Police are too Quick to Grab for Taser's Power, Say Critics
Teens and Pregnant Women Have Felt Jolt in King County
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER | December 1, 2004
When deputies pulled her over, Valinda Otis told them she was pregnant and needed to use the bathroom.
POLICE AND TASERS
When they wouldn't let her go to a nearby restroom, she walked toward it, anyway, she said, and was quickly handcuffed and placed in a patrol car. She screamed and kicked the car door.
That's when a deputy with the King County Sheriff's Office pulled out a Taser, pressed it against her thigh and jolted her with 50,000 volts of electricity.
"It was a sharp pain," said Otis, 24, who was three months pregnant at the time of the September incident. "I kept asking, 'Is it gonna mess up my baby?' "
Tasers have been used locally to end violent standoffs and subdue suicidal people, but a Seattle Post-Intelligencer review found they're also being used routinely in far less threatening situations -- including against juveniles, pregnant women and people who have already been handcuffed.
Valinda Otis was three months pregnant -- and in handcuffs -- when a King County deputy used a Taser on her in September.
King County sheriff's deputies have fired Tasers at a teenager who ran after not paying a $1.25 bus fare, a 71-year-old man who was arrested for drunken driving and refused to get into a patrol car, and a partially deaf man who couldn't hear deputies ordering him to stop, reports show.
Some civil rights advocates argue Tasers are being drawn too quickly and in cases in which such extreme force isn't necessary. They worry about potential abuses as more officers rely on the tool to subdue people who they say pose no serious threat to themselves or others.
"We have a problem with the rush to tase and ask questions later," said Sheley Secrest, with the NAACP's Seattle chapter, who has fielded several complaints, including one from Otis. The NAACP wants stricter policies.
Amnesty International released a report today saying police nationwide are abusing the stun guns, and more than 70 deaths in Taser incidents raise questions about whether the devices are safe -- though the company that builds them insists they are.
From January 2003 to June 2004, Seattle police used Tasers in 269 incidents, while King County sheriff's deputies used them in 267 incidents, including 15 cases in which they were displayed as warnings, according to a P-I review of hundreds of use-of-force reports.
Tasers have defused many potentially deadly situations. The painful jolts stopped a man from leaping off Seattle's Aurora Bridge, subdued a man who grabbed an officer's gun and turned it on him, and stopped several knife-wielding people who might have been shot dead, records show.
But King County deputies have shocked at least 10 people who were handcuffed, while Seattle police used the devices on at least three handcuffed people. Such use is discouraged in Phoenix; Las Vegas; Austin, Texas; and other cities.
Nearly a third of those hit were jolted two or more times. King County and Seattle officials say they plan to review multiple shockings.
About three out of four of those shocked by Seattle police were unarmed. Five of six zapped by King County deputies didn't have weapons, though records didn't always note this.
Officials with the King County Sheriff's Office and the Seattle Police Department say Tasers are generally used the way they should be: to control suspects who are aggressive, fight back, actively resist or run away.
But the King County Sheriff's Office has recently tightened its policy after finding some uses "just weren't appropriate" even though they fell within department guidelines, said Chief Sue Rahr, who has been named to replace Sheriff Dave Reichert. The agency also will begin keeping a database of and requiring reports for all Taser incidents.
Rahr declined to comment about specific cases but said deputies are fighting public misperceptions about Tasers.
Pregnant women, the elderly, juveniles and those who are already handcuffed can be violent and threatening, she said. Still, deputies are trained to exhaust all their options "in a case like that because it just doesn't look pretty," she said.
"Even though Tasers sound scary when you crackle them, they are really a much more gentle tool than wrestling with someone. ... It looks like and sounds like a torture tool, and that is not how it is used; that's not the way they're trained to use them," Rahr said.
In the next few months, the Seattle Police Department plans to review multiple shockings with its 280 officers who carry Tasers but maintains that its current policy is effective and restrictive enough.
"It's not a matter of 'we're going to zap you if you don't follow orders,' " said Deputy Chief Clark Kimerer. "There's a context of struggle."
Kimerer says the beauty of the Taser is "that you walk away from it." He and others say it reduces injuries, leaves no permanent scars and potentially saves lives when officers reach for a Taser rather than a Glock 9 mm pistol.
In 2003, for the first time in 15 years, Seattle didn't have any shooting deaths involving officers, and police Chief Gil Kerlikowske said Tasers and other less-lethal tools are partly responsible. Tasers are used in only a small fraction of the 20,000 arrests made each year, said Kerlikowske, who recently volunteered to be shocked with a Taser so he would understand what the experience was like.
Officers don't want to pull the trigger, said Lynnwood Sgt. Wes Deppa. "You feel a lot better at the end of the day knowing you took somebody to jail, and they didn't get hurt, and you didn't get hurt."
A less lethal alternative
Shaped like a gun but battery-operated, a Taser fires two fishhooklike barbs into a person's skin and disrupts a person's muscle control for five seconds. The darts have a range of up to 21 feet; the tool also can be pressed directly against a person to use in stun mode.
The pain can be excruciating, "freezing" someone on the spot, but a person can typically move once the switch is turned off.
Seattle police explored less-lethal weapons four years ago after a series of deadly run-ins with mentally disturbed people. In April 2000, police shot and killed David Walker, a mentally ill man who shoplifted from a Queen Anne store, fired a shot at security guards and brandished a knife. A police task force and a citizens group formed after the incident both recommended Tasers and more crisis training for officers.
Other departments watched how Seattle handled that case and followed suit.
About 6,000 agencies, including more than 150 in this state, have the devices, which are trademarked and manufactured by Taser International, a publicly traded company based in Scottsdale, Ariz.
"Police departments have been desperate to find less-than-lethal alternatives," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, D.C.
The Rev. Harriet Walden, a member of the citizens group that recommended Tasers to Seattle police, said the weapon can be very effective in handling crisis situations but was never meant to be used on handcuffed or intoxicated people.
"Everybody wants less shootings. The (police) department wants less shootings, too," said Walden, founder of Mothers for Police Accountability. "But we're not advocating that the Tasers be used to torture people. ... The community will have to watch it."
Because the devices typically leave few marks when the darts are fired, critics worry they're too easy to abuse. The stun gun mode has been known to leave burn marks on some people.
Kenneth Ruffer, a SeaTac high school senior, said Seattle police officers were too quick to tase him.
Kenneth Ruffer, a student at Tyee High School in SeaTac, was hit with a Taser four times in the neck by Seattle police officers after the car he was riding in was stopped. He says the police officers were too quick to use the Taser. "When Tasers first came out, it was a good tool," says Ruffer. But "there's a point where you can overdo it. Just because you have it, you don't always have to use it."
Ruffer said he wasn't fighting two years ago when an officer tased him four times in the back of his neck. The teenager was in the back seat of a friend's car when they were pulled over for a broken light near Rainier Beach. Police became suspicious when he made "furtive movements," police reports show. Ruffer said he was clicking on his seat belt.
In their report, officers said Ruffer tensed up and pulled his hands away when he was patted down. He struggled as they tried to handcuff him, but the teenager also told officers "he didn't want to be handcuffed because he was claustrophobic," the report showed.
"I was in a headlock, face down in the dirt and couldn't breathe. I heard someone say, 'Tase him again,' " the 18-year-old said in an interview.
This fall Ruffer received a $25,000 settlement from the city, which admitted no wrongdoing in the lawsuit. He was never charged with a crime.
"When Tasers first came out, it was a good tool," said Ruffer, whose scars are still visible. But "there's a point where you can overdo it. Just because you have it, you don't always have to use it."
Repeated shocks questioned
King County deputies have used the Taser on 17 juveniles, including a 16-year-old pregnant teen who kicked at a deputy when he tried to pull her from the back of a patrol car. The deputy wrote in his report that she was on drugs and banging her head on the partition window.
The 14-year-old girl stopped for not paying her bus fare in March gave the deputy two different spellings of her name and then took off running, incident reports show. The deputy chased her through Pioneer Square and fired the Taser, but she was "unaware" it was applied, his report said.
Failing to show hands when ordered to do so, running from police or not surrendering hands for cuffing were common reasons for tasing, records show. Local officers also used Tasers to enforce orders to stay on the ground, come out of hiding or get into or out of a patrol car, reports show.
Like Ruffer, several dozen people were zapped multiple times by local officers, the P-I review found.
The citizen board of the Seattle Office of Professional Accountability has asked the Police Department to examine the issue of multiple tasings.
"At some point, when do you stop?" asked Pete Holmes, a board member. "If two tasings, why not three? Why not five? Why not six? When do you say this is not going to work?"
King County deputies stunned a 28-year-old man in the back at least 15 times when they arrested him after he was accused of assaulting his girlfriend, reports show.
High-profile incidents in other cities raise eyebrows.
In southwestern Washington, Olga Rybak was stunned in the back and legs 12 times when she didn't sign an animal-control citation. The Washougal police sergeant who used the Taser was demoted to patrol officer. "It was a poor choice in handling the situation with a Taser rather than other means," said Sgt. Brad Chicks, Washougal's interim police chief. Rybak's attorney, Tom Foley, said the Russian woman spoke limited English and wanted to talk with her husband before signing a citation to impound her dog. He repeatedly stunned her in front of her young children, leaving welts all over her body, Foley said.
"I can't think of any justification for using it like that," he added. "She certainly was not a threat."
In the report released today, Amnesty International says the devices have been used against people who didn't pose a serious threat, such as unruly schoolchildren, people who don't follow orders and unarmed suspects fleeing the scenes of minor crimes. The report cites cases of the tool being used on a 6-year-old mentally disturbed boy in Miami, a handcuffed 9-year-old girl in Arizona and a partially blind 71-year-old Portland woman.
Amnesty International wants officers to stop using the devices until independent tests prove they're safe. Some studies have said there's not enough scientific data to determine whether Tasers are safe for use in all circumstances.
At least 69 people have died nationwide after being shocked by Tasers. Three of those deaths occurred locally, in Olympia, Silverdale and Auburn. (Tomorrow's stories in this series will detail those cases.)
Company officials say Tasers are safe and have never been linked as the direct cause of a death. Those people died from other causes, such as cocaine intoxication or heart problems, they said.
"We've done thorough medical testing," said Steve Tuttle, spokesman for Taser International. "Taser technology saves lives every day."
'I give up, don't shoot'
Several chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union across the country have urged officers to use Tasers only in the most serious situations.
Even some who wanted local police to have the tools are wondering whether the threshold is too low for when officers can shock people.
D'Adre Cunningham, a public defender whose clients have been hit with Tasers, said the devices are sometimes used in mundane situations. Many of her clients were later charged with "contempt of cop," like obstruction.
"Is that really a proper police response to someone mouthing off?" said Cunningham. "What happened before Tasers? We know they didn't shoot all these people. What did they do instead?"
For Otis, the pregnant woman, a traffic stop turned into a painful experience and an arrest for obstruction. Deputies stopped her in September for driving without a license, which they noticed after scanning motel registrations from the previous day. She argued with deputies and screamed when they didn't let her go to the bathroom, the report shows. Two deputies immediately attempted to arrest her.
Olympia police Cmdr. Tor Bjornstad said it isn't always clear-cut when to use Tasers. "There are uses of the Tasers that tend to make people wonder what's going on, but you have to ask yourself what else could have been used?" If officers use a baton, flashlight, pepper spray or their fists, injuries would be far worse, he said.
The year before Tasers were deployed, 11 Olympia officers and seven suspects were injured enough to require a trip to the hospital, Bjornstad said. The next year, only two officers were hurt. Last year, two officers and four suspects were injured.
Sometimes officers don't need to zap at all.
In at least two dozen cases reviewed, the red laser beamed from the Taser or the crackle of electricity fired as a warning were enough to persuade the unwilling to cooperate.
"OK, I give up, don't shoot," one 16-year-old said after seeing a King County deputy aiming the red laser light at his chest, records show. The teenager had tried to hide in a closet when deputies served him with an arrest warrant.
Policies vary widely
Critics believe some policies governing Taser use are too broad in some departments. Such policies and training guides officers in how to use the stun guns.
Last month, Las Vegas police banned the use of Tasers on handcuffed people and discouraged multiple shockings. Two people died this year in Las Vegas after being restrained and shocked multiple times.
Not everyone feels such restrictions are necessary. Lynnwood police don't allow tasing handcuffed suspects but are reconsidering it, Sgt. Deppa said. A handcuffed person can kick, bite or assault an officer, he said. "It's not uncommon for someone in the back of a patrol car to become physically combative," he added.
But there's no real consensus on Taser use among departments. Some agency use-of-force policies don't even mention Tasers. The Port of Seattle's policy gives rules for maintaining the stun guns, but not much guidance on how they should be used.
Others are more specific. Algona tells officers to aim for a person's back, and Federal Way prohibits officers from shooting pregnant women or the elderly "unless other options short of lethal force have failed."
Taser policies vary across the country, and agencies are moving toward more restrictive policies.
In Kansas City, officials adopted a stricter policy this summer after an officer shocked a 66-year-old woman who resisted after she was cited for honking her horn too loudly, Capt. Rich Lockhart said.
"The learning curve is very steep for everybody," Lockhart said.
Officers in Denver and Orlando can no longer use the device on those who "passively resist" -- like failing to move along.
Under King County's new policy, deputies can use Tasers on someone who is passively resisting, or not fighting back, only if they can explain why there was a threat.
King County Sgt. Don Davis, who reviews all Taser incidents, said the changes were partly prompted by an incident involving Javonna Williams. The 27-year-old woman filed a $3 million lawsuit against the Sheriff's Office, saying deputies shot her multiple times in her back, face and mouth.
Deputies contend that Williams was drunk and that they tried to remove her from the disturbance, reports show. She resisted when they tried to handcuff her, so deputies touched her four times on her back with the stun gun, they wrote in the report.
Williams' claim with the Sheriff's Office is still being investigated.
"We had to take a step back and examine the overall policy," said Davis.
Police watchdogs believe it may be time for the community to do the same.
"It was meant for people in crisis," said Walden. "If it's being used for an array of things, maybe the community has to come back together and see how it's being used."