Use of Taser on woman a success, police say

Thursday, October 16, 2008 | 9:25 p.m. CDT; updated 11:20 p.m. CST, Wednesday, February 9, 2011

COLUMBIA — The Columbia Police Department says the use of a Taser on a woman threatening suicide with a knife earlier this week shows how practical Tasers can be for officers seeking to de-escalate dangerous situations.

"In this case, we feel the Taser saved somebody's life," Lt. Diane Bernhard said.

Tasers make interactions between officers and subjects safer for both parties, because they offer an alternative to firearms, she said. The Police Department has said in the past that injuries to officers have dropped significantly since the department started using Tasers in 2005.

According to the police incident report — obtained by the Missourian through a Missouri Sunshine Law request — two officers responded at 12:30 a.m. Monday to a call from Colonial Village Trailer Park in the 2900 block of Range Line Street, where a 33-year-old woman was wielding a knife and threatening to harm herself.

Although police did not know it at the time, the woman's friends and family had been concerned about her well-being for several days leading up to the incident. On Oct. 10, the Department of Family Services notified her that she was going to lose legal custody of her three children because of the living conditions at her home. In the report, police said a 19-year-old man told them that after she found out about the decision, the woman talked about overdosing on medication and driving into oncoming traffic.

When the officers arrived at the residence, the person who first called 911 told them that the woman still had the knife but was being restrained. At that point, according to the report, one officer drew and turned on his Taser and entered the house.

Inside the house, the officers instructed the 19-year-old man to step away from her and then repeatedly told her to drop the knife. The officer with the Taser pointed its laser sight at her upper torso. The woman, who was sitting on a couch, did not move or say anything in response to the officers' instructions and did not drop the knife, the report states.

As the officer with the Taser was instructing the woman to drop the knife for the third time, the other officer at the scene, a sergeant, told him to "go ahead and do it," the report states.

The officer then fired the Taser at the woman; one probe struck her left hand and the other probe hit the couch she was sitting on. Because both probes did not strike the woman, she did not receive the full electrical current from the Taser, which can reach 50,000 volts. But according to the report, the shock was strong enough to temporarily distract her.

The woman dropped the knife but would not turn around to let the officers handcuff her, the report states. The officer with the Taser then used the weapon as a stun gun and shocked the woman on her left leg. At that point the woman complied with the officers, and they were then able to handcuff her.

"I was concerned (the woman) was going to attempt to commit suicide using the knife in her possession," the officer with the Taser wrote in the report. "I was also concerned (the woman) might become homicidal and attempt to harm officers."

In a news release published the day after the incident, the Police Department credited the officer’s use of the Taser for preventing any injuries that day. “The Taser was an effective tool in de-escalating this potentially violent situation,” the release stated.

But Grass Roots Organizing , a Missouri-based advocacy group opposed to the Police Department's expanding Taser program, is concerned that the department only wants to share Taser information with the public when it reflects well on the department and the weapon.

"It seems suspect that they issue a press release in this instance, but Tasers are being used all the time," Mary Hussmann of GRO said.

The group filed a Missouri Sunshine Law request in August for many of the department's Taser-use records. In response, the Police Department said the request would cost $883 and take several weeks to complete. But last week, Mayor Darwin Hindman intervened in the dispute and told the department to get the records to the City Council, which would then make them available to the public free of charge. The department expects to complete the request by the end of the month.

Bernhard defended the Police Department's policies and said it issues news releases about Taser incidents when they are "press worthy." There are a lot of incidents involving Tasers, and the department can't issue a release about each one, she said. They determine which incidents to release by the seriousness of the situations and the way the officers used the Taser in resolving them.

Columbia police have used Tasers in two recent situations in which a person was threatening suicide. In July 2008, officers used a Taser on a man threatening to jump off an Interstate 70 overpass. He fell more than 15 feet and suffered serious injuries. Just a few weeks later, on Aug. 5, a 38-year-old man with a large knife who was threatening to commit suicide was shot with a Taser by police when he would not comply with orders. No one was harmed in that incident.

The woman in Monday's Taser incident did not suffer any serious injuries, according to the report. Paramedics took her to University Hospital after the incident, where the probe was removed from her left hand. She was then released into the custody of the hospital to receive psychological treatment.