5 of 7 hit with Tasers were not violent
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5 of 7 hit with Tasers were not violent

The Tennessean | December 6, 2004
By IAN DEMSKY

In the first three weeks of their expanded use, Metro police used their Tasers to gain compliance from uncooperative and mostly nonviolent people, according to reports filed by officers.

Metro's early experience raises many of the same questions that have been debated nationally: Whether the electronic immobilization device is a valuable option for reducing injuries or a tool that is easily abused in situations where force could be avoided altogether.

ATennessean review of police reports for the first seven people shocked with Tasers since 45 stun guns were distributed to officers on the streets of Nashville last month, showed that:

• All seven were black men between the ages of 17 and 32.

• Five were unarmed.

• Only two of the men were accused of fighting or threatening to strike officers before they were shocked.

• One man was shocked while already in handcuffs.

In recent weeks, the devices — which briefly overwhelm the nervous system with a painful 50,000-volt jolt — were used in Florida on a 6-year-old boy who threatened to harm himself and a 12-year-old girl who ran from police. Both prompted criticism of police tactics.

At issue is whether the devices should be reserved as an alternative to deadly force or used as routinely as pepper spray, as is the policy here.

''When police officers start to use electroshock weapons as compliance tools, you're going down the slippery slope to a police state,'' said Edward Jackson, spokesman for the human rights group Amnesty International in New York office, which opposes routine use of the devices.

Critics complain the Tasers are easy to abuse and might have contributed to more than 70 deaths since 2001. Proponents say they save lives and reduce injuries.

''Here in Nashville, we decided to use Tasers specifically to reduce injuries to suspects and police officers,'' Chief Ronal Serpas said last week about Taser use in general. ''If anything else comes to our attention that shows that the device does not meet that goal, then, of course, we wouldn't use it.''

Between Nov. 9 and 26, when the seven Taser uses occurred, almost 4,000 people were arrested by Metro, officials said.

Metro officers, most of whom have pepper spray, use it an average of 38 times a month, The Tennessean previously has found. They use batons less than five times a month on average.

That all seven of those stunned with Tasers were black men was a coincidence, Metro police officials said.

Sonnye Dixon, president of the local NAACP, said the number was a concern but cautioned that it was too few to show a pattern.

''I'm glad they're not pulling their pistols and shooting them,'' Dixon said. ''But we need to look at where they're occurring and whether there were comparable situations taking place with Hispanics and whites.''

'I didn't put him in danger'

One of the seven men said the officer in his case used the Taser unnecessarily.

John D. Cox, 20, said in a telephone interview that he was arguing with his girlfriend outside a friend's house in south-central Nashville on Nov. 26. She had his keys and didn't want him to drive. He said he had only had one drink and wanted the keys back.

When a police officer on routine patrol drove up, Cox's girlfriend told Cox to calm down. Cox said he told her, ''(Expletive) the police — this doesn't have anything to do with them.''

Cox started walking away as he was approached by Officer Scott Henderson, who reported hearing the curse.

''I asked him to stop and grabbed the back of his jersey,'' Henderson wrote in his report. ''I had my Taser out, and as he turned I created a couple of feet of distance and placed (the Taser's laser sight) on his chest. He said, '(Expletive) you!' and turned back around. He took a few more steps and I told him to stop (and) again grabbed his jersey. This time he turned around and raised his right hand as if he was going to strike me.''

Cox disputes that account, saying the officer used the stun gun right away.

''He grabbed my shirt,'' he said. ''I threw my hands up as I was turning around, as if to say, 'I don't have nothing, I'm not doing nothing,' and soon as I turned all the way around, that's when he stepped back and hit me with the Taser.''

Cox fell to the ground.

''He was like, 'Spread your arms,' (but) I couldn't move,'' he said. ''I was telling him that, but he hit me with (the Taser) again.''

Cox has two marks on his chest: a cut with some burned skin around it and a small dot where the Taser's probes hit him. Five days after the incident, he said, his chest muscles still hurt.

Cox was charged with public intoxication and disorderly conduct but denied he committed a crime or threatened the officer. He said police didn't give him an breath-alcohol test.

''I didn't put (the officer) in danger, in no kind of way,'' he said.

Officer Henderson declined to comment through a supervisor.

The debate

''Rather than minimizing the use of force, (Tasers) may dangerously expand the boundaries of what are considered 'acceptable' levels of force,'' Amnesty International officials wrote in a 93-page report released last week.

According to the report, overall uses of force rose almost 30% at the Orange County Florida Sheriff's Office in the two years after the devices were purchased. There, virtually every other type of force fell while Taser use rose.

Taser proponents attribute the increased use to the devices' effectiveness, noting that several large police departments across the country feel confident enough in them to issue them as standard equipment.

''From a purely quantitative point of view, it is clear that the TASER system represents a lower risk of injury for both the officer and suspect'' than punches, baton strikes, chemical spray and other types of force, according to a report by Taser International, the Phoenix-based manufacturer.

That report cites the Phoenix Police Department, for whom the injury rate to suspects fell by 67% and the use of lethal force fell 54% after the purchase of 1,500 stun guns.

The product is being used or tested by 6,000 police, corrections and military agencies worldwide. Bernard Kerik, the former New York police commissioner who was nominated Friday to head the Department of Homeland Security, sits on Taser's board of directors.

Taser critics fail to mention that ''police officers are using tools in their tool chest to respond to force being used against them,'' Metro chief Serpas said.

Training and accountability are key, expert says

Geoffrey Alpert, an expert in use of force issues and a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina, said that, like any police tool or tactic, Tasers have the potential to be abused.

''The question is, when is it going to be reasonable force and when is it going to be excessive force?'' he said. ''I doubt if the citizens of Nashville want to be experimented on to figure it out.''

Police departments need to consider carefully their training methods, policies and supervision before deploying stun guns, he said.

Police in Nashville receive four hours of training before being issued a Taser. Each time a Taser is used by an officer, a supervisor responds to the scene and interviews the person it was used on, witnesses and the officer. The supervisor then writes a review of the incident, which is read by several others up the chain of command.

The reports make their way to one of three field supervisors and to staff at the police training academy.

''We're monitoring Taser usage very closely,'' Metro police spokes- man Don Aaron said last week.

But if people don't report perceived problems to the police, some abuses could go unnoticed.

After the Taser was used on him Nov. 26, Cox said, he was too shaken and angry to tell the supervisors who responded that he felt wronged.

Assistant Public Defender Allegra Montgomery said that, in her experience, young black men are the least likely group to formally complain of abuse. Many don't trust police and fear their complaint won't be treated seriously.

She previously represented Verdell L. Williams, who was hit with a Taser on Nov. 16 while handcuffed after being stopped for a traffic violation. Williams, 21, resisted as officers tried to search him, a report said. Police said they later found crack in his shoe.

Police trainers had not formally reviewed the Williams incident, but department officials said the Taser use was not necessarily inappropriate.

''The officer deployed the Taser, the man was not injured, the officer was not injured and the search was accomplished,'' Aaron said. ''Being in handcuffs does not mean the situation has de- escalated below combative behavior.''

The debate over Tasers

A national debate has raged between advocates and opponents of Taser stun guns. Here's a look at what both sides contend:

Pros

• Among options such as batons, chemical spray or bodily force, Taser use results in fewer injuries to officers and those it is used on.

• Tasers do not claim to be risk-free but studies have found them comparatively safe.

• Opponents ignore a body of reports showing the technology is safe and effective.

Cons

• Police are using Tasers as routine force to subdue noncompliant people who are not a danger to themselves or others. They should be used only as an alternative to deadly force.

• Not enough testing has been done to find out about their possible health dangers.

• Police use Tasers in situations that, before their acquisition, would not have resulted in the use of force.

Metro Taser uses

Seven men have been subdued with Taser stun guns since 45 of the devices were distributed to street officers last month. Four of the men could not be reached for comment. A fifth would not comment.

The following accounts were compiled from Metro police reports:

John Allen McGhahay Jr., 32

Police responding to a domestic disturbance Nov. 11 said McGhahay refused to obey commands and was verbally abusive to officers. He was shocked one time after refusing to get in a squad car.

No injuries were reported.

Michael Jackson, 19

Jackson's wife called police Nov. 12 to report he was threatening to commit suicide by drinking bleach. When officers arrived, he was in a bedroom reading aloud from several Bibles. Police got one handcuff on him and got him to sit down on the bed, but he refused to put his hands behind his back and tried to break away. He was shocked one time. No injuries were reported.

Jackson said he was shocked twice but was not hurt.

Verdell Lynn Williams Jr., 21

After stopping Williams on a traffic violation Nov. 16 and handcuffing him, he became verbally abusive, refused to be searched and pulled away from police.

He was shocked twice, the second time after he threatened to kick an officer. No injuries were reported.

Juvenile, name withheld, 17

An officer walking through the Tony Sudekum public housing development Nov. 17 stopped the juvenile for possession of alcohol, trespassing and curfew violation. During a pat-down, the officer found a handgun but was not able to retrieve it before the juvenile resisted by locking his arms and refusing to put them behind his back. An officer knocked him to the ground with a foot sweep, where he continued to disobey commands and resist being cuffed.

He was shocked once. The only injury reported was a busted lip from hitting the ground after the foot sweep.

Jonathan Matthew Fort, 31

Fort was wrestling with Davidson County sheriff's deputies in the booking room of the Metro Jail on Nov. 19.

He was shocked three times during attempts to get him under control, but the second two did not make good contact because of the struggle. He was then pepper-sprayed. A booking photo of him shows a cut he sustained in the scuffle. No injuries were reported from the Taser.

Thomas Casey, 28

Officers responding to a call of an armed man who had broken into a house Nov. 25 spotted Casey in an alley behind the house. When an officer identified himself, Casey threw an object, later identified as a gun, over a fence. He was slow to respond to orders to get on the ground.

He was shocked four times as he continued to disobey commands and lay on top of his hand. No injuries were reported.

John Dewitt Cox, 20

Cox was arguing with his girlfriend Nov. 26 when an officer approached to investigate the commotion. As Cox walked away, the officer, who had his Taser drawn, grabbed Cox's sports jersey.

Police say Cox threatened to punch the officer and was shocked twice while being restrained. Cox said he was shocked without provocation.

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