Are Tasers the answer?
On June 2 the Columbia City Council approved the purchase of 40 additional Taser guns for the Police Department from funds provided under a federal grant applicable to any kind of law enforcement equipment — not just weapons. Chief Randy Boehm recommended Tasers, and the City Council unanimously voted yes. We commend both the City Council and the Police Department for attempting to provide our police officers with non-lethal weapons, but we do not believe that the Taser is non-lethal.
Amnesty International has documented 300 deaths in the United States since 2001 for persons Tasered by the police and has called for a moratorium on the use of such weapons. I share Amnesty International’s alarm that “Tasers are being used as tools of routine force — rather than as weapons of last resort” and that “rigorous, independent, impartial study of their use and effects is urgently needed.”
The Columbia Police Department wants to arm all its officers with an X26 Taser. This Taser shoots a high-voltage shock wave of 50,000 volts, which lasts five seconds each time the trigger is pulled. This shock will knock most victims to the ground, cause head to toe involuntary muscle contractions, loss of body control and sensations such as extreme pain and fatigue.
Television and Internet videos show hundreds of examples where police have used this weapon by Tasering individuals for minor offenses such as refusing to obey an order, talking back to a police officer or committing traffic violations. Police Tasering has also occurred against activists peacefully protesting and college students doing pranks. Do we want this happening in our town?
Tasering creates fear, conflict, anger, resentment and hatred of the police while destroying trust, respect and community cooperation, the most effective crime-fighting weapons.
How are other communities dealing with the Taser controversy? Some responsible communities like Georgia’s DeKalb Police, Fort Wayne, Ind., Newark, Calif., and Dolton, Ill., decided not to buy them or shelved them after further investigation.
Other places have recognized the potential for abuse and adopted strict procedures that prevent Taser guns being used against pregnant women; children; the elderly; people with heart disease and other serious health problems; frail or disabled people; those who are intoxicated and/or under the influence of drugs; the mentally ill; persons standing in water, in crowds, at heights, running machinery, driving, or near flammables. Other laws mandate that a Taser dart should not be deployed at the chest, face, eyes, neck or groin areas and that no one is to be Tasered more than twice. At this point in time, Columbia does not have many of these vital safety guards.
The Associated Press reports on June 7, under the headline “Federal jury awards $6 million in Taser death lawsuit,” that Richard Heston, 40 years old, died after police officers repeatedly shocked him with Taser guns. “The jury found that Taser International had failed to warn police that its Taser guns could be dangerous when used on people under the influence of drugs or in conjunction with chest compressions. ... An autopsy found that Heston died from a combination of methamphetamine intoxication, an enlarged heart due to long-term drug abuse, and Taser shocks.” We do not want our Columbia Police Department or our city officials to risk being sued due to Taser deaths and injuries.
GRO-Grass Roots Organizing, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Civil Liberties Union, Peace Haven International, the Mid-MO Chapter of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and the Fellowship Of Reconciliation have asked the City Council to rescind its decision of June 2 to purchase more Taser guns and to allow public input on this issue.
If Tasers are to continue to be used by the Columbia Police Department, the City Council should adopt, among other restrictions, the following:
1. Establish the standard that Taser guns should be used only when there is “imminent harm to the public or the safety of the police officer.”
2. Adopt strict guidelines describing when police may use or will be prohibited from using Tasers. The police have adopted some regulations. Now we need community input to adopt stricter regulations to protect us. Perhaps a task force should be established to make recommendations. I would be willing to serve on such a task force.
3. Require accountability for the use of Tasers, similar to those imposed on firearms. Mandate video taping of Taser use and make all reports of Taser use open to the public.
4. Provide extensive training with revised training materials that recognize the dangers involved with Taser use and is very specific as to when such weapons shall and shall not be used.
5. Provide medical attention, evaluation and treatment for anyone who is Tasered.
Note: TASER is an acronym for Thomas A. Smith Electronic Rifle.
Ed Berg is a Columbia resident. He wrote this as a representative of GRO-Grass Roots Organizing.