COLUMBIA — With a major expansion of its Taser program completed, the Columbia Police Department is struggling with a local advocacy group over public access to the department's Taser-use records.
Grass Roots Organizing, a Missouri-based nonprofit organization strongly opposed to Tasers, has accused the police department of deliberately withholding records first requested in August under the Missouri Sunshine Law. The group said the request is a matter of ensuring accountability on an issue of genuine public concern and that it is willing to take its request to court.
"The Police Department should be providing the public with information on Taser use," attorney and GRO volunteer Ed Berg said in an interview last week. "We expect as a democratic society that the use of force will will be monitored appropriately."
In a revised request sent to the police department on Sept. 9, Berg asked for eight pieces of information related to Taser use and policy, including the arrest records of all suspects stunned with a Taser by Columbia police, the number of disciplinary actions filed against officers for violating Taser-use rules, and any forms officers must complete after deploying a Taser.
He also renewed his request that the department waive the estimated $883 fee it asked GRO to pay to complete the request.
"The information I have requested would add to the public's understanding as to how the Columbia Police Department uses force and has used the Taser gun," Berg wrote in the letter.
But Columbia police Capt. Zim Schwartze said the department isn't trying to hide anything, pointing out that GRO's request is one of the largest it has ever received. Schwartze, who has been in direct contact with Berg since the request was first filed, says it will take a significant amount of time and money to fully process.
"There are no records that we are improperly holding onto," Schwartze said.
Schwartze estimates that it will take civilian staff members at the department a total of 33 hours over three to four weeks to fulfill GRO's request. Although the department maintains some Taser data electronically, much of the information in the request will have to be drawn from paper records, she said.
There's a lot of paperwork associated with Taser use. According to the department's Standard Operational Guidelines for Tasers, officers have a responsibility to report any incident in which a Taser is deployed on the day that it occurs. This includes downloading the deployment data from the Taser, completing a Supervisory Taser Use Report and filing an offense or incident report documenting the incident. Those steps are followed by a mandatory review by a supervisor, which is put in writing, and the case is also sent to the Professional Standards Unit.
Meanwhile, on Sept. 24, the police department finished equipping a group of 41 officers with new Tasers. That brings the department total to 79 Tasers, the majority of which are assigned to patrol officers, according to Capt. Stephen Monticelli. The new Tasers were purchased with a $33,000 grant from the Justice Department, approved in June by the City Council.
The tension over Tasers grew during the summer after two Taser-related incidents. On July 25, a man threatening suicide was critically injured when he fell off an Interstate 70 overpass after being stunned with a Taser by police. A department report, released in September, found no officers at fault in the incident.
On Aug. 28, a 23-year-old man died after being stunned with a Taser by Moberly police during a traffic stop. Carl Stacey, Boone County medical examiner, said his office has not yet determined a cause of death in the case.
"We need to make sure we have all the information first, because this is a sensitive topic," Stacey said. He said he could not say when the results of the autopsy would be released.
Since the department received its first Tasers at the end of 2005, there have been 169 incidents involving their use, Schwartze said. A total of 69 of these incidents involved full deployment, during which two probes are shot into the skin and emit a five-second burst of 50,000 volts that causes the muscles to contract, immobilizing the person being stunned with the Taser. The remaining incidents involved everything from simple warnings to drive stuns, when the Taser is used as a stun gun.
The department has long made the case that Tasers reduce the risk of injury in interactions between officers and civilians. As more Tasers have been issued, fewer police officers have been injured when dealing with non-compliant individuals, Monticelli said. In 2004, before the department started using Tasers, 25 officers were injured on the job. By 2007, when there were 38 Tasers in use, only five officers were injured. With 79 Tasers in use, only two officers have been injured in 2008 to date.
"The Taser is one of the tools on our belt. It is an option that is available should we need it," Schwartze said. "My belief is that the majority of the community understands that and does not want anybody interfering with our ability to do that."
For its part, GRO plans to continue to pressure the department to comply with the record request, Berg said.
"If the police department fails to provide the information, there's a strong possibility that we'll take them to court."