UPDATE: Taser ban to appear on November ballot

Monday, August 16, 2010 | 9:58 p.m. CDT; updated 10:44 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, August 17, 2010

COLUMBIA — Voters will have the final say on whether Columbia police officers get to hold on to their Tasers.

On Monday, the City Council unanimously voted against a proposed ordinance that would have banned the electric shock devices within city limits. The council's decision means the proposal will become a referendum on the Nov. 2 ballot, allowing Columbia voters to decide the final fate of the proposed ban. 

Earlier this year, People for a Taser-Free Columbia, a coalition of civil liberties and human rights organizations, gathered more than 4,000 signatures in favor of a ban on Tasers and similar devices, making it a class A misdemeanor to use or threaten to use them in Columbia.

Only one member of the coalition, Ken Green, spoke before the council at the hearing. He said that the ban could effectively restore the trust between the citizenry and the Columbia Police Department, which he called "compromised" following recent highly-publicized incidents. He also warned of the city's financial liability if police continue to deploy Tasers.

"The warning you get now [before a Taser is fired] is 'Taser, Taser, Taser,'" Green said. "The warning ought to be 'lawsuit, lawsuit, lawsuit.'"

The anti-Taser coalition formed shortly after an incident in which Columbia police officers used the weapon against a man acting erratically and threatening suicide on an Interstate 70 overpass. Phillip Lee McDuffy of Columbia fell after being shocked by the Tasers, suffering multiple injuries. He later sued the city, which settled the case for $300,000.

 Two additional Taser-related lawsuits against the city of Columbia are pending, city spokeswoman Toni Messina said.

About a dozen members of the public spoke before the council at Monday's hearing, most of them in favor of banning Taser use in Columbia altogether. Among them was Joan Sullivan, a former supervisor of a maximum security juvenile detention facility who said that crisis intervention training could be the answer.

"When you are dealing with someone who is highly motivated to hurt you, there are ways to break them down," she said. "You don't have to Tase them. You don't have to hurt them."

Police Chief Ken Burton said training and Taser protocol have tightened under his watch, which began in April 2009. He has instituted the standards set by the Police Executive Research Forum, a national professional organization, which include 52 standards for Taser use. He said he would like to build on those policies in a number of ways, including training all officers in crisis intervention. Only about 60 out of 160 Columbia police officers have been trained in crisis intervention thus far.

While some council members expressed explicit opposition to the proposed ban, others voiced a desire to leave the matter for voters to decide.

"Were mistakes made? Of course. We are all human beings. We are all subject to error," said Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser before the vote was taken.  "But I want to err on the side of caution for the officers who have sworn to protect us and who have a right to protect themselves. So I cannot support this ordinance, and I think it is an issue that should go to the people of the city of Columbia so that they have the final say."

If Columbia residents opt to pass the proposed ban in November, Columbia could become one of the first cities in the country to ban the use of electrical shock devices through a popular referendum.

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tom kelly August 16, 2010 | 11:27 p.m.

Okay, I know people. That's my only qualification.
Yes, policemen are supposed to be trained to handle awkward situations and sometimes rotten people. But, it is far too easy to zap someone that pisses you off.
Criminals don't obey, true. But, neither do mouthy teenagers. Neither do intoxicated ones whose only mistake is stupidity or big mouths. Neither do some who are totally innocent and speak out too loudly. It's too easy to zap these people and get away with it.

If you can monitor the taser usage just like guns or ammo, then maybe. But, do you?
If you could check up on officers who use them ten times more than others, then maybe. But, do you?
If you could give psychological testing, maybe. But, do you?

(Report Comment)
tom kelly August 17, 2010 | 3:02 a.m.

And Laura,
I think you meant to say you'd rather error on the side of the people, not the police.
The police are big boys, and have taken care of themselves for many, many years. They have guns, they have nightsticks, they have handcuffs, they have backups, they have combat training, but you want to make sure THEY are safe. Thank you for letting the people decide, but I hope you're not an elected official.

(Report Comment)
Carlos Sanchez August 17, 2010 | 5:15 a.m.

It will be voted down and this issue will be put to rest.

(Report Comment)
Roger Dowis August 17, 2010 | 6:00 a.m.

There are limits to free speech. Even under the constitution a person can't yell fire in a crowded theater. Most states have "disturbing the peace" laws that include behavior that is likely to result in a violent reaction. This law sounds as though it could be successful if not written so broadly.
I would like to emphasize that using the law is the proper way to change such offensive acts as demonstrating at a funeral, and this law would be constitutional if it were rewritten properly.
On the other hand, you have to wonder about a group of people who demonstrate against a war by going after the families who have had loved ones lose their lives while fighting against terrorism. What good can come of it? If there really wanted to bring about change they'd find a better venue to express their politics.

(Report Comment)
Roger Dowis August 17, 2010 | 6:33 a.m.

Far to much credit is given to an officer's ability to "take care of himself." We have all seen how difficult controlling a person can when they don't want to be arrested. There are plenty of videos that show how much a person can resist, even when "swarmed" by mulitple officers who use nothing more than compliance holds.
As for "breaking them down," an officer on the street (as oppossed to a prison) doesn't always have the luxury of waiting for back up, or having sufficent numbers to overwhelm a suspect. Consequently, officers get hurt every day in our nation, it just isn't publicized.
And please don't tell me getting hurt is part of the job; no one signs on accepting that they will be hurt (or killed) just because they wear a uniform. The idea is to use legal tools to prevent injury, both to the officer and the arrestee.
The only tool besides a taser that will not cause injury is mace, and that can be complicated. It's ineffective on someone running away, it can't be used when overspray will affect an unwanted target, and it doesn't work 100% of the time.
So, take away the taser and what have we got left, a baton to beat someone with or a good old fashioned slug fest. As I said, we give far too much credence to self-defense training. The street isn't like what we see in the movies, although movies are the source of much of what the public believes an officer is capable of.
It mostly comes down to strength. With today's smaller officers we can count on them having to escalate to other ways of gaining control.
Botton line -- taking away tasers is a giant step backwards.

(Report Comment)
Carlos Sanchez August 17, 2010 | 10:40 a.m.

#Roger your first post is on the wrong thread but I agree with you 100%. What is wrong with that or other like groups. This goes for the Anti Taser crowd too.

(Report Comment)
Mike Parnell August 17, 2010 | 12:52 p.m.

I am thrilled that they voted the ban down however, were they just hiding behind the prospect of a vote of the people? Apparently some where based on this account. Those who are vocal about banning the use will be proven to be in the minority. I have talked to absolutely no one that supports this proposal. Then again, I am probably not hanging around with the "right" crowd of patrons.

Crime is already on a rapid rise in what once was a peaceful midwestern "city." Let's not rob our law enforcement personnel or others of a valid tool for defending citizens - sometimes against themselves.

Chief Burton has been influential in implementing many changes - let's see them through before acting foolishly.

Time to quit whining and worrying about the trouble-makers and their rights or the incapacitated individuals threatening to harm themselves and/or others.

(Report Comment)
tom kelly August 19, 2010 | 7:10 p.m.

Police are human. I am not young and I have witnessed hundreds, maybe thousands of out-of-control officers. If not for video cameras and public awareness and intervention, unacceptable behavior would never be checked.

Police are NOT above the law and they are NOT above the same ethics and responsibilities that are expected from all of us.

This is just ONE example:
If your teenage boy runs off at the mouth, and he is zapped for disrespect, not for endangering anyone, but just a big mouth. And, then he dies because of a heart condition.
You're gonna say, "Quit whining, he should have known better."
I say, the police should know better.

(Report Comment)
Gregg Bush August 20, 2010 | 8:53 a.m.

Just in our city - a person tased off a bridge, a person tased for standing too close to an officer, a person tased while sitting in his auto, and a person tased with a barb stuck in the eyeball.

Thomas A Smith Electric Rifles are dangerous to our citizens and dangerous to our fiscal health.

Vote to Ban the TASERs.


Treat them like the lethal weapons they are. Actually deploy them only in situations that an officer would otherwise deploy a gun. And have actual, real punishments for officers that refuse to abide by the PERF guidelines. It isn't enough to say "we're following the PERF guidelines" and not have sanctions when they're transgressed. It may have worked in Texas, but we in the Mid-West believe in accountability.
The alternative is a financially bankrupt city.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz August 20, 2010 | 9:33 a.m.

Gregg, I think the mention of Texas is unnecessary and not helpful at all. Chief Burton is probably the best thing to happen to CPD in some time and his former state, or alleging that he doesn't care about accountability, is a non-starter.

Tasers are not even remotely in the same class as firearms. We saw in the McDuffy incident that the Taser did not properly deploy from about 20 feet away. If an officer feels there is an imminent danger to himself or another bystander, they will draw their firearm.

(Report Comment)
Gregg Bush August 22, 2010 | 12:07 p.m.

Maybe there was some accountability in Texas. If there was, we could use some here.
For instance - an officer using sealed records to publicly humiliate a citizen. Hospital workers are terminated for the unauthorized accessing of data. Beating a prone person then charging them with resisting arrest. Refusing to let an attorney sit with a client during questioning.
How's this for accountability - make public which officers are using force the most frequent. Publish a tally every month. Let the citizen's see who the hot-heads are. Frankly, I personally witnessed a Sergent Hawkins (spelling?) in my driveway with his weapon drawn interviewing a suspect from a few doors down. He was cool, confident and professional. I watched and listened for over 15 minutes to our professionals de-escalate a situation and secure my neighborhood. He used his head not his fists. My only regret is that I didn't thank him. I was a little intimidated - he did have his weapon drawn.
My point is: drain the swamp or we'll be even more bankrupt - financially and morally.

(Report Comment)

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