Taser debate not likely to go away

Thursday, March 12, 2009 | 12:01 p.m. CDT; updated 6:31 p.m. CDT, Thursday, March 12, 2009

As the Great Taser Debate rages on, we can say two – and only two – things with a fair degree of certainty:

First, the Columbia Police Department and its supportive majority on the City Council wish the issue would disappear from the public agenda.

Second, that’s not going to happen.

The Taser, of course, is the 50,000-volt stun gun that’s now carried by every cop on the beat in Columbia and Boone County. (Actually an acronym, Taser stands for “Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle,” the name playfully bestowed by its inventor in honor of his fictional boyhood hero.) Its use and misuse has become controversial locally after several apparent abuses, one in which a Columbia man fell from an overpass when he was stunned, suffering serious injuries, and another in which a Moberly man died after he was shocked by Moberly officers in front of his home.

The Columbia Police Department reported to the City Council last week that it is clarifying its policy on Taser use and that two officers have been disciplined for misuse of what is described officially as a “nonlethal” weapon. That report seemed to satisfy most council members, one of whom concluded that most of the critics’ concerns have now been met and it’s time to move on.

Not so fast, says the Coalition to Control Tasers. Coalition members – who include members of the ACLU, Grassroots Organizing, the NAACP and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom – said that again Wednesday night in a meeting attended by about 50 citizens at the old Labor Temple on Garth Avenue.

The meeting was addressed by GRO’s indefatigable Mary Hussman, ACLU attorney Dan Viets and an ex-St. Louis cop-turned-ACLU-program-associate named Reddit Hudson. As the Missourian reported Thursday morning, the emotional power was provided by the sister of Stanley Harlan, the Moberly victim. Accompanied by nearly a dozen family members and friends, she testified tearfully to the loss and the helpless anger generated by a traffic stop gone tragically wrong.

The coalition insists that it doesn’t seek a ban on Tasers, though Hudson said that’s what he favors. The wording on two posters facing the audience Wednesday also suggested a desire for something beyond just carefully controlled use. One read “Judge, Jury and Electrocutioner.” The other: “Tested and Proven Deadly.”

John Coffman, a former Columbia councilman and now the ACLU’s lobbyist in Jefferson City, urged support for two bills in the legislature. One, sponsored by Columbia Rep. Steven Webber, calls for a statewide task force to study Taser use. The other, in the Senate, adds a moratorium on Taser use until the task force reports. The ACLU is sponsoring a “Day of Action” against Taser abuse April 6 at the Capitol. However, after the meeting Coffman conceded that neither bill has much chance of passage.

The more realistic routes to change policy, other speakers said, are litigation and public pressure. One member of the Harlan family told me the family has hired a lawyer. In Columbia, the coalition intends to keep pushing for the police to adopt all 52 policy guidelines proposed by a national forum of police and civil libertarians. The CPD says its new policy incorporates 33 of those points, but the coalition sees only 14 as fully adopted. Interim Çhief Tom Dresner told the council that the department will submit its policies to the forum for review.

I called Tom on Thursday morning, and he told me he thinks that “in essential areas, we’re close” to the forum’s position. I’ve read the guidelines, and to a layman they seem reasonable. With a few exceptions, Tom agrees. He’s hoping the fee for the review won’t be beyond the department’s budget. He’s also hopeful of reaching an understanding with the coalition. A statewide study would be fine with him, but not a moratorium.    

All this leaves me wondering whether, if the guidelines were adopted in total, the dispute would end. With police power and citizen suspicion involved, I’m guessing not.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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Brenda Procter March 13, 2009 | 11:42 a.m.

This debate has gone on for far too long. I'm so tired of the stall tactics of the Council and Police. It took months to get any taser deployment public records at all, and the most important records are still under lock and key - reports on taser deployments where suspects were not charged of a crime. A little Sunshine, regulation and enforcement would help bring closure to this debate. The review by PERF is just another stall. I think the Willie Smith incident shows that unchecked police power is a dangerous thing. Tasers make that power more likely to kill someone.

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