Coalition asks Columbia police to suspend Taser use

Thursday, April 2, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — The Coalition to Control Tasers chose April Fools' Day to begin their new campaign to persuade the City Council to suspend the Columbia Police Department's ability to use the devices for 30 days.

At a news conference Wednesday morning at the Columbia Public Library, coalition members reiterated their belief that the police need to implement a stricter Taser policy by standing and chanting in unison, "We're not fooled. We need protection." 

On Monday, the coalition sent council members a request to suspend Taser use by the police. They also want the council to create a public forum to resolve lingering problems the coalition and police have been attempting to address concerning the department's Taser usage, coalition member Ed Berg said.

"The coalition has been talking for ten months about the (Taser) issue," Berg said. "When you open up to the public, there is a greater chance that this issue will finally be settled."

Police Chief Kenneth Burton and Capt. Tom Dresner are currently discussing whether they will submit the department's Taser policy for analysis by the Police Executive Research Forum, a research group for police chiefs and administrators funded by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The department has been quoted a price for the analysis, which will cost more money then the department originally thought, Burton said. Neither Burton nor Dresner would say how much the cost would be.

Berg estimated the cost of the forum's analysis would be about $2,500.

In 2005, the forum released 52 policy guidelines on proper Taser usage. The coalition is asking the Columbia Police Department to adopt all of the forum's standards.

Michelle Ray, 37, the mother of a boy who was shot with a Taser, told her son's story and released copies of the incident report written by the police at the news conference. The Columbia Police Department does not release incident reports for juveniles. The report of Coleman's arrest was obtained by the coalition after Ray gave her permission for its release.

The name of the officer, and other personal information about the victims, was redacted by the coalition before it released the report.

On Feb. 26, 2008, her son, Ricky Coleman, who was 17 at the time of the incident, was trying to break up a fight in which his friend and five other boys were involved, Ray said.

Coleman and his friend were attempting to leave campus and get lunch when an officer, who noticed his friend's bloody nose, stopped them in the Hickman High School parking lot, Ray said.

According to the officer's report, the officer who was responding to a disturbance call near Business Loop 70, asked Coleman and his friend to stop and talk to him. The officer said Coleman became agitated.

The officer wrote in the report that he did not know why Coleman refused to talk to him, but he then grabbed Coleman's right arm and attempted to handcuff him. Coleman then tried to free his arm.

The officer then shot Coleman in the chest with his Taser. As Coleman attempted to remove the Taser probes, the officer shot him with the Taser again on the hip. According to the report, Coleman fell on his back and for a short time became unresponsive to the officer's demands to roll over on his stomach and put his hands behind his back.

According to the report, Coleman was shot with the Taser a total of five times before he and his friend were arrested and charged with creating a peace disturbance and resisting arrest. Both charges were later dropped, Ray said.

Since the incident, Coleman has suffered recurring chest pains and panic attacks, Ray said. Coleman has not filed a formal complaint with the Police Department or retained a lawyer.

The police department's Professional Standards Unit reviews all instances in which officers fire Tasers.

"Regardless of whether a complaint was filed, we determine whether an officer acted within policy guidelines every time a Taser is used," Lt. John White, who heads the unit, said.

Coleman's story is part of a larger problem that the coalition has been trying to address, Berg said. Incidents such as Coleman's show that police often react quickly without having a complete understanding of the place they are called to patrol. 

Any gray areas in police Taser policy could lead to misuse of the weapon in the future, he said.

"(The police) are reacting for expedience purposes without having full reason to Taser a person," Berg said. "The Taser is being used incorrectly."

Coalition members plan to lobby state legislators on Monday to adopt two bills addressing Taser use currently being considered in both the state House and Senate. The House bill was proposed by Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia, and would create a statewide task force to determine if law enforcement agencies are using the weapons effectively and safely.

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