Taser meeting highlights public concerns

Wednesday, July 16, 2008 | 5:58 p.m. CDT; updated 8:50 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 26, 2008

COLUMBIA — Columbia residents voiced their concerns, questions and, in some cases, outrage, about the Columbia Police Department’s plans to more than double its Taser armament at an opinion forum Tuesday night.

Interim Police Chief Tom Dresner explained the police perspective early in the meeting, which drew about 75 people to the Labor Temple building on Garth Avenue. He said law enforcement needed ways to exert force that reduced the danger to both the officer and the suspect. Dresner said he thinks Tasers can serve that purpose.

Dresner said people are “looking for the mythical Star Trek phaser set to stun that doesn’t hurt anybody but at the same time accomplishes all of our objectives.” But that doesn’t exist.

He said that Tasers can be abused but so can any other type of force. Dresner said that in the three years Tasers have been used by the police department, he has yet to see any complaints, injuries or deaths involving Tasers in Boone County.

But many of the residents who spoke told stories about friends, neighbors or family members whom they say were unjustly Tasered. None of the people who spoke offered names of the victims. Those who had first-hand experiences described incidents that occurred outside of Columbia.

Dan Viets of the American Civil Liberties Union said Tasers can be especially dangerous, even lethal, if used on pregnant women, people with heart conditions or people who are susceptible to seizures and strokes.

The police department’s guidelines forbid officers from tasing anyone who is too young, old or pregnant. But some medical conditions aren’t apparent to the naked eye.

Carolyn Mathews was also concerned about mental illnesses, such as post traumatic stress disorder, which aren’t visible.

“As a citizen who has friends and relatives who have PTSD or mental illnesses or things that can sometimes provoke anxiety,” Mathews said, “I know that vulnerable people need to be dealt with in a calm manner.”

“I’m also concerned about the officers, because I think it could backfire against them,” Mathews said. “If someone unstable gets hurt by this, and it’s immensely painful from what I understand, they could lash out against the officer even though they’d normally be a nonviolent person.”

The Columbia police maintain detailed instructions on how and when officers can use Tasers. Police are permitted to use the weapon only on a person who is posing a threat to another person, themselves or the officer.

According to Dresner, a computer chip in the Taser logs its activity, so he can determine exactly when the weapon was used and how many times. Dresner can then compare that to the police report, use of force report and photographic documentation of the incident.

“Anybody who asks us to look into something like that, to determine whether it’s proper or not, we certainly do,” Dresner said.

But the data is not automatically downloaded and analyzed, so if there were an incident of abuse, the victim would have to complain about it.

The event organizers composed a list of questions raised during the meeting, which they submitted to the City Council and the Columbia Police Department.

“This discussion is, I think, just beginning,” Mary Hussmann, who organized the event, said.

The meeting was sponsored by Grass Roots Organizing, Peace Haven International and the Mid-Missouri Chapter of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

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