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Columbia group challenges police on Taser records

Tuesday, September 30, 2008 | 7:29 p.m. CDT; updated 11:53 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, September 30, 2008

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."


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Comments

Charles Dudley Jr September 30, 2008 | 7:38 p.m.

Well one might come to the honest reasoning that ifd the CPD would not give up all records relating to those Taser incidents then the CPD could be trying to hide information from the public at large.

Sure it is a tough call by the CPD to release or not to release but IMHO the longer they resist the request the worse it looks.

So what do you do release the requested documentation and do any damage control at that time of examination of said documents or drag your feet,end up in court,give up the documents anyway and continue to look like the bad guy in all of this.

If there is no incriminating evidence or statements then why not just release them.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz October 1, 2008 | 12:49 a.m.

Chuck, you've talked several times about "squeaky budgets" - should GRO pony up the requested fees and get the information they are seeking? I've made requests under Missouri's sunshine law before, sometimes the information is available for free and sometimes you have to pay (as allowed in the legislation) for the collection and delivery of the requested details.

I'm guessing the various members of GRO could come up with the amount if it's truly that important to them. When we fought the smoking ban in Columbia, several of us pooled money against the government-employed forces arrayed against us (only a bit of sarcasm) when necessary, and we were a much smaller group than GRO seems to be.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr October 1, 2008 | 4:57 a.m.

The point might be that they are looking at the guidelines from the Federal Freedom of Information Act as their stance and under that act is superceeds all State and City Laws. If they do go into court over it I am sure they will not be going alone if they are smart and this will become a national issue if not an international issue and is that what the CPD really wants to happen.

As I said if there is nothing to hide they might just want to release those records or this could blow back in their faces in a way they might not like. In the end the choice is up to the CPD and are they prepared for a court battle on the national scene and if it came down to it possibly the international scene. I am sure GRO if they are thinking is in touch with Amnesty International and their Legal Aide Teams.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz October 1, 2008 | 11:21 a.m.

Could CPD release the information without GRO paying? Perhaps, but that takes away time and money from other activities they could be doing. Squeaky budgets, remember?

I'm not a lawyer, but I don't think the federal FOIA would come into play here at all since there are no federal agencies involved. There are is some federal grant money paying for the Tasers I think, but that would probably be a tenuous connection. And the FOIA also calls for payment of certain fees unless a waiver is granted (as an aside, there is an FOI-L email list that Charles Davis from Mizzou posts on, I find it an interesting read at times).

I also don't see this becoming a national or international issue - this is a small report in Columbia, not a massive police conspiracy to abuse people. See how little media play some of the journalist arrests from the RNC received, for instance.

I'm pretty sure GRO doesn't need to get Amnesty International involved as Dan Viets is working with them I think and is more than capable of any legal action if they choose that course. However, I still think if they believe it a necessary issue to follow, that they can raise the money from their various members and not have to worry about the legal fees. Dan Viets might take in on as a pro bono case, but why waste his time (unless he's itching for a fight, of course).

Heck, I'll pony up $50 if that gets GRO motivated to do some fundraising from their members. Surely they can raise that if it is such a pressing issue for the group?

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr October 1, 2008 | 11:52 a.m.

You are wrong John as it is probably as easy to pull up that info and to print it out as almost everything is on computer these days and I am sure things like that they keep neet and tidy in it's own little file on a hard drive.

Go to Computer,go to file,print off all info requested,computer and printer do all of the work with a few key strokes with the exception of putting said info into a large envelope and handing it to said requestee,I do it alot myself for alot of different requests for information off of the internet for a wide variety of subjects for friends.......it does not take a rocket scientist.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz October 1, 2008 | 2:19 p.m.

I don't know Chuck, are you calling the police liars? Copied from the article we've been commenting on above:

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.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr October 1, 2008 | 3:36 p.m.

Then it sounds like to me if it takes that long they need to look at some serious management over haul to stream line their reporting processes and how things are stored so they are more easily accessible. After all we live in a modern age of voice recognition software that will do speech to text styles of documentations so it can be stored on a hard drive,burnt to a CD or DVD for proper storage.
Lack of proper accounting software of this kind is no excuse in this modern day and age as I said where you can go onto any computer and pull up all kinds of records,print them off at the tap of a key and be on your way.
Remember excuses are like opinions as everybody has one for not wanting to get the job done.

(Report Comment)

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