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Columbia Missourian

UPDATE: Taser ban to appear on November ballot

By Dan Claxton, Jessica Pupovac
August 16, 2010 | 9:58 p.m. CDT

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. 

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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.