Throughout American history, people have recognized the need for law enforcement officers to act as both protectors and defenders of the general public. Most law enforcement agencies recognize this traditional role in their departmental motto of, “To Protect and Serve”. Though the vast majority of American law enforcement agencies have generally upheld the traditional role of guardian of the public’s safety, there have also been times when law enforcement agencies have used questionable methods and brought harm and danger to the general public. These methods and incidents have been thoroughly criticized throughout law enforcement history, with blame eventually placed on rogue elements of the law enforcement community or faulty policies and/or procedures of the law enforcement agency concerned.
Over the last decade, many law enforcement agencies have equipped their officers with a relatively new device named the TASER (from Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle). The TASER is an Electro-Shock Device that is promoted by its manufacturer TASER International, Inc. as, “among the most effective use-of-force interventions available to law enforcement officers to halt violent situations that pose a safety risk to an officer, suspect or innocent citizens.” The usage of electro-shock devices has been critical in many situations by allowing officers to incapacitate violent suspects in a manner that is relatively safe for both the suspect and the officers involved.
Unfortunately, many people, including a significant number who posed no threat of violence, have died after being incapacitated by an electro-shock discharge. Though no incontrovertible evidence exists that clearly implicates electro-shock devices as the primary cause of these deaths, significant research exists that does indicate that the usage (and in many cases the improper usage) of electro-shock devices did play either a leading role or was the instigating agent in the death. Until evidence proves that electro-shock devices are indeed non-lethal, law enforcement agencies must establish policies that limit the use of these devices to situations where violence is already present or imminent. Existing policies concerning the use of deadly force should be extended to ensure that electro-shock devices are not used as methods of coercion or against non-violent suspects.
Many examples exist where the inappropriate or improper use of electro-shock devices have either been used or threatened to be used contrary to the manufacturers recommendations. According to TASER International, Inc,
“TASER technology is not risk free, but independent medical and scientific experts have determined that when used properly, TASER technology is among the most effective use-of-force interventions available to law enforcement.” (TASER International, Inc. public web site)
I would like to emphasize the usage of the words, “when used properly” in the preceding statement.
On March 29, 2008, 59-year old Goodyear Tire & Rubber employee Walter E. Haake Jr. went to his place of work in Topeka, KS. Though various versions of what actually happened exist, it was clear to Walter’s coworkers that he was experiencing a medical emergency. Despite the coworkers’ best efforts, Walter refused medical assistance and was escorted to his vehicle. Goodyear first responders notified an ambulance which arrived to transport him to the hospital. Walter continued to refuse medical treatment and climbed into his vehicle. One of his fellow employees was successful in obtaining Walter’s car keys, ensuring that he could not attempt to drive in his worsening medical state. Because of Walter’s continued refusal to submit to medical treatment, paramedics on the scene contacted the county sheriff’s department who dispatched a deputy.
Upon arrival at the scene and being informed of the situation, the deputy called for backup, and upon their arrival, and Walters continued insistence that he simply wanted to go home; the deputies utilized their electro-shock devices (TASER X26) on him three times. Despite knowing that this man was experiencing a medical emergency, the deputy tasered Walter three times. After the third jolt of electric current through his body, the deputies dragged Walter out of his car, threw him to the ground, and proceeded to handcuff him. During this process, Walter died.
Was this the appropriate use of a TASER?
In another incident, CBC News from Canada reported on the death of a Polish immigrant at the hand of four Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers. On October 14, 2007, Robert Dziekanski arrived in Canada to join his mother who was living there. After 10 hours waiting for immigration processing, he was finally permitted to enter the country. Unsurprisingly, after 10 hours of being lost in the immigrations and customs bureaucracy, it appeared that he was suffering some type of nervous breakdown. Mr. Dziekanski, who could not communicate with the officers due to a language difficulty, never appeared to threaten violence against the four officers, and yet only 25 seconds after the arrival of the officers on the scene, the officers shot Mr. Dziekanski at least twice with electro-shock devices while placing him into handcuffs. Less than one-and-a-half minutes after the officer’s arrival, Mr. Dziekanski appeared to be unconscious and may have already been dead. No medical assistance was offered by the police officers. (CBC News)
Once again, was this an appropriate use of a TASER? According to Amnesty International, there were 103 deaths following the usage of TASERs in the United States and Canada between 2001 and 2005. Seventeen of those deaths listed the TASER itself as a direct contributing factor towards the death or could not subsequently rule out the TASER as having a contributing role in the death (Davison, Lewer 2006).
There are numerous as well from other parts of the world. In the United Kingdom, Nicholas Gaubert slipped into a diabetic coma while riding a bus. Unfortunately, rather than attempt to render medical assistance to Mr. Gaubert, London Police shot him twice with a TASER. He was shot because he was “unresponsive” and the police feared he was a suicide bomber. Once again, there was a medical emergency, there was no threat of violence, and yet the police utilized electro-shock devices to immobilize Mr. Gaubert while he was already in a coma. Fortunately, Mr. Gaubert was able to receive the appropriate medical attention and survived his treatment at the hand of the police. (Brooke 2007)
There is one interesting point that should be made in Mr. Gaubert’s situation. If Mr. Gaubert were indeed to have been a suicide bomber, and he did indeed have a bomb strapped to his body, would shooting him with an electro-shock device really be an intelligent thing to do? Would not the electricity have a great potential to explode the bomb itself?
There are hundreds of new stories generated each year regarding law enforcement officers improperly using electro-shock devices on members of the general public. These stories tell of officers using electro-shock devices on very young children (children between 5 – 7 years olds), obviously pregnant women, and in one of the worst cases of all, patients with mental illnesses under medical care inside of the mental care ward at a hospital.
According to federal law, 42 CFR 482.13 (f) (1) states, “The patient has the right to be free from seclusion and restraints, of any form, imposed as a means of coercion, discipline, convenience, or retaliation by staff.” It continues on describing what is considered seclusion and restraint. In section 482.13 (f) (2), it states, “Seclusion or a restraint can only be used in emergency situations if needed to ensure the patient’s physical safety and less restrictive interventions have been determined to be ineffective.” In other words, you must utilize the level of force appropriate to the situation. The US Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) follow the guidelines that,
“CMS does not consider the use of weapons in the application of restraint as safe appropriate health care interventions. We consider the term “weapons” to include pepper spray, mace, nightsticks, Tazers, cattle prods, stun guns, pistols and other such devices. Security staff may carry weapons as allowed by hospital policy and State law.” (CMS Operations Manual 2004)
In 2004, the Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center located in Los Angeles relied on county law enforcement officials to use electro-shock devices to shock aggressive patients and bring them under control. This procedure had become standard for patients at the hospital. TASERs were not used as a last ditch effort to calm an agitated patient, they became one of the first. This was both legally and ethically wrong. (Erwin Philibert 2006)
The Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center affair is one of the best examples available of how law enforcement agencies are no longer even attempting to utilize minimal force when confronting an individual. In every example provided today, there existed no violence and there was no threat. Yet law enforcement officers with years of training and institutional knowledge escalated the level of force used to potentially lethal levels. In the first two cases, two men died. In the latter examples, the TASER targets were fortunate to not suffer any long-term effects.
Normally, I would blame the incidents cited above as being isolate incidents. Unfortunately, I have had my own confrontation with law enforcement and their lack of policy in the utilization of TASERs. It was July of 2007, and I was busy writing an article for posting in the local newspaper. Unknown to me, my ten-year old autistic son made a call to the local emergency number, 911. My wife caught him, and without thinking, she simply hung up the phone.
A few minutes later, as I was still typing on my computer, a knock came at the door, which my non-English speaking wife opened. A few seconds later, I hear somebody yell at me, “Hey buddy, do YOU speak English?”. As I was concentrating on my writing, I simply yelled back, “Of Course!” and continued typing. The same loud voice then called out to me that I needed to come outside with him. I looked up, realized it was a law enforcement officer and I asked him why I should leave. Upon his second order to go outside, I once again asked him why, and followed up with a question about what authority he was using to remove me from my own home when nothing wrong was going on. At that point in time, the law enforcement officer drew his TASER on me, and told me that if I did not get up from my table, go outside with him right then, he was going to TASER me and drag me out of the house.”
With my son watching and knowing some history of the dangers of TASERs I agreed to leave the house, where I was promptly thrown to the ground and handcuffed. After approximately forty-five minutes of sitting in the hot sun with my hands cuffed behind me, the police interpreter arrived, determined there had been an accidental call, and I was released with a verbal warning to “comply with all future orders, or else it will happen again.”
My personal crusade is not intended to eliminate the use of TASERs by law enforcement agencies, rather, it is an attempt to have police agencies understand that these electro-shock devices are potentially lethal when used and should therefore have the appropriate use of force guidelines in place and followed. One of the better examples of a proper use-of-force policy is found in the Crisis Intervention Team of the Police Department of Akron, OH.
A law enforcement agency that follows its motto, “To protect and serve” is the Akron Police Department of Akron, OH. In June 2000, the Akron Police Department in conjunction with advocates from the mental health community implemented a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT). The CIT was established to help reduce the number of deaths associated with incidents that involved Akron police officers and persons with potential mental illnesses and in crisis. Crisis team members were trained in the area of mental illness and specifically in techniques useful in calming persons having a mental health crisis.
During the first eighteen months of existence, the CIT used their electro-shock devices a total of thirty-five times. Of the thirty-five instances where a TASER was used, not a single person was injured. This included both the subjects and the law enforcement officers. The 35 incidents in which TASERs were used to subdue subjects represented only 6.5% of the 541 incidents in which CIT responded during those eighteen months. The other 93.5% of the CIT responses to crises situations were resolved without requiring the use of force. (Munetz, Fitzgerald, Woody 2006).
Unfortunately, other police departments have not been as thoughtful and careful in their planning and deployment of electro-shock devices. A 2004 study by the Denver Post showed that in one Colorado county, approximately 1/3rd of the suspects who were shot with a TASER were handcuffed and in custody at the time they were stunned (Davison, Lewer 2006). In a study conducted by the Palm Beach Post covering over more than 1000 cases of a TASER being used in Florida between 2001 – 2005, approximately twenty-five percent of the incidents involved law enforcement officers using their TASER on suspects who were, “unarmed, nonviolent and not posing an apparent immediate threat.” (Barton 2005)
In these types of cases, the question is raised as to whether the police are using electro-shock devices as a method to stop violent actions or as cattle prods to force compliance from individuals who may not even understand their commands due to drug intoxication, language barriers or because the command is unclear.
In July 2002, 37-year old Gordon Randall Parks was shocked fourteen times over a four-minute period by various Orange County law enforcement officers while he lay in a stupor on the floor from a cocaine overdose. Reports from the scene indicate that one onlooker had to run from the room to get away from the stench of burned flesh. Mr. Parks was not being arrested, nor had he been violent. The reason he was being continually tasered despite bloody froth coming from his mouth? The law enforcement officers were using their TASERs as pain-causing devices to force him to comply with their order to place his hands behind his back. In a video of the incident, at least six police officers are standing around Mr. Parks writhing body while the TASER is being applied. Mr. Parks died en route to the hospital. The police officers never even bothered to tell the paramedics before they left for the hospital that they had utilized a TASER on Mr. Parks (Barton 2005).
After two more deaths by law enforcement TASER, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department finally decided to change its policy to prohibit the use of TASERs on people who are passively resisting officers commands (Barton 2005).
So why do law enforcement agencies not adopt stronger policies regulating the usage of these weapons? In a pattern similar to that found with the decade long battle against the tobacco companies, the product manufacturer denies the culpability of their weapon as even a possible cause of death. TASER International, Inc utilizes the results of research studies financed from their own coffers, and vigorously defends their reputation by filing lawsuits and/or smearing the reputation of all who dare to challenge their scientific findings. (Anonymous 2008)
The largest question facing us should no longer be whether TASERs are lethal or non-lethal devices. The question that we need to address immediately is whether we should continue waiting for conclusive scientific evidence one way or the other before we take steps to limit the risks associated with law enforcement agencies who utilize TASERs in situations where force would normally be ruled out. In this case, there are several polices that law enforcement agencies can adopt to fulfill the motto of, “to protect and serve”.
There are many policies that need to be implemented by all law enforcement agencies that utilize TASERs or other similar weapons. These policies are meant to protect the general public from overzealous law enforcement officers as well as protecting the law enforcement agency from unnecessary lawsuits. These policies should include but not be limited to the following:
1) Electro-shock weapons should not be used as a method to overcome passive resistance.
2) Electro-shock devices should not be used in situations where violence is neither threatened nor imminent.
3) Electro-shock devices should not be used on persons who may not be physiologically capable of withstanding the shock.
4) Portable Resuscitation Devices must be immediately available to all officers who may have cause to utilize an electro-shock device.
5) Electro-shock devices shall not be used on fleeing persons unless the officers are in the process of performing an arrest on that person.
6) Electro-shock devices shall not be used on persons already in restraints such as handcuffs, leg irons and/or shackles.
7) When a person receives a shock from an electro-shock device, the subject shall receive a medical check and medical attention within one hour and shall be placed under medical observation for at least twenty-four hours.
8) All firing of electro-shock devices must be recorded and fully explained in writing. Logs should be checked regularly for abnormalities and analyzed for trends to ensure that all policies are being followed.
9) Electro-shock devices should only be used when all lesser means of overcoming resistance have failed or could reasonably be expected to fail.
If law enforcement agencies were to adopt the above policies, then the usage of devices such as the TASER would be permitted only in the situations that demanded it. Innocent men such as Walter E. Haake Jr., Robert Dziekanski, and Gordon Randall Parks would still be alive. Hundreds of men and women who have been injured when shocked by these devices would not be suffering the ongoing pain.
Most importantly of all, we could once again trust our law enforcement agencies to be the protectors and defenders of the common man. No longer would innocent men and women have to wonder whether they will be the next one caught in the cross hairs of a law enforcement officer out for target practice. We would not be reading newspaper stories of 6-year old and 7-year old children being stunned because for being too rowdy.
We all have an occasional bad attitude day, but we do not deserve to die for it.