Citizens Police Review Board hears police Taser policy

Wednesday, May 19, 2010 | 11:04 p.m. CDT; updated 11:27 p.m. CST, Wednesday, February 9, 2011

COLUMBIA — Officers from the Columbia Police Department spoke about Tasers for the Citizens Police Review Board at the ARC on Wednesday night, presenting the department's policy so the board would be ready to handle citizen complaints about the device.

Wednesday's meeting on Tasers, given to a small audience consisting mostly of board members and the media, touched on the hot-button topic — one that could appear on the November ballot.

Sgt. John Gordon and Officer Jason Baillargeon, both certified Taser instructors and members of the Columbia Police Department, led the discussion about department's Taser use.

"Remember, what we present to you here is information from a nine-hour officer certification class condensed into a two-hour seminar," Gordon told the audience. The two discussed the science behind the Taser at length, and argued that Tasers are safer or more effective than other deterrents.

"We respond to non-compliance and aggressive behavior," Gordon said. "I don't choose to use force on anybody." Officers have to evaluate each situation, he said.

Gordon also discussed the importance of control and oversight for each individual Taser owned by the Police Department. He then answered questions from review board members and the public about policy and specific incidents.

Gordon said neither instructor is involved in the ongoing evaluation of Columbia police Taser policy.

Review board chairwoman Ellen LoCurto-Martinez said she was pleased with both the tone and topic of the meeting.

"Tasers seem to be a hot issue right now in Columbia," she said. "It's important that we understand policy and guidelines now so that we are already prepared when we have to review a case."

It's important for board members to understand department policies related to all uses of force, LoCurto-Martinez said.

Yet despite police arguments that Tasers are, in many cases, the least harmful alternative — to guns, pepper spray, batons — some were not won over.

"I am not convinced that officers can be trained well enough to use these devices in a safe and responsible manner," said Rebecca Moore, a Columbia resident who attended the meeting. "The officer (Gordon) said it himself — these are fallible devices, deployed by fallible human beings. I have a lot of concern over their use."

Moore isn't alone. Last fall, activists proposed an initiative for the November ballot to ban all Taser use within city limits.

The group, People for a Taser-Free Columbia, began canvassing the city for support April 1. So far, the group has collected between 2,500 and 3,000 signatures, said member Mary Hussmann in a phone interview.

"We're pleased with our progress, and we're optimistic about making the ballot," she said, adding that the group hopes to collect at least 4,000 signatures by early June.

"We're working hard, so people in the city of Columbia will get to have a discussion that is meaningful," Hussmann said, referring to the Taser issue.

The petition needs at least 3,667 valid signatures in order for the proposal to appear on the Nov. 2 ballot.

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