COLUMBIA — The Columbia Police Department admitted to improperly using Tasers in two arrests in a report submitted to the City Council. The report, which was prepared by Interim Police Chief Tom Dresner at the request of Mayor Darwin Hindman, was presented to the City Council at its meeting Monday night.
The first incident covered in the report occurred in September 2008 and involves the use of a Taser on a 14-year-old person accused of shoplifting. The youth was shot by an officer with a Taser while trying to run from police. The police report is closed to the public because a juvenile is involved in the case, Dresner said.
The second incident occurred in December 2008. A man was shot by an officer with a Taser when he ran from police after being found urinating on a tree. He was charged with urinating in public and resisting arrest.
One officer was disciplined by the department, Dresner said. The other officer left the department to take another job, though Dresner said the officer did not leave the department because of the Taser incident. Dresner could not say who the officers were or how they were reprimanded, citing a city ordinance protecting the officers' privacy. Punishments for improper use of a Taser can range anywhere from a written reprimand to termination, he said.
As a result of the incidents, police have clarified their Taser policy by prohibiting the weapon's use on people suspected of less serious crimes that don't involve physical violence or an immediate threat to the public or police. Dresner said he is satisfied with the department's refined Taser guidelines.
"The guidelines are sufficient for now," Dresner said. "We'll always keep it under review and evaluate them for the changing needs of our community."
The report was created in response to a letter — which ran in the Missourian on Dec. 29 — written by members of the Coalition to Control Tasers. The letter analyzed the police department's use of Tasers in 48 cases between 2005 and 2008 and said that in several cases the police have inappropriately used Tasers.
The coalition is made up of five community organizations: Grass Roots Organizing of Missouri, the American Civil Liberties Union, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Missouri Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and Missouri Association for Social Welfare.
The department's report also says that the department has been slow to educate the community on its Taser policy because of insufficient funding for educational programs. This lack of transparency has led citizens to question if the use of Tasers is appropriate, the report said.
Not all members of the coalition had seen Dresner's report before Monday's council meeting and would not comment on it. They plan to meet later in the week and issue a formal response.
At Monday's council meeting, members of the coalition presented their own 32-page report, which was also requested by Mayor Hindman. The group believes that the Police Department's current regulations are inadequate, don't address several problems associated with their use of Tasers and could lead to misuse and serious injury to citizens, coalition member Ed Berg said.
Their report, among other things, recommends that the Police Department adopt a series of 52 guidelines developed by the Police Executive Research Forum, a research group for police chiefs and administrators. It is funded by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. By adopting the PERF guidelines, Berg said Columbia police could address several areas of concern for Taser use, including the need for increased internal oversight, better training and access to medical assistance from a trained physician for people who have been shot with a Taser.
"Oversight is the most important thing to do because if (Tasers are) being used improperly, you need to stop it," Berg said. "If you have an officer who is rogue, you need to catch them and get them out of the force."
The coalition's report is broken down into four areas of emphasis: training, oversight, regulation and medical standards. It provides an analysis of the Police Department's Taser policy and compares it to PERF standards.
Dresner said the department is already using 33 of the 52 PERF guidelines in its Taser policy.
His report also provided a point-by-point rebuttal to recommendations suggested in the coalition's letter. In the letter, coalition members wrote that people should not have a Taser used on them more than twice or by multiple officers at the same time and should be given several minutes to recover in between uses.
Allowing several minutes of recovery time between shots is unreasonable because an officer's goal is to arrest a person as quickly as possible, Dresner said. Having multiple Tasers used at once is not any more dangerous than if a person was shot with a single probe because it doesn't increase the voltage, he said. He added that while it is not “generally acceptable” to shoot a person with a Taser multiple times, it is sometimes necessary depending on the situation.
Another issue raised by the coalition is the need for free medical assistance from trained physicians for anybody who has been shot with a probe.
Dresner said under current procedures, officers remove the probes from people who have been shot, clean their wounds and give them Band-Aids. Anybody requesting medical attention may receive it at their expense. In serious situations, police will call for medical assistance if the person needs it.
Coalition member Mary Hussmann said the Taser issue is being discussed not only in Columbia but statewide. The Missouri Senate is currently considering a bill that would create a task force to investigate the safety of Tasers, as well as how effectively they are being used by law enforcement across the state.
The coalition is sponsoring a public meeting to discuss the use of Tasers by police. Reddit Hudson, a former St. Louis police officer who is now the racial justice director of the ACLU’s office in St. Louis, will be the event's featured speaker. The meeting will take place at 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 11 at the Columbia Labor Temple, 611 N. Garth Ave.
"We would like to hear about the statewide study of Taser guns," Hussmann said. "We have got to know more about whats going on. The Taser issue is statewide."