An Open Letter to the Columbia Mayor and City Council,
As you know the Coalition of the ACLU, GRO, NAACP and the Mid-MO Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, using the Sunshine Law and with your assistance, obtained 48 of the 69 Taser deployment cases from our Police Department free of charge.
It troubles us to report that in the 48 cases we have found Tasers are being used by officers inappropriately. Many cases indicate that officers are using Tasers not to protect themselves, the suspects or citizens in "imminent danger," but often as a time-saving convenient means to control suspects — and, in a few instances, to punish.
Two Taser examples on the Police Department CD are:
Case T43: On a very cold evening, a homeless man, "John Doe", is in a holding cell charged with trespassing. Since this is his only charge, the police issue him a summons and tell him he must leave. "John" wants to be arrested so he can stay inside and keep warm, but an officer forcibly evicts him. When "John" is outside, he is ordered to leave the Police Department area. He is verbally insulting, moves toward the officer and throws his can of soda at him. The can misses, but the soda splashes onto the officer's uniform. The officer shocks "John" twice, and he falls to his knees crying in pain, "I'm finished, I'm done." He is taken inside the station and charged with third-degree assault.
Case T47: An officer on night duty suspects a man, whose back is turned, of urinating on a tree. As the officer approaches, the man runs, ignores the command to stop and is shocked in his back.
In both cases, the officers failed to follow the regulation requirement to shout the warning, "Taser, Taser, Taser", and did not use "the level of force that is reasonable and necessary” considering the totality of the circumstances. Instead, they used extraordinarily violent and potentially lethal force. Also, in Case T47, the regulations state, “Officers shall weigh the nature and seriousness of the offense against the likelihood of an ensuing fall before deploying a TASER against a person who is running.”
The above cases and others we examined might be comical were there not such odds that they could be deadly. Consider the consequences to the young innocent Hickman student who was shocked five times because he refused to be handcuffed; the near-death experience of Mr. McDuffy who, against regulations, was shocked off the Interstate 70 bridge. And one cannot help but think of the sad, unintended Taser death of 23-year-old Stanley Harlan in Moberly. Our coalition and a growing number of citizens are concerned that unless the police act on the knowledge that the Taser weapon can kill or permanently injure, the kind of abuse evident in these cases will continue, and, in fact become more prevalent, since almost all our officers are now Taser-armed.
Disparities surface in other Columbia cases. Police stopped people because they happened to be "in known narcotics distribution areas" or "in neighborhoods of high crime." The majority of the shocking incidents occurred in the First Ward. More than 50 percent of those shocked were blacks who make up only 10.9 percent of our population. Doesn't our constitution protect us from being stopped and questioned without “probable cause”? We should certainly not be stopped merely because we are in a certain neighborhood or of a certain skin color.
Further, of the 48 people shocked, 18 were judged mentally ill (eight being suicidal), while 23 were under the influence of drugs or alcohol ( nine of these also being mentally ill).
We seek from you a clear mandate that “Imminent Danger” is Columbia’s standard and that our current regulations must be closely and transparently followed. At the December 15 City Council meeting, our coalition will present to you a list of new requests governing police use of Tasers.
Following is a partial list of the additional regulations we believe are essential for you to enact immediately.
- Taser training cannot be solely limited to the curriculum developed by the weapon’s manufacturer. Training must recognize that the Taser is a potentially deadly weapon and focus on conflict resolution and scenario training.
- Children, or anyone under 18, must not be shocked.
- No one will be shocked more than twice, and several minutes of recovery time must be allowed between these shocks . There will be no shocking by two or more officers at the same time.
- All Tasers must be mounted with a video camera that automatically activates when the Taser is unholstered.
- Our city must initiate a contract with Mid-MO and/or other appropriate institutions to ensure that a professional mental health person is always "on call" to assist our police with people who have mental illness and/or are suicidal.
- Following each TASER incident, officers involved in the must meet personally with their supervisor to discuss details of the case and whether other tactics could/should have been used.
- All shocked individuals shall be told that they can receive at no cost immediate examination by a medical professional. The city will also pay for all consequences judged as resulting from the shock.
In light of the Taser misuse and liability now revealed, we request that the council, through the Sunshine Law and in the public interest, instruct our Police Department to release future quarterly Taser deployment reports dating from August 2008 through December 2009 and that these Taser records be made available to the public, free of charge.
With your leadership and insistence, we can make these and other changes in Taser-use policy and attitudes and create a safer and more peaceful community for citizens and police. Columbians want a Police Department to be proud of. Let us work together toward that goal.
Therese Folsom, Mary Hussmann, Renee Kientz and Ken Green are all Columbia residents.