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.
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.
List of Law Enforcement Agencies in Utah Participating in CIT as provided by NAMIUT.org.
Copyright St. George News, StGeorgeUtah.com Inc., 2013, all rights reserved.