UPDATE: Columbia police release records of 49 Taser incidents

Saturday, November 1, 2008 | 1:20 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — The Columbia Police Department released hundreds of pages of its Taser-use records on Friday, fulfilling a Missouri Sunshine Law request by an advocacy group and an order from Mayor Darwin Hindman to make the information available to the public.

The 910-page document — available in CD-format — includes police reports from a number of incidents in which a Taser was used on a suspect; all listings of less-than-lethal use of force since 2002; reports of disciplinary actions taken against officers for misuse of Tasers; and Taser-use policy documents.

The release of information should satisfy a request for records submitted to Columbia police in August by Grass Roots Organizing, a Missouri-based advocacy group. Police initially told the group that it would cost $883 for access to the records, money that would be used to pay for the staff time necessary to complete the request.

But earlier this month, Hindman intervened and told the police to send the information to the City Council, which would then make it available to the public free of charge. He said at the time that his intention was to resolve the growing conflict between GRO and the police because it threatened to interfere with the department's operations.

Ed Berg, an attorney and GRO volunteer who submitted the records request, said he received the report from the police on Friday afternoon and will review it to make sure it complies with his request.

For his part, City Manager Bill Watkins said the size of report shows why it was so difficult for the police to complete. "I hope that most people would now understand why this took so long," Watkins said. "They weren't stonewalling."

He said the printed report is about 8 to 10 inches thick. A cover letter attached to the report states that it took 36 staff hours to complete the request.

One of the more interesting facts to emerge from Friday's release doesn't even involve the department's use of Tasers: Since 2002, each of the 729 instances of less-than-lethal use of force — including physical contact, batons, mace and canines — was labeled "proper" by the Police Department, the report states.

Capt. Zim Schwartze, who compiled the records, was out of the office on Friday and could not be reached for comment, and Interim Police Chief Tom Dresner said he could not comment on the details of the report because he had not reviewed it yet.

Also included in the documents are the police reports from 49 incidents involving the full deployment of Tasers. GRO had requested the records of all 69 Taser deployments since 2005, but the report states that 20 records are closed because they involve juvenile suspects or because the investigation into the incident is ongoing. Of the 49 documented cases, 16 occurred in 2006, 22 in 2007, and 11 in 2008, the report states.

The Police Department has defended its use of Tasers by saying that the weapons make interactions between officers and suspects safer for both parties. According to a document released as part of Friday's report, no suspect has ever been injured in an interaction involving a Taser. However, the data was only through May of this year, so it did not include 45-year-old Phillip Lee McDuffy, the Columbia man who was seriously injured after being stunned with a Taser and falling off an Interstate 70 overpass.

"The rationale for the Taser program is clear," the document states. "Officer and suspect injuries have been reduced, deadly force encounters avoided, and liability to the city reduced."

Four officers have been disciplined for improper Taser use since 2005, according to the records. However, only one of these incidents involved the use of a Taser in a police action: In April 2006, an officer was disciplined after pointing his Taser at a large crowd of disruptive people with the laser sight on, the report states.

The other three disciplinary actions were the result of officers mistakenly firing the weapon because they hadn't removed the cartridge containing the probes. For example, in April an officer was conducting a test of a Taser in the shift meeting room, when the Taser accidentally deployed and fired the probes into the ceiling.

No one was injured in these incidents, the report states.

Watkins said he received the Taser documents from the police on Wednesday. His office then copied the documents and forwarded them to City Council on Thursday, he said. According to an agenda posted on its Web site, City Council plans to discuss the Taser records at its meeting on Monday.

Free copies of the report in CD format can be picked up at the City Clerk's office or the Columbia Police Department.

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