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Police should offer more information on their use of Tasers

Saturday, October 4, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT

I have a piece of advice for our Columbia City Council: At your earliest opportunity, which would be Monday night, instruct the city manager to get from the police department all relevant information about the department's use of its Tasers. Then make that information available, free of charge, to the group that's seeking it and to the rest of us, who need it.

It's time we ended the argument between the little band of activists who call themselves Grass Roots Organizing and the big band of resisters we call the Columbia Police Department. Now that the cops on the street have joined the sheriff's deputies in carrying — and using — stun guns, the rest of us have both the right and the need to know just how they've used those weapons for the last three years.

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The evidence is clear that, to paraphrase the National Rifle Association, Tasers don't kill or seriously injure people. Cops using Tasers kill or seriously injure people.

Sure, Columbia police have guidelines for deploying Tasers. So, I'm pretty sure, do their counterparts in Moberly, St. Charles County and New York City. Those guidelines weren't followed when our officers tased (that's the verb, I'm told, for shooting somebody with up to 50,000 volts of electricity) the guy on the overpass, causing him to fall off and suffer critical injuries. In Moberly, St. Charles and New York, the recipients of the shocks weren't that lucky. They died.

So it seems entirely reasonable that Ed Berg, a retired lawyer, wants, on behalf of GRO, to know what the police department's files show about how, when, where and why Tasers have been used here since they were introduced in 2005. He keeps asking, in his polite, lawyerly way; and the CPD keeps answering that, yes, it will provide the material if he'll just pay $883, plus copying costs.

The issue, Interim Chief Tom Dresner told me, is not releasing the information. In fact, he said when I asked him, the department itself would benefit from pulling the material together. "We don't keep data in the most efficient way possible," he said. The issue is the cost of doing the compiling. "We don't want to appear to be stonewalling," he said.

You can see why it might appear that way, especially since the state Open Records law says fees "may" be waived when the requests are in the public interest.

When I put all that to City Council leader Jerry Wade, he disappointed me by saying the question of just what is in the public interest is "very slippery."

It's not, really; not in this case. We have a relatively new, high-tech, dangerous weapon in the hands of cops who've demonstrated that they don't always use it correctly. We have a citizens' group asking for information on that use. We have a state law that mandates openness and encourages the waiving of fees.

Everybody -- the cops, the council, the citizens -- would benefit from the prompt compiling and release of this information. If that's not in the public interest, I can't imagine what is.

 

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.


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Comments

John Schultz October 4, 2008 | 6:18 p.m.

What's keeping the Missourian from joining the request, and the Tribune or other media outlets for that matter?

And to be a stickler, I believe the $883 was the total cost, including copying fees.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr October 4, 2008 | 10:58 p.m.

Why have to pay for the requested documents in the first place if they are a matter of public record to begin with. That is what you pay into the city taxes is for services not disrespect over simple requests.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz October 5, 2008 | 9:20 a.m.

The law states that charges can be requested to offset activities required to collect the information. The federal FOIA law is the same way as well. Otherwise someone could presumably come by, make a large request, and cost the taxpayers a substantial sum of money. It's a delicate balancing act.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr October 6, 2008 | 6:55 p.m.

I still stand by my claims of unless the CPD has something to hide they should suck up the costs and turn over the requested documentation to clear themselves if they are actually free and clear.

Also last I checked we as citizens have heard no word of the Lethal Death Tasing of that young Moberly man either who died after a Taser was deployed against him right in front of his own mother and friends. Where is that report as well or does the Missouri Highway Patrol Investigative Unit have something to hide as well.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz October 6, 2008 | 7:40 p.m.

I agree that CPD should release the records, but if they do not, GRO and their members have other options. They can raise the money (I pledged $50 on here a couple weeks back) or go to court. I imagine the former would be quicker and cheaper than the latter option, unless they have someone pro bono to take on the legal matters.

And are you seriously insinuating that the Highway Patrol would cover up something that the Moberly PD may have done? What possible reason would they have to do so?

(Report Comment)
John Schultz October 6, 2008 | 7:42 p.m.

One other option GRO has that I forgot to mention - discuss partnering with one or more of the media outlets in Columbia to share costs, or see if adding a media organization to the request generates some sort of benefit under the state's Sunshine law.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr October 7, 2008 | 4:35 a.m.

John you so miss the point on the Moberly Tasing. How long has it been now since that Tasing? Other Taser results have come quicker and are out. Where is their report at is the question and nobody obviously has heard of a time table for a release. Get mad and question my views and opinions all that you like but I will continue to ask my questions until we see answers published in our local new media outlets.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz October 7, 2008 | 8:20 a.m.

Chuck, I'm not getting mad at you, I'm just trying to understand why you think the MSHP would be involved in a coverup as it seems you are alleging. What would they have to gain by that? CPD's investigation of the McDuffy case took quite some time, and they are still looking into the Sanders case while her older son is still in custody I believe. I believe in both of those cases, the CPD did not issue timelines on when they would have a report ready.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr October 7, 2008 | 9:53 a.m.

You still miss the point John as they have not released anything at all as in any press release. It has been quite some time and any common citizen would think that some form of press release would be forth coming unless as I stated they have something they want to not release. Get all bent and defend them all that you want but the citizens who are or could be at the receiving ends of a Taser do have the right to know. What do you have a problem with the public's rights to know?

(Report Comment)
John Schultz October 7, 2008 | 11:11 a.m.

Way to once again put words in my mouth, Chuck. I am not against the public's right to know; I am against you insinuating that the MSHP is somehow covering up an investigation.

They will release the report when it is done, as they should. What do you want them to say until then? "We are still investigating the issue and will issue a final report when done." What does that accomplish?

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr October 7, 2008 | 11:26 a.m.

You so still keep missing the points John. I asked you a question not putting words in your mouth as you so try to insinuate repeatedly not only here but other sites we tend to post on. I asked you a simple question and you get all bent as your posting style reflects here.
If there is nothing to hide at this time then why not release some of the detailed information to the public. Quit making excuses for them John it makes you look like there might be a cover up which I honestly hope there is not but it is not hard to release some of the initial findings by far.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz October 7, 2008 | 11:43 a.m.

What would be the purpose in releasing the initial findings without the complete details? If the initial report said that the Moberly PD was justified in using the Taser, but not why, what benefit would that bring? If the intitial report said that the young man did die of the Taser deployment, but did not say if there were other extenuating circumstances or pre-existing conditions, what have we learned?

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr October 7, 2008 | 12:10 p.m.

Obviously John one hell of alot more than we do now. That is the point you so fail to grasp ahold of.
We do not live in the Communistic World of the United Soviet Socialist Republic where they do not tell their own citizens anything but last I checked we do live in the Free World of the United States of America where answers are expected in a due amount of time and as such the citizens have the right to know no matter if the preliminary results are totally completed or not unless there is something in those preliminarily results that constitutes their not being released.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz October 7, 2008 | 12:33 p.m.

Mr. Harlan died on August 28th. According to a September 16th article in the Moberly Monitor-Index "An official cause of death has not been determined, pending test results and a report from the Boone County Medical Examiner’s office." I have not seen any later articles with updated from the MSHP.

The Taser incident with Mr. McDuffy occurred on July 25th and the CPD released their report on September 12th. Was that too long for your liking as well?

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr October 7, 2008 | 12:59 p.m.

You still so miss the point. The man Tased off the bridge in Columbia did not die. The young man in Moberly did. We are well over one month now from that death in Moberly. Plenty of time for test results IMHO to be released and I would bet in the eyes of alot of those Anti Taser Advocacy Groups as well. Yes those figures you come up with are too easy to come up with but the fact remains we have not seen the final statistics and that is the point.

Back on topic to the CPD Taser findings: If there is nothing to hide then give up the info just as any other person named as a defendant in the public eye is asked to give up their info. I think that is only fair. We are a country of "openness" are we not or have we become a country in fear of public commentary and will do anything it takes to squash,detour or delay that public commentary?

(Report Comment)
John Schultz October 7, 2008 | 2:26 p.m.

Chuck, the answers to the Moberly case will come out. The report will be released. This is an ongoing investigation and the police department or MSHP is under no requirements to release details until they have completed their investigations.

I have already agreed with you that CPD should release the information, but GRO has other options than "just complaining" if they want that data.

(Report Comment)

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