known as NAMI, and police departments to improve interactions with people who have mental illness. 

The Cardall incident and its settlement caught the attention of lawmakers, officials and advocacy groups across the state. Tasers, how police departments utilize them, and treatment of the mentally ill have all come under consideration.

Sampling of Taser policies locally

St. George and Hurricane Police Department policies are congruent in purpose: “The Taser device is intended to control a violent or potentially violent individual, while minimizing the risk of serious injury. The appropriate use of such a device should result in fewer serious injuries to officers and suspects.”

St. George Police Department outlines within its Policy No. 309 the Electro-Muscular Disruption Technology Guidelines. It states, “Personnel who have completed department-approved training may be issued an EMDT device for personal use, and that officers who have completed department-approved training may use it on assignment.”

Hurricane Police Department has a more lengthy and comprehensive policy regarding the use of the Taser. Its policy, also No. 309, outlines verbal and visual warnings an officer must perform before deployment to offer the offender time to cooperate, the proper use of the Taser, and a list of factors to determine reasonableness of such force and special considerations, such as a person on drugs or a woman who is pregnant. Taser application and targeting considerations are addressed; for example, aiming low so as not to strike the neck or face, multiple applications of the Taser, and an officer’s duty to file a report upon deployment of a Taser. Medical treatment of an individual who was just hit by a Taser is also called for, and training in de-escalation techniques is included, among other things.

When the use of a Taser is deemed appropriate, both Departments considered have policies providing for immediate action after a Taser has been applied. These provide for immediate action to be taken to care for the injured, apprehend suspects and to protect the scene. Once the subject is restrained, the Taser should be turned off. Medical personnel will then assess the subject. Photographs will be taken of probe impacts. Involved personnel will attempt to locate and identify witnesses at the incident.

In Southern Utah all members who carry or use an advanced Taser must first successfully complete an advanced Taser familiarization program to include written and practical tests. These are completed annually.

Crisis intervention training

Crisis Intervention Training, or CIT, is a program developed in a number of states to help police officers react appropriately to situations involving mental illness or developmental disability. It is available as a part of Utah’s National Association of Mental Illness, or NAMI Utah, one of its mentors, Kerri Ernsten, said. CIT was encouraged to police departments in Salt Lake City in 2001 and was introduced to Southern Utah in 2004, the latter covering the five counties of Southwest Behavioral Health.

NAMI Utah outlines the purpose and training of the CIT program, a 40-hour course that is completed in a one-week session. The instructors include physicians, licensed social workers, psychologists, specialists and police instructors and train CIT academy students in:

  • Substance Abuse
  • Dual Diagnosis
  • Legal Issues
  • Borderline personalities
  • Suicide Prevention
  • Elderly and Children’s Issues
  • Introduction to clinical disorders
  • Psychotropic medications
  • Developmentally disabled
  • Community resources
  • Consumer perspectives
  • Intervention strategies

“We’ve been a partner for years,” St. George Police Deputy Chief Richard Farnsworth said of CIT. “We have a goal for all of our officers to be certified and it is a requirement for advancement.”

Is the Taser a torture device?

The United Nations Committee Against Torture, an agency charged with overseeing the application of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, arrived at the conclusion on Nov. 23, 2007, that the use of the electric pulse Taser gun constitutes a “form of torture” and “can even provoke death.”

However, many see the proper use of Tasers as an acceptable and sometimes even preferred alternative to a more foreseeable deadly form of force, such as guns with bullets. Like other alternatives such as guns with rubber bullets, billy clubs, tear gas, Tasers have been introduced into law enforcement with the aim of subduing without causing sustained or permanent injury or death.

“We have very specific policies,” Farnsworth said about the use of the Taser. “They’re a tool just like anything else on the belt and if used appropriately, are effective,” Farnsworth said. Should Tasers be used by private citizens? “If they’re legal then absolutely,” Farnsworth said.

U.S. Taser Related Deaths

In 2008, Amnesty International, which purports to be the world’s largest grassroots human rights organization, examined data on hundreds of deaths following Taser use, including autopsy reports in 98 cases and studies on the safety of such devices. Among the cases reviewed, 90 percent of those who died were unarmed. Many of the victims were subjected to multiple shocks.

“According to data collected by Amnesty International, at least 500 people in the United States have died since 2001 after being shocked with Tasers either during their arrest or while in jail,” a press release issued by the advocacy group in February 2012 stated. It elaborated:

Amnesty International recorded the largest number of deaths following the use of Tasers in California (92), followed by Florida (65), and Texas (37). The Oklahoma City Police Department led all law enforcement agencies in deaths (7) following by Las Vegas Metropolitan Police, Harris County Sheriff’s (Tx), Phoenix, Az and San Jose, Ca., all with six deaths.

“There are more than 514,000 Tasers among law enforcers and the military nationwide,” according to ElectronicVillage, a blog dedicated to “looking at events thru the perspective of Black people.” Tasers are deployed in law enforcement agencies in 29 of the 33 largest U.S. cities and 77 percent of those who died as a result of being Tasered were black.

In response to the aforementioned statistics, Farnsworth disagreed and said one must take a closer look. People on drugs or with medical conditions, for example, may have adverse reactions to the Taser, he said, and there are a lot of other variables to consider. He said he questions whether the statistics mentioned above have considered all variables or whether that is even possible.

While legislators in the U.S. are filing bills to clamp down on the use of the Taser, more studies have come out regarding their effects. A study funded by the U.S. Justice Department asserted little to no injury in the majority of people subjected to the Taser in 2005-2007.

Another study led by William Bozeman, Medical Doctor at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, that included nearly 1,000 persons subjected to Taser use, concluded that 99.7 percent of the subjects had either minor injuries, such as scrapes and bruises, or none at all.

How Tasers Work

When a Taser’s trigger is pulled, two wires shoot out of the device at the suspect from up to 35 feet away. At the ends of the wires are probes that either embed in a person’s skin or cling to clothing causing involuntary muscular contractions in the subject.

Timeline of Utah’s action on Taser use by law enforcement

In March 2011, Gov. Gary Herbert and the Legislature executed a notable Crisis Intervention Team Program Concurrent Resolution that recognizes the Crisis Intervention Training program as a model for law enforcement and encourages Utah’s law enforcement to work together with community mental health providers for crisis training and intervention.

The Council of State Governments Justice Center selected the Salt Lake City Police Department to be one of many “mental health learning sites” — a place where other law enforcement agencies can look for guidance on how to improve their responses to the mentally ill.

The Brian Cardall case motivated other police departments to enroll in the CIT program, Ron Bruno, Salt Lake City Detective and CIT Program Director, said. Among them was the Hurricane Police Department. About 12 percent of Utah’s 1,200 law enforcement officers hold CIT certification; more have likely undergone the training but have had their certifications expire, he said.

In 2012, a joint resolution of the state house and senate included the CIT program, and study of the training of all police officers in crisis intervention and mental illness, as one of several legislative issues requiring additional study by the Legislative Management Committee.

The concerns in Utah are by no means unique and its response to the Cardell wake-up call is consistent with protocol of many states.

St. George News Editor-in-Chief, Joyce Kuzmanic, contributed to this report.

Resources

Crisis Intervention Training – Utah – website

List of Law Enforcement Agencies in Utah Participating in CIT as provided by NAMIUT.org.

 

Email: sisaacson@stgnews.com

Twitter: @sarahisaacson1

Copyright St. George News, StGeorgeUtah.com Inc., 2013, all rights reserved.

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  7 Comments
  1. Doug Chambers August 4, 2013 at 6:52 pm · Reply

    I am not going to argue with this article and I do not speak for any department of agency; however, I would like to provide a link, which gives some insight into the use of Tasers: http://www.taser.com/research-and-safety/field-use-and-statistics The alternatives to being “tased” may not be so desirable either. Millions of deployments have resulted in so few deaths, that it is a news story when it does. It is almost always found that there is some other aggravating factors involved, if that is the eventual outcome. I’ve been hit with a Taser twice, both in training. While it isn’t pleasant, the residual effects are almost instantly gone after it is over. Officers do not like having to use lethal force on people, even when it may be called for, so less-lethal alternatives have been used for years; i.e., Tasers, pepper spray, bean bag shotgun shells, and others. I’d much prefer the Taser to the others or being shot. By the way, I was very impressed with the CIT training I received. I hope all officers take advantage of it when it is offered. On the lighter side, I am still trying to figure out what “failure to obey a police offer” would entail, perhaps that should have read, “failure to obey a police officer.”

    • Joyce Kuzmanic
      Joyce Kuzmanic August 4, 2013 at 7:44 pm · Reply

      Ach. Thx. Fixed.

  2. Dan Lester August 5, 2013 at 9:31 am · Reply

    So Amnesty says most of the people tasered were unarmed. That makes total sense. If the person points a firearm in the direction of an officer they certainly won’t mess with a taser, but will use their own firearm(s). Deadly force is met with deadly force. If the person comes with a knife, a bat, or something else that could harm an officer, then a taser makes sense. Why use a firearm when another weapon that is much safer for the person being detained and for any potential bystanders?

  3. Peter Grainger August 5, 2013 at 12:48 pm · Reply

    My understanding of the new improved X2 model Taser is that it only allows for single five-second exposures at a time. If the officer wants to continue ‘tasing’, he simply retriggers and reapplies the current. This ostensibly is to prevent “sitting on the trigger”, where continuous flow of electricity can occur. It now puts the onus on the officer, so he or she is responsible for each retriggering- and must be able to justify escalation. Such liabilities have been quietly passed from manufacturer to police agencies since 2009, when the first chest-avoidance warning was issued. The manufacturer eventually expressed concern about multiple and prolonged stuns too.
    Taser International now has fine-print warnings to refrain from ‘tasing’ pregnant women, the elderly, the infirm, children, low-body mass persons and the mentally ill, yet we know police are still targeting such persons. Since Electronic Control Devices were introduced there have been 799 citizens in North America who have died after being shocked by such weapons (according to blog Truth-Not-Tasers.Com, which bases its tally on actual media reports of associated deaths). How much risk are police willing to take? This all flies in the face of the early promotion of Tasers as “safe to use on any assailant”. And what about the high costs being paid by cash-strapped police agencies, to replace flawed Tasers, without any hard questions being asked or decent rebates being offered to replace poorly designed and improperly researched technologies?

    Another concern is the lack of regular measurement. Could some of these complicated or unexplained deaths be the result of weapons performing outside the safety ceilings? Who knows, if they are not being measured properly. Unlike breathalyzers, defibs and radar guns, not one agency in North America is regularly measuring the output of Tasers before taking them in the field. This seems foolhardy at best- as it exposes police and their employers to potentially huge legal costs if an over-powered weapon is involved in an incident which results in “unintended consequences”. It has been reported by both the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and CTV News, that not all Tasers perform the same way. Some Tasers are emitting current higher than the safety allowables set by the manufacturer. It’s called “output variance”. Although many claimed this was impossible, due to its design, in British Columbia, lab testing showed an 80-percent failure rate with its older M26 models, which resulted in a coast-to-coast recall.

    Medical examiners have not as a rule, been testing Tasers involved in fatalities, for output variance. This means many decisions about cause-of-death in Taser-related in-custody deaths have NOT been made with full information. These measurement concerns are finally being remedied thanks to the Law Enforcement Standards Office (OLES), National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), with the newly created IEC 62792- the first international measurement standard for ECDs. Once law enforcement is made aware of the new standard, the responsibility lies with them to ensure proper functioning of its Tasers. The daily ‘spark test’ done by officers now is NOT measurement; spark tests only show weapons are emitting current, but it fails to tell the officer the amplitude of that current. It is the amperage that can trigger the heart, as Dr. Douglas Zipes has written in his electrophysiological work on the subject.
    Two taser testers are on the market now, so it will be interesting which one is approved by NIST and the IEC, and how soon law enforcement responds. Its members, their employers, their insurers and the public need to have confidence that the tools they are sanctioned to use have been properly researched, are monitored regularly, perform in the way they should and provide a modicum of safety for both the officer and their targets, unless, of course, Tasers are raised in the use-of-force continuum, and reclassified as LETHAL (which is just below the firearm, but above pepper spray and batons). If Tasers are deemed potentially deadly, you can bet use will drop, so this tool will only be employed in those rarest of circumstances, such as truly violent situations with armed suspects, suicide attempts or abductions, NOT as a simple compliance tool.

  4. Steve Tuttle August 26, 2013 at 7:02 pm · Reply

    Peter are you still a reporter with CTV ? I see you’re popping up in the TASER stories and weighing in with your opinions. Looks like you missed the target on the retriggering aspect of the TASER X2. This isn’t quietly passing liability to the law enforcement agency. It’s always been with the law enforcement agency and they have to justify each deployment as the quantum of force is the rule of law. Each application must be justified.

    The “fine print” has warned about using the device on pregnant people for more than a decade as well as other at risk individuals. At risk individuals are at risk, period. Note that many of these warnings are best practices and guidelines versus “shall nots.” What do you do with a combative pregnant woman who attacking a police officer? Use a baton or throw her to the ground?

    I see your T-N-T connection which continues to list TASER related deaths but fails to list the cause of deaths — most of which the TASER was not listed as a causal or contributory factor. Why aren’t deaths removed from this list if a medical examiner exonerates the TASER application of any responsibility of death? Amnesty’s list does this same very thing. Doug is right as there are usually other factors at play. The drug overdoses alone account for a large portion of deaths.

    Peter, we’ve addressed the concerns in Canada and in Ohio thanks to your friends at Aegis about the output variance being higher. If this were accurately portrayed in the press why is the RCMP and 17,000 other agencies still using our equipment? Is TASER the almighty able to defy physics and testing and get away with it? Not at all. By the way, the output isn’t the issue as the devices emit very low power (each pulse has less energy than a camera flash).
    There is no classifying a TASER as LETHAL as it has been and continues to be recognized by our US Court system as a less-lethal tool. Deadly force is deadly force. Are TASER devices potentially deadly? Peter it’s in the warnings. Use a TASER on someone in an elevated position and the person can fall to their death. Use it on someone known to be soaked in gasoline and you can imagine the results.
    By the way, Dan, good call on the unarmed suspects that Amnesty likes to point out THEY SHOULD BE UNARMED AMNESTY and the numbers should probably be higher. As Dan said, deadly force is met with deadly force. HEADS UP, the TASER has not ever been a replacement for deadly force.
    Just remember folks, as the author pointed out two key studies. The US DOJ spent five years dedicated to looking at TASER arrest related deaths and the outcome of that report is very positive. The other is what I call a microcosm study: Dr. Bozeman’s Wake Forest University’s study reviewed 1201 incidents involving TASER devices with 99.75% causing no significant injury. TASER is no magic bullet but with 3.3 million uses, TASER technology has saved more than 112,000 lives from death or serious personal injury. This statistic should be reread again by the critics.

    Good policies that are understood, recurring and enhanced training with good oversight at the keys for success with any TASER program. Unfortunately, the product will be used in dangerous, dynamic, and violent situations that may result in controversy inherent in the application of a response to resistance.

  5. Trey Holcomb October 5, 2013 at 7:04 am · Reply

    A taser is an electrocution weapon. They should only be used by officers to defend themselves against unarmed attackers, NEVER as a means of enforcing non compliance. They are internationally recognized as torture devices and their use to coerce human beings into desired behavior is barbaric and inhumane.

    • My Evil Twin October 5, 2013 at 11:06 am · Reply

      Right Trey. Instead of using a taser, which under normal circumstances, is not only a “less than lethal” weapon, it won’t do any lasting damage. . .
      Cops should use their side handle batons to break knee caps and elbows. Or maybe they should go back to the good old days of thumping you on the head with their saps. YEAH, THAT’S IT! Let’s have them go back to carrying the black jacks, and hitting you behind the ear. . .
      What a jack arse you are. . .

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