Tasers: effective or too easy?
- Published: June 11, 2009
Since the Yellow Springs Police Department began arming its officers with Tasers in August 2008, the stun guns have been deployed seldom and according to departmental policy, Police Chief John Grote said in a recent interview.
However, though no official complaints about Tasers have been filed, several Yellow Springers who were involved in the tasing incidents voiced concern last month about their use and the potential they have to cause more harm than intended.
Over the past 10 months, local police have deployed Tasers just three times and invoked them as a deterrent an additional handful of times, according to Grote.
Of the three Tasing incidents that have occurred so far, the first occurred on March 2 at the police station, after police brought in a woman who was arrested in the village for driving while intoxicated. According to the attending officers’ reports, the woman was angry and talking of suicide when she was brought to the holding room, where she began “violently slamming” her head against the wall. Two officers struggled with the woman but could not handcuff her, the report said.
After repeated orders to cease, followed by threats that she would be tased if she did not, police administered a five-second stun to the woman. According to the report, she continued to struggle and strike her head, and she was tased two more times before police were able to handcuff her.
The officers followed correct procedure by giving verbal commands and then warning the offender of their intention to use the Taser, according to Grote, who reviewed the report. And though he acknowledged that the woman, who was large, was likely too intoxicated and upset to be able to hear or process their orders, she would not have been contained without some use of force, and the Taser seemed the least harmful of the options, he said.
“You can try to overpower someone, but with someone who’s out of control, it’s not easy to do it without hurting anyone,” Grote said. “Without the Taser, she would have gotten hurt, and likely us, too.”
The second incident in which a Taser was deployed occurred on April 7, when an officer responded to a resident who said that her partner had attacked her during a sudden psychotic episode. According to the officer’s report, when the officer arrived, the offending woman, whose shoulder was in a sling due to a recent surgery, would not let him in the door of her basement apartment and then attempted to strangle him. The officer conducted a balance displacement and wrestled her to the floor, but was unable to handcuff her.
When the second officer arrived, he immediately and repeatedly gave the woman verbal commands to place her hands behind her back or she would be tased. She continued to struggle, and he issued a five-second stun to her back. After another order to comply, the woman still did not respond, and the officer tased her a second time. The officer gave the order again, and the woman attempted to get to her knees, at which point, according to the report, the officer tased her a third time. After the third tasing, the woman lost control of her body and fell forward, striking her face against the door frame and bruising her nose.
Regarding this incident, too, Grote felt that the officers did the right thing. Both officers knew the woman and were aware of both her mental history and recent shoulder injury, and wanted to end the conflict as soon as possible without injuring her further. Though especially when the second officer arrived, police could have applied pain compliance holds, as the name implies, those aren’t comfortable either and, according to Grote, they can be quite dangerous.
“It’s very easy to hurt people with holds by just going a little too far — it’s not intentional, but it happens,” he said. “We tased [her] to keep her from hurting herself, incapacitate her and get her into restraints.”
Unlike the first two incidents, the third use of the Taser in the village involved a man who was mentally alert. On May 12 a caller informed police that her boyfriend was trying to break into her house. According to the police report, police arrived just as the intruder was backing out of the driveway and ordered him to exit the vehicle at gunpoint. After handcuffing him and putting him in the back of the cruiser for questioning, the man became upset and kicked the rear window of the cruiser, bending it out of its frame. When police attempted to put leg shackles on him, he resisted and threatened to harm police. According to the report, one officer attempted again to put leg restraints on the man, while the other held a Taser to his body and threatened to use it if he did not comply with police orders.
The man allowed the leg restraints, but again began thrashing around in the cruiser and then kicked the window all the way out of the car. Police issued the man a five-second Taser stun, but he continued to thrash. He was stunned again with a direct drive stun for two to three seconds, at which point he agreed to obey orders.
Last resort or preemptive tool?
Though Grote stated at a Village Council meeting last spring when the department was considering employing Tasers that he anticipated they would be used only in a deadly threat situation as an alternative to a gun, the department altered the Taser use policy over the summer to allow greater officer discretion. Police are bound to a use of force continuum that begins with verbal commands and continues with mace, Tasers, body holds, baton (ASP) strikes and the use of a firearm. Officers are instructed to use the least amount of force required, but they are authorized to use their own discretion regarding which tool to use and which moment to use it to gain control in an incident-specific manner, Grote said.
None of the local tasing incidents to date have involved the threat of death to either the officers or the perpetrators. But was the use of the Taser in all three cases the least amount of force that could have been applied in order to get control of the situation?
According to the woman who was tased in the basement of her building, the police absolutely did the right thing by tasing her. Though the incident feels like a blackout to her because she can’t remember anything about it, she knows from what her partner described that she was totally out of control, and she thanked the police for doing their best to keep her from hurting herself or anyone else.
“I feel it was necessary, and it’s better than being shot to death,” she said in an interview last week.
But her partner felt differently about the incident she witnessed close up. Though she too was grateful that police responded to help, she said that watching someone, especially someone she cares about, being tased was a traumatic experience.
“I did not like watching that, it was horrible,” the partner said. “I’d never seen anybody tased before, and I never want to see it again.”
Also from the partner’s perspective, police may not have done everything they could have to use lesser force first before deploying the Taser. While careful not to criticize police policy, she wonders if there wasn’t a way for two male officers to control one average-sized female by first attempting to contain her with their hands rather than immediately resorting to a painful device as a weapon.
The Taser also seemed to be an excessively aggressive tool to use against someone who was already suffering from a mental breakdown, the partner said. To her, the Taser seems more appropriately used to stop a criminal who is committing a major offense, not a mental patient who wasn’t aware of what she was doing.
“I don’t know how to feel about it. I’m shaken up — I witnessed such violence,” she said, referring to the tasing.
According to police, the Taser is the less forceful tool. While extremely painful, the Taser lasts five seconds at the most, and once the stun is complete, the physical effect is a sore muscle at most, Yellow Springs Police Sergeant Tom Jones said in an interview last week. That tool is safer than the ASP or hand-to-hand fighting because it doesn’t cause lasting or permanent injury the way the others are likely to do, he said. The Taser is also more effective in indoor or other confined spaces than mace, which disperses everywhere and can debilitate the officer as well, he said.
But the chief reason Jones believes the Taser is effective is its immediate effect of allowing police to take control of the situation and end the confrontation in a way no other tool, save guns, can do. The sooner the altercation stops, the less likely anyone is to get hurt, he said.
Taser, too easy or just effective?
If the Taser is so effective and in some ways easier to use because it doesn’t require an officer to get physically involved, is there a propensity for it to be overused?
Most of the officers in Yellow Springs, including Jones, have volunteered to be tased to understand the force of a stun. The memory of it was vivid for Jones, who said the officers don’t use it capriciously.
“It’s painful — boy, it hurts. It’s very overwhelming, and having had that experience, I’d never use it unless I had to,” he said.
Yellow Springs officers also know that communication is the first approach, the most common approach and the most effective long-term, Jones said. And given the number of arrests that occur each year and the number of times the Tasers have been drawn, a total of less than 10 times in 10 months, it is clear to Jones that the department is using them appropriately.
“Our number one tool, which we use way more than any other tool, is we talk to people to explain to them this is what we have to do and this is why,” Jones said. “We take a lot of pride in that. That is the most effective tool to keep the community safe.”
However, in an incident that occurred on April 2 in the village, that did not appear to be the case. Police stopped a car without a rear license plate on Xenia Avenue and found that the driver’s license had been suspended and that he had a pipe with marijuana in the vehicle. The driver knew that his license would show that his insurance, which he had just paid but which had not been processed yet, would show up as expired, and he politely informed the officer, he said in an interview last week. When the officer went back to his cruiser to get more information, the driver started banging on his steering wheel in anger at himself for getting himself into trouble.
But according to the police officer’s report, when the officer returned, he told the driver that he would be tased if he didn’t stop “acting aggressively.” The driver was surprised, he said, that he had been threatened when he hadn’t done anything to provoke it.
“I was kind of shocked that the Taser was threatened to be used at a time when I didn’t think I was exhibiting behavior that warranted it,” he said. “I hadn’t raised my voice or been argumentative or anything.”
The driver and the officer discussed their misunderstanding at the scene, and they both saw the situation from the other’s perspective and parted on civil terms, the driver said. But the driver went away with two concerns. First, that he has a pacemaker and might have been unduly compromised by a stun if the officer had deployed his Taser. And second, the driver grew up in Yellow Springs, graduated from Yellow Springs High School in 1982, and returned two years ago to live here with his six young children. If the officer had known him, or taken the time to talk to him before making threats, he might have learned that the driver was a respectful local resident, not a dangerous offender.
“I know things have changed, I know the times have changed, but I do miss some of the guys [officers] who would deal with you — they kind of spoke to you and saw what the situation was,” he said. “I don’t know if these guys have that — being out and about and talking to people. It seems like they don’t know you, it seems almost like city cops…Maybe it’s just a different time, but it’s kind of sad that they would have to resort to that right away.”
From Grote’s perspective as the chief reviewer of the officers’ reports, the officer in that instance was likely being cautious in trying to prevent the situation from escalating beyond control. The driver may have been upset with himself, Grote said, but he caused concern for the officer, and “it’s an appropriate time to use it [the Taser] before things unravel.”
“It’s hard for me to put myself in the place of an officer who’s out there facing it — I don’t want to second guess them,” Grote said. “I know [the driver] and I care about him and his family, but I also care about the officer who doesn’t know what’s coming.”
Yellow Springs police used the threat of Tasers twice last fall to get intoxicated patrons causing a disturbance at a local bar to comply with police orders. According to Grote, in both cases the offenders refused to cooperate until they were “painted” with the Taser’s red laser and threatened, at which point the situations de-escalated immediately without any physical confrontation.
The line between premature use of force and effective use of force to quickly get control of a situation is hard to define. In an incident that occurred last week on Wednesday, May 27, two officers stopped a man who had trespassed on private property late at night and questioned him. According to the police report, the man was evasive and argumentative, and he began making false statements about his criminal history. After he was positively identified, police told him he was under arrest and instructed him to place his hands behind his back. The man complied, but was clenching his hands and jaws in an aggressive manner.
“He was then placed in the back of the cruiser and was told he would be tased if he did not put his legs inside the car,” the report said.
The man was already in custody when he was threatened with the Taser, according to the officer’s report. Perhaps he would not have been tased. Perhaps the offender would have become unruly and tried to kick the officer or damage another cruiser. According to police, it is difficult to establish a blanket standard on what it takes to truly get control of a situation and to clearly define the point at which police activity becomes unduly aggressive. Each situation is unique, they say.
Oversight of Taser use
All Yellow Springs police officers have a responsibility to complete a use of force report anytime they have to use forceful measures, including aggressive verbal commands, to get compliance. Grote reviews all the reports, sometimes asking for second opinions from his sergeants or from other Greene County law enforcement departments, especially if a public complaint has been filed. In all cases involving Tasers, Grote has found that the officers acted justly and did their jobs to the best of their ability.
“I don’t want the officers out there threatening everyone with being tased, but I like the way the Yellow Springs Police Department does its job, and I like the way we apply the law,” Grote said, adding that other departments tend to use more force than Yellow Springs. “The goal is to do less harm to get people into custody.”
It is also police department policy that a medical emergency squad evaluate offenders immediately after they have been tased. According to Miami Township Fire-Rescue Chief Colin Altman, the squad takes vital signs of the victim to ensure he or she is stable. And if needed, the squad will transport the person to the hospital for further treatment, as was the case with one of the offenders in Yellow Springs, who needed psychological attention.
The fire and police departments have a strong working relationship, and Altman trusts the judgment of well trained officers to know when there is a need for medical support, he said.
“The police are more than comfortable to call us whenever they have any suspicion that someone may need us,” he said.
From Altman’s perspective, because the Tasers administer high volts at low amps, the likelihood of causing serious damage is low, and therefore there is not a medical need for every tasing victim to be evaluated by the squad, he said. According to Grote’s research and understanding from several coroners he spoke to, in theory Tasers could stop the heart of someone who is compromised by illegal drugs, especially if the person is overstimulated, as was the case with the person who was tased in April. That woman was using multiple drugs and was psychotic at the time she was tased, though she said she suffered no long-term injury. And one study presented to the Heart Rhythm Society in 2007 showed that Tasers “may cause significant arrhythmias” in people with pacemakers, though the results could not prove direct causality between the stun gun and heart dysfunction.
Of all the studies Grote and Altman have seen, none has showed conclusive evidence that Tasers pose a significant health risk when applied to people.
“Medically they’ve found that a lot of the worries have been overblown, and that Tasers are pretty benign,” Altman said.
Since 1999, 410 people in North America (390 of those deaths occurring in the U.S.) have died after being tased, according to a tally generated by Canadian Patti Gillman, whose family member died after being tased in Vancouver in 2004. Her list, started by Arizona Republic reporter Robert Anglen, can be found at truthnottasers.blogspot.com.
Though Tasers may be a potential threat, Grote said that not having them also poses a perhaps more serious threat to the public. He was reminded that the Yellow Springs department initially wanted Tasers after an incident last year when a Yellow Springs police officer was forced to shoot his gun at an attacker who was swinging at his head with a fire poker. The attacker could have died because at that time police did not have a less lethal alternative to stop that kind of attack, Grote said.
According to Sergeant Jones, before police carried Tasers, they would occasionally get into “knock-down, drag-out fights.” Jones, who has been on the force for 25 years, estimates that about once each year he is forced into a hands-on wrestling match in which “there is a good likelihood they or us is gonna get hurt,” he said. Officers can choose tools other than the Taser to deal with these situations.
“To me, all of those are an escalation up with potential for injury,” he said. “I see the Tasers getting us successful conclusion to a difficult situation without anyone getting hurt. To me, it’s exactly what we want the department to do.”
Jones commends Chief Grote for procuring Tasers for the local department because he feels it makes Yellow Springs safer.
“We understand that this community holds us to a high standard of scrutiny,” he said. “It’s been used sparingly, and I think people will see that.”