COLUMBIA — Both sides of the Proposition 2 issue are making their final push to convince voters their positions are the right choice for city residents.
If passed, the proposition would ban the use but not the possession of Tasers in the city limits. It would be a class A misdemeanor to use or threaten to use the weapons.
People for a Taser-Free Columbia held an hourlong news conference Wednesday morning that featured 11 speakers representing several areas of civic life. The organization believes Tasers are dangerous and potentially fatal. The Rev. Ray Warren said Tasers can kill people months or even years after exposure.
But Columbia Police Deputy Chief Tom Dresner disagrees.
"Tasers are never causal in deaths," Dresner said. "If Tasers were causal in death, there's no way in American jurisprudence they would be allowed."
Rather, Dresner said, many of the deaths attributed to Taser deployment are associated with toxic acidosis, which results from hyperexertion and a critical change in blood pH levels.
Another speaker at the anti-Taser news conference, Columbia defense attorney Robert Murray, said police aren't honest about the effects of Tasers on people.
"The police are flat-out lying" when they say Tasers are safe, Murray said.
Dresner said he understands why some people have reacted strongly to a few high-profile Taser deployment cases, including the case of Phillip McDuffy, who fell from a bridge over Interstate 70 after a Taser was deployed on him. He was injured in the fall, and the city settled his lawsuit out of court for $300,000.
Dresner said the Police Department has learned from its mistakes. "It's all about objective reasonableness, and we've gotten the message loud and clear," he said.
Joyce Harlan, the grandmother of Stanley Harlan, a 23-year-old Moberly man who died after being shocked by a Taser during a traffic stop, also spoke at the morning news conference. She urged Columbia voters to pass Proposition 2.
"My family has suffered every day for two years over Stanley's death," she said.
Dresner said that in that case, police used the Taser for too long.
“If they did a single deployment for 25 seconds or so, that would be contrary to established protocol,” he said.
By contrast, he said, a proper deployment is much shorter. "Tasings look bad, but they're over in 5 seconds."
If Proposition 2 passes, it also would ban the threat of Taser use. That, Dresner said, would be a detriment to police because merely displaying a Taser or threatening to use it often diffuses tense situations.
He cited two instances: one in which a man suspected of robbery refused to submit to police until threatened with deployment, another in which a man was allegedly attempting to run over some children in a Walmart parking lot when officers arrived. The man threatened officers with a baseball bat and told them to kill him. But when an officer told him he would be Tased if he didn't drop the bat and lie down, the man responded, "Where do you want me to lay down?," according to a police incident report.
Training officer Jason Baillargeon said the Police Department follows 52 guidelines formulated by the Police Executive Research Forum, which is made up of law enforcement agencies from across the country.
Baillargeon said new officers receive eight to 10 hours of training immediately, and every Taser operator is required to take a two-hour refresher course annually.
Baillargeon said the training is intended to help officers make split-second decisions. "You arrive on scene, and somebody immediately attacks you, and that's happened to us. So, in this specific incident the officer would hopefully deploy the Taser to stop the attack."
Dresner said the department's policies have changed to reduce the possibility of injuring people. For instance, officers are forbidden from deploying a Taser on someone who is running unless he poses a threat to himself, an officer or others.
The police policy also states that officers should not deploy Tasers on someone "who the officer suspects is pregnant, visibly frail, in a body of water, operating a moving vehicle or machinery, or in a location where a fall may cause very serious injury or death."
One of the criticisms of the policy, made by daycare provider Alma Tapp, who spoke at the People for a Taser-Free Columbia news conference, is that there is no prohibition on using Tasers on children.
Dresner said police try to avoid using Tasers on young people, but he noted that a 12-year-old could be 6 feet tall, weigh 200 pounds and be as dangerous as any adult. "Now, would we deploy it on a 6-year-old? No."
Although the Boone County Sheriff's Department doesn't follow all the guidelines outlined by the Police Executive Research Forum, Major Tom Reddin, the department's chief deputy, said the department is exacting in its requirements.
"We've got our policy in place that we think is an effective policy," Reddin said.
There are separate policy guidelines for patrol officers and jail personnel. Since the Sheriff's Department and Boone County Jail are in Columbia, the jail officers would be forbidden under the ordinance from using Tasers.
Sheriff Dwayne Carey has said that his department has "zero tolerance" for the misuse of Tasers. One episode, and the officer is fired and told he or she will get no letter of recommendation for future job applications.
Dresner said the Police Department has a range of options — from verbal warning all the way to termination — when an officer is found to have misused a Taser. He said police have identified only two cases in which an officer misused the device.
Both pro- and anti-Taser advocates are using yard signs to get their messages out. Police and sheriff's representatives have spoken to civic groups and the media, and the Columbia Police Officers' Association has produced a YouTube commercial.
At a Wednesday evening forum at the Columbia Chamber of Commerce offices, police spokeswoman Jill Weineke said Tasers allow for a more diverse police force. She said more women can serve on the force since the Taser evens the playing field for smaller officers.
One of the main criticisms from People for a Taser-Free Columbia is that officers use the Taser too often, another point with which Dresner disagrees. Records indicate that of more than 150,000 public contacts last year, Tasers were deployed 21 times. "We don't need it often, but there are times when we really, really do," he said.