COLUMBIA — A proposed November 2010 ballot initiative that would ban all use of Tasers inside city limits has provoked a strong response from the Columbia Police Department.
The proposed ban — started by six community organizers under the name “TASER-Free Columbia Campaign" — follows a number of local high-profile Taser incidents that have stoked public criticism of the weapon's use.`
On Aug. 1, Columbia police used a Taser on a man they say resisted arrest after urinating in an alleyway, and on July 25, 2008, a man threatening to commit suicide fell from a highway overpass at Providence Road and Interstate 70 after police stunned him with a Taser.
Catherine Parke, who helped start the campaign, said in a statement prepared for a Friday morning press conference* that Tasers “continue to be used in ambiguous, uncertain and seemingly mistaken ways that appear not to conform consistently to 'imminent danger' standards." Parke also said Sunshine Law requests for police documents regarding Taser use have run into “chronic difficulties."
Citing these reasons, Parke said making Columbia Taser-free was "absolutely necessary for public safety."
Community organizer Mary Hussmann described the initiative as a “major direction change” from previous efforts to regulate police Taser use.
Hussmann said there had been no real public discussion about whether officers should have Tasers when they were purchased by the Columbia Police Department through a Department of Justice grant that was approved by the Columbia City Council, and she said further attempts to address the matter with the council had gotten bogged down. “It’s been difficult — if not impossible — to get any city councilperson to reconsider this decision,” Hussmann said.
Hussmann indicated that a ban on Taser use would be beneficial for everyone. “This isn’t just for the people who are afraid of the Taser weapons," Hussmann said. "(It's for) the police department, too. I think they need to get rid of them to get the cooperation and trust back from the people.”
Hussmann said the next step was to work out the language of the initiative and to determine how many signatures would be needed to get the ban on the November 2010 ballot.
In an e-mail, Columbia Police Department Deputy Chief Tom Dresner had strong words for the campaign’s claims that police “underestimate and understate” the risks of Taser use and that Taser use has lead to thousands of injuries and hundreds of deaths.
“Their continued assertions of this type are inaccurate, yet they continue to make them,” Dresner said.
Dresner said he had been assured by activists that if the department adhered to proper Taser guidelines, their concerns would be satisfied. “Their repeated mantra of the need for adequate training, policy and oversight, apparently meant nothing,” Dresner said. “We have been responsive to those requests. So, now we see that was essentially a smokescreen for their real agenda."
Dresner said he welcomed the debate.
"What's really sad is that in the many meetings I have attended with (the activists), they have always denied that a ban is what they wanted," Dresner said. "Now we see the true strategy revealed."
Columbia Police Department spokeswoman Jessie Haden cited two recent incidents in which suspects complied with police after being warned about imminent Taser use, and she said she expected to see the number of those “successful situations” increase.
“These are just two incidents that speak to the ability of the Taser to provide an additional opportunity to reduce risk of injury to suspects and police officers both,” Haden said. She urged citizens to view the quarterly Professional Standards Unit reports on Taser use at gocolumbiamo.com.
“It is important for citizens to understand the Taser and not blindly accept misinformation presented by certain individuals,” Haden said.
Columbia mayoral candidate Sid Sullivan was in attendance at the press conference and said the Taser ban would be part of his 2010 election platform. Taser use exposes the city to costly liability lawsuits, Sullivan said, and taxpayers pay for it when something goes wrong.
Also in attendance was Athena Bachtel, the mother of a 23-year-old Moberly man who died after Moberly police shocked him with a Taser in 2008. She spoke in support of the ban.
Bachtel’s son, Stanley Harlan, was pulled over outside the family home on suspicion of drunk driving and died shortly after Moberly police stunned him with a Taser, according to previous Missourian reports. Harlan’s death was ruled a homicide, but subsequent investigations by the Missouri Highway Patrol and FBI found no wrongdoing by Moberly officers. Following a $2.4 million out-of-court lawsuit settlement with the city of Moberly, Bachtel said she’s finally been able to speak out.
Bachtel said she had spoken with the families of other Taser victims over the past few months and spoke passionately about the bodily damage that could be caused by Taser use.
“It was very difficult to talk about it (at the press conference),” Bachtel said in an interview. “I’ve been seeing a therapist; I think I’ve been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. I have horrible nightmares every single night. You don’t just watch your son die right in front of you and not have it affect you.
“We had to move. I couldn’t live there and look out my front door because that’s where he passed away at. And we’ve lived here 20 years. It’s where we raised our kids.”
Bachtel said she would continue to push for measures controlling Taser use.
“I will never give up the fight,” she said. “Never. There are too many families who have lost loved ones.”