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A closer look at taser use

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This is the first article in a new series examining police policy, practice and relationship to the community.

Articles in this series

What role do tasers play in local policing? What role should they play? Is the device, typically classified as a “less-lethal weapon,” misused by Yellow Springs police? How did tasers figure into the clash with villagers at the New Year’s Eve Ball Drop?

These are some of the questions that villagers, including members of the Justice System Task Force, a Council-appointed commission, are asking in the aftermath of this year’s ball drop event, in which one local officer pointed a taser at a citizen and another officer deployed the weapon, though without full impact.

The task force, formed last summer, is prioritizing the issue of taser use, according to Council representative Judith Hempfling. “We’re looking at the issue and plan to move quickly to make a recommendation to Council,” she said recently.

The New Year’s Eve incident has spurred many in Yellow Springs to debate and discuss local policing — as it is, and as some villagers wish it to be. Adding to this discussion, the News is launching a series on policing in Yellow Springs, taking a closer look at specific aspects of local police policy and practice. In this first article in our series, we seek to better understand taser use in the village.

Introduced locally in 2008

A handheld device that delivers a brief, intense shock to a subject, conducted electrical weapons, or CEWs — more commonly called tasers — first went on sale in 1975. They are now commonplace in U.S. police departments, used by more than 17,000 law enforcement agencies around the country, according to a Nov. 26, 2015, report in the Washington Post. Nearly all of those weapons are manufactured by a single company, Taser International.

Tasers were introduced into the Yellow Springs police department under former Chief John Grote in 2008, after a traumatic incident that year in which former Officer Tim Knoth shot and injured local resident Corey White, who was attacking him with a fireplace poker.

“After the Corey White incident, I thought long and hard. I decided we needed a less lethal means to facilitate an arrest,” Grote explained in a recent interview.

At the time, Yellow Springs police officers wielded pepper spray, a baton and a gun, according to Grote. “It’s a big jump between a baton and a lethal weapon. I thought it was time to go to tasers as a ‘middle step,’” he observed.

The department purchased three tasers and associated equipment for around $4,500 at that time, according to Sergeant Naomi Watson in an email this week. When the warranty for the original tasers ran out in 2014, the department purchased eight tasers of a newer model and associated equipment.

The original taser purchase was approved 4–1 by Village Council at the time, according to then-President Hempfling. Hempfling voted against the purchase, concerned that Council had not had a discussion about taser use, nor involved citizens in the -decision.

“I was aware of deaths from tasers. The ACLU was making the case for the danger of their use, so I was concerned,” Hempfling recalled.

Tasers work by delivering a five-second, 50,000-volt electrical shock via two small metal probes that attach to the subject’s skin. The probes can be launched from a distance, momentarily incapacitating a person. They can also be touched to the subject. According to Officer Dave Meister, who voluntarily received a taser shock during training, the sensation is painful but short-lived, akin to a “full-body charley horse.”

Because they deliver a neuromuscular shock, tasers can be dangerous for people with heart conditions, in medical/mental crisis and under the influence of drugs and alcohol, according to 2011 guidelines for their use from the Police Executive Research Forum, or PERF, a national nonprofit. Pregnant women, children and the elderly are also at a greater risk for harm.

Between 2008 and 2012, when Grote retired from the force, Yellow Springs officers used tasers only a handful of times, Grote recalled. And that was how he wanted it, he said.

“I felt other departments out there were using them way too often,” he said. 

By contrast, Grote was worried from the start about their potential for overuse and misuse in the local department. One concern was that officers would “get lazy” and use them as a shortcut to gaining compliance or making an arrest. Another fear was that the weapons, while not designed to be lethal, could cause harm or even death under certain circumstances. 

But Grote believes that officers used tasers appropriately and safely during his tenure. “The few times they were used, I was comfortable” with officers’ stated reasons for deploying the weapon, he said.

Taser use by local officers

All local officers carry a taser, and all officers are certified to use the weapon, according to Sgt. Watson. Certification within the department is led by Officer RJ Hawley, a certified taser instructor. Hawley also reviews each case that involves taser usage, which includes downloading the electronic report the taser generates and inspecting any device that’s deployed, according to Watson.

But not all Yellow Springs officers actually reach for the weapon.

Officer Dennis Nipper, a 44-year veteran of the Yellow Springs department, said recently that he has never deployed his taser during an arrest — has never even pulled his taser from his holster. 

“I’ve never had to pull mine. I use my size to my advantage. They have to think awful hard if they can take the old man or not,” he said, with a chuckle.

Physical bulk aside, Nipper has found that simply talking to a subject often defuses a situation.

“I can usually talk them down,” he said. “We’re not on a timetable; there’s time to talk to a person.” Even five or 10 minutes of talking can de-escalate a confrontation, he said.

Officer Dave Meister has activated his taser only two or three times that he can recall during his six years on the local force. But he has never fired the weapon; simply warning a subject about its potential use can persuade an aggressive or combative person to comply with police commands, he said.

On the other hand, rather than de-escalating a tense situation, tasers can sometimes do the opposite.

“Tasers can embolden a person to continue an attack; it can make them mad,” Meister said.

A review by the News of use-of-force incidents during 2015 and 2016 suggests local officers do not routinely use tasers. There were 17 documented use-of-force incidents during those two years (not including shootings of injured animals, which officers are also required to report). Of those 17, five involved tasers. And only one involved an incident in which a taser was actually deployed, as opposed to pointed at a subject but not ultimately fired.

All five taser-related incidents from the past two years happened in 2016, and they include the two separate incidents last May involving former Officer John Whittemore, who was terminated from the force over the summer. The incident in which the taser was fired occurred last July. Former Officer Jessica Frazier discharged the weapon after she and Officer Mark Charles were dispatched to deal with a trespasser who refused to leave a local property, following attempts at verbal and physical intervention.

Whenever a taser is activated, officers are required to fill out a use-of-force report, which is reviewed by a supervising officer and the chief to determine whether the use of force is within department policy. All five recent taser incidents were judged to be within policy.

New Year’s Eve marks the sixth taser-involved incident in the past 24 months. During that incident, Officer RJ Hawley pointed his taser at a citizen, David Carlson, through the window of his vehicle after Carlson blocked the door, according to Hawley’s use-of-force report. Some minutes later, after Carlson had allegedly grabbed Hawley’s taser and fled, Hawley used a hold to take him to the ground. Officer Allison Saurber, assisting at the scene, then attempted to fire her taser at a still-resisting Carlson, but did not make full contact, according to Hawley’s report.

Hawley is typically the officer who would review taser use in the department.

The Village has hired an outside attorney, David Williamson, to investigate the New Year’s Eve events. Williamson confirmed by email last week that his investigation “will include a review of the use-of-force including tasers.”

When should tasers be used?

Like many police departments, Yellow Springs has a use-of-force policy that provides a framework for the amount and type of force officers may reasonably use. Included in this policy are guidelines for taser usage. 

Former Chief Grote developed the department’s original taser policy in 2008, with input from local attorney Ellis Jacobs. The gist of that policy, according to Grote, was that tasers were to be used to facilitate an arrest, period. 

“They were not to be used as a compliance tool or to threaten somebody,” he said.

The current policy states, in part, that taser usage “is strictly limited to control subjects that pose a risk to themselves or the safety of the public or officers.” tasers may also be deployed “to facilitate gaining control of resistive or combative subjects,” but not against “a passive subject.” And the policy cautions that “officers should not become overly dependent on the use of the [Taser] to the exclusion of other reasonable force options.”

These guidelines are presently being examined by the Justice System Task Force. Jacobs, a member of the task force, said last week the group was too early in its review to comment in detail on the policy. But in his view, police should use tasers only in the place of more lethal options.

“My goal is to make sure that tasers are only used as a substitute for more lethal force, not as a tool of compliance,” he said.

A review of the Yellow Springs policy by the News suggests that the local policy is in line with the 2011 guidelines for taser use set forth by PERF, considered best practices in the field. Those guidelines characterize tasers as “a weapon of need, not a tool of convenience,” and urge officers to “not over-rely on [Tasers] in situations where more effective and less risky alternatives are available.”

But Jennifer Berman, who served briefly on the local task force and has looked into the issue, questions whether the “average” use-of-force policy is an appropriate model for Yellow Springs. 

“We want to make sure that our policy is aligned with our values as a community; that using a taser, which can potentially kill someone, is a measure of last resort,” she wrote in an email this week.

According to Gary Daniels, a spokesperson for the Ohio ACLU, tasers have a necessary, if limited, role in policing. 

“Tasers give police more flexibility. They’re less deadly, less impactful. Being tased is preferable to being shot,” he said.

Not a ‘shortcut’

Yet tasers can be lethal; Amnesty International, in a 2012 report, estimated that at least 500 people in the U.S. had died since 2001 after being shocked by tasers. Berman noted that the Maryland ACLU refers to them as “potentially lethal weapons,” a designation she favors.

There have been hundreds of taser-related lawsuits filed against police and the manufacturer over the past two decades, some of them involving deaths, according to the Washington Post in its Nov. 26, 2015, investigation of the issue. A 2010 incident in Perry Township, outside Columbus, resulted in a $2.25 million judgement against the township. The Perry Township Police Department is phasing out tasers, according to a Jan. 3, 2016, article in the Columbus Dispatch.

And, like other policing methods, taser use is subject to racial bias. Though the Ohio ACLU hasn’t done a study looking at tasers and race, spokesperson Daniels said anecdotal evidence and studies done by other ACLU chapters suggest that police are more likely to deploy tasers against people of color.

Tasers are overused and improperly used in some cases, according to Daniels. “Tasers can provide police with too much flexibility,” he said. “The danger is that it becomes a sort of shortcut to resolving a situation.”

That’s precisely the danger task force members and others in the village want to avoid.

“Use of force starts with just using your voice. You start there and only go up if you need to,” former Chief Grote observed.

To Berman, minimizing taser use in Yellow Springs is not so much a matter of rewriting policy, as redefining the relationship between villagers and local police.

“I think the real thing that needs to change is the orientation and training of the police department; if they felt invested in our community, if they knew us as friends and family, what the actual policy said wouldn’t matter quite as much,” she said.

Next week, the News will take a look at the concept and practice of community policing in Yellow Springs and elsewhere.

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