GUEST COLUMN: Coalition demands Taser regulation

Sunday, December 28, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:17 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 4, 2010

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.

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Charles Dudley Jr December 30, 2008 | 9:19 a.m.

Let's all hope these concerned citizen's requests are granted.

There is no logical reason why they should not be.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro December 30, 2008 | 11:00 a.m.

According to the above article, a total of 27 out of the 48 citizens tasered, in our area, already had been diagnosed with mental illness. I hope that CPD's proposed Crisis Interventon Team training will begin to address the frequency of taser use on the mentally ill and explore other options when dealing with the mentally ill. I have also heard about an "official" taser use oversight committee, possibly being formed, for our fair city.
In my opinion these and other safeguards, (aka "checks and balances"). regarding taser use could have and should have been in place prior to arming "Columbia's Finest" with these weapons.
At the very least the concerned members of the "watchdog and advocacy" groups, listed in the above aticle, could have had more faith in CPD's selective use of tasers and who to speak to as problems and concerns develop.
At best, the reputation, perception and safety of police officers will not be an issue and those who deserve more than just "a lightening bolt coursing through their body" followed by jail, can get the treatment they need via mental health professionals and mental health court.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz December 30, 2008 | 11:45 a.m.

Well Chuck, some of their recommendations are good and some are not going to fly. For instance, "Children, or anyone under 18, must not be shocked." If a police officer or a citizen is in imminent danger, I don't care how old someone is. If they are 14, 15, or 16 and rushing a police officer with a baseball bat, I'm sorry, but they are going to get tased (or would you prefer shot?). Additionally, telling officers they have to be able to differentiate between a 17 year-old and a 19 year-old during a crisis situation isn't going to fly.

Secondly "No one will be shocked more than twice, and several minutes of recovery time must be allowed between these shocks." Many people recover in a few seconds or minutes after being tased. If they are still a threat to police or citizens, and the police deem it necessary, they will be put under power again.

(Report Comment)
Ayn Rand December 30, 2008 | 11:49 a.m.

The CPD should call Therese Folsom, Mary Hussmann, Renee Kientz and Ken Green every time there's a situation where a Taser might be used so they can come out and mediate.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz December 30, 2008 | 11:50 a.m.

Ray, I have not heard of any such taser oversight committee coming about. I don't know that the city council is looking into it, although the general police review board might take up those cases if someone files a complaint with the police department and is not satisfied with their investigation.

Regarding the checks and balances you seek, many of those were in place before the recent Taser grumblings in the community. Some fine-tuning and additioal oversight is needed, but the entire GRO/NAACP/etc. list will not be implemented. CPD has a safety matrix that determines the priority of who they look after in a situation. I believe it goes hostages, citizens/onlookers, police officers, and then suspects/persons of interest. The police will not take any actions that put themselves in danger over a person of interest. Any new Taser policies will not change that matrix.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro December 30, 2008 | 12:13 p.m.

Sometimes, it's how you implement the Matrix...

(Report Comment)
John Schultz December 30, 2008 | 12:40 p.m.

Sorry Ray, got better things to do than click on who-knows-what YouTube links.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr December 30, 2008 | 1:00 p.m.

>>> Any new Taser policies will not change that matrix. <<<

What will you do if that does happen as it has and is being looked at by many law enforcement agencies across our nation.

Will you be telling them they can't look at other ways of viewing things.

Sure the basics will always be in place but how those basics are looked at in the larger perspective or at other levels of theology are always in constant development and a constant state of flux to further officer training.

With out such thinking tactics get complacent in how all situations are looked at because not all situations are the same.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz December 30, 2008 | 1:07 p.m.

Chuck, video of Captain Dresner's Taser presentation this past summer may be available for your viewing from the city. He explains the matrix very well during that presentation. I cannot see the matrix changing or the priority of whom the police protects changing at all. How some suspects/persons of interest are communicated with will change with the CIT training, but I don't see the matrix itself being modified at all. Police are still not going to do anything to put themselves in danger to apprehend a suspect or talk someone down from a pedestrian crossing.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr December 30, 2008 | 1:33 p.m.

John Schultz it is how they perceive those people in all situations that can and or will possibly change,

The base mechanics are the same but the over all mentality to be able to look at the situation is enhanced.

That is what even Officer Grove presented at that meeting back on December 15th at the Boone County Government Building when he made his presentation to all of the invited representatives there of the various advocacy groups.

(Report Comment)

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