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Village police now using Tasers

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The Yellow Springs Police Department began arming its officers with the stun guns better known as Tasers in August, and so far they have performed as they were designed, to reduce violent confrontations between officers and the public, according to Yellow Springs Police Chief John Grote. Though the Ohio chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union still advocates that Taser use be restricted to situations where the only remaining option is a lethal weapon, the Yellow Springs law enforcement policy allows local officers to use their own discretion when deploying enforcement tools. And according to the Village Human Relations Commission, which has chosen to track the efficacy of Taser use in the village, the policy appears to be appropriate.

The police department began talking about implementing Tasers after an incident in January forced a YSPD officer to shoot an assailant who had struck him several times with a fire poker. The officer was alone, and the assailant was both bigger than him, mentally unstable, and unable to follow a series of orders to desist. Though officers are trained to aim for the largest area of mass to stop an attack, the officer shot the offender in the legs. Both officer and assailant were treated at the hospital for injuries.

The officer was found to have acted appropriately, but both he and the offender suffered severe physical and emotional trauma because of the use of lethal force, Grote said. And the department began searching for a weapon less lethal than a gun that could be used to de-escalate a similar situation without such a high risk of killing someone.

Formerly Grote was opposed to the use of Tasers, which had been portrayed as a dangerous device, he said. But after talking with other law enforcement agencies and coroners who have investigated Taser deaths as well as doing extensive research on literature from the ACLU, Grote found that a large portion of the injuries and deaths caused by Tasers have been due to misuse of the tool and lack of policies restricting its use, he said. And he concluded, he said, that it would increase safety for both the community and the police officers to have an additional less-lethal device available for law enforcement to use.

“It’s about using the least amount of force to facilitate an arrest and keeping the officers and assailants as safe as possible,” Grote said.

Tasers are electric shock devices that have the capacity to deliver 1,500 volts of electricity to the body and cause temporary paralysis to an assailant. The device, designed like a gun, uses a red laser beam to “paint” its target and can then deliver a stun from a distance of up to 20 feet, or it can fire in “drive mode” by shooting a cartridge with two metal prongs into the skin. The stuns are designed to be sustained for five seconds, but can be foreshortened with a switch by the officer. The power of the stun in either case is about 14 times as powerful as a shock from a household electric outlet, which conducts 120 volts.

According to the Yellow Springs police “use of force continuum,” revised over the summer to include Tasers, there are five levels of disobedience to the law that can be met with a particular level of enforcement by an officer. Beginning with “not responding to commands, verbal or physical danger cues,” an officer is given authority to use a continuum of force that starts with verbal commands, then advances, at the officer’s discretion, to balance displacement, the escort position, assistance from other officers and the Taser.

The second level of disobedience is characterized as “pulling away from officer, refusing to move — dead weight,” in response to which an officer has the option of using pressure point, joint or other takedown maneuvers, or the Taser. For the next two levels of disobedience that involve wrestling or pushing to striking or kicking an officer, the Taser is also indicated as a possible compliance tool, along with the ASP collapsible baton, pepper spray and striking structural areas. The fifth and highest level of disobedience characterized by weapons or other life-threatening assaults against an officer is the only level at which officers are authorized to use deadly force (a firearm). The Taser, as written in the policy, may be deployed even before the baton, which may ultimately be replaced by the Taser. Partly because batons are so powerful, Grote said he can only remember one time that a baton was deployed in the 24 years he’s been on the force.

“ASPs can cause a lot of damage, broken bones, and it’s difficult to apply the strikes,” Grote said. “It’s barbaric, hitting someone with a metal rod.”

Tasers are not free of concerns related to injury and even death. On Jan. 17 a New Orleans man died after being tased nine times while in police restraints, according to the ACLU Web site. In another incident on April 19, police stunned Kevin Piskura outside a bar in Oxford, Ohio after he became combative, and five days later he died, according to various news sources. As of June 2008, according to the National Institute of Justice, over 300 people have died in the U.S. after being stunned by a Taser.

The ACLU Web site states that “Tasers are a valuable alternative to firearms when used properly to avoid injury,” but ACLU chapters in many states recommend that they be used “only as an alternative to deadly force” and that they not be used “to obtain compliance from a passively resisting subject.” And Amnesty International states that the “Taser should never be considered a ‘low’ or ‘intermediate’ force option.” In 2005, according to Amnesty’s Web site, the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement and its Customs and Border Protection agencies opted not to arm its officers with Tasers “due to the questionable safety of the device.”

In the mind of local attorney Ellis Jacobs, who works for Advocates for Basic Legal Equality in Dayton, Tasers are more dangerous because they represent a supposed non-lethal weapon, which have in fact been involved in the deaths of many people.

“It’s probably because they’re not guns that they lend themselves to the illusion that they’re not lethal weapons,” he said. “But there’s enough evidence to know that Tasers are very dangerous. When you see the number of people who have died, you have to be impressed.”

But Grote trusts that his officers at the YSPD will follow procedure and use good judgement to make the Taser a safe tool. Department policy stipulates that offenders may not be tased after they are in police custody (handcuffed). And once the Taser has been deployed, the offender must be evaluated immediately by a medical squad. The Taser, which records the number and duration of each stun, must also be evaluated by the department along with the video of the incident to make sure procedures were followed, Grote said. And all of the YSPD officers who carry the device have been stunned, so they have an idea of what they’re dealing with.

Village Council approved the police department’s purchase of the electronic devices in May, before the policy on use had been revised. And the HRC has met with Grote about the implementation of the Tasers and will continue to review their efficacy with regard to the public, HRC member Joan Chappelle said last week. HRC members generally support the use of Tasers as a less lethal alternative than guns for law enforcement, Chappelle said, but they have not yet had a chance to discuss the policy regarding their use.

Not having reviewed the final policy yet, HRC member John Booth said he was surprised to learn that the policy gives officers leave to use the weapon, if necessary, to force compliance at the first level of intervention.

“Just because someone is verbally aggressive with you, do you stun him? No, I would say not,” Booth said last week. “We thought of it as a last resort — as I heard it, it was one step before drawing a deadly weapon.”

According to police reports reviewed by Grote, the Tasers have been deployed twice since August, and both incidents resulted in less physical contact between the officer and the offender than might have occurred without Taser use. In both cases, an officer responded to a call involving an intoxicated person causing a disturbance at a local bar. The officer first tried verbal commands, telling the offender to leave the premises without an arrest. At the point where the officer was going to have to physically remove the offender, the officer warned him that he would be tased if he did not follow orders. Then he proceeded to “paint the target” with the laser, at which point, both offenders in both incidents finally complied with police orders.

In both cases, because the threat of the Taser was enough to cause compliance from a distance, there were no arrests, and no one got hurt, Grote said. Without the Taser, however, the officer would have been forced to use bodily force with the offender, expose his weapons and risk injury to officer, offender or bystanders, he said.

“The individual opted to comply on his own accord, he went home, and no one got hurt,” Grote said.

The Greene County Sheriff’s officers began carrying Tasers three years ago after an incident with an intoxicated, combative man forced police to use hand to hand combat to get compliance. According to Sheriff Gene Fischer, both the officers and the offender were treated for injuries, and the offender later returned to the police station bearing the department’s first Taser as a gift, asking them to please use it instead of their hands the next time.

Before carrying Tasers, the county’s two jails with 400 inmates dealt with a high number of injuries to on-duty deputies and corrections officers who struggled to control unruly inmates by hand, Fischer said.

“Since we put Tasers in the jails, assaults against deputies have dropped dramatically,” he said. “People usually comply with orders just because of the threats.”

Though Grote acknowledges that there is some risk with the Taser, he said he still feels it is safer than a gun, and in some ways safer than a baton and pepper spray. And he hasn’t yet heard of a better alternative.

“I want this device to be used as minimally as possible, only where an arrest has to be made,” Grote said. “But I feel more comfortable that the officers now have a tool that is less lethal that they can use for certain situations.”

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