Ought cops zap folks? Rocky creates a panel
Human rights, medical and police groups represented
Salt Lake Tribune | May 24, 2005
By Heather May
Police Tasers, which have come under fire from civil libertarians and human rights advocates, now are drawing scrutiny from Salt Lake City's mayor.
Rocky Anderson has assembled a committee - including police officers, the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and the Utah Medical Association - to study the weapons and the Salt Lake City Police Department's use of them.
The panel could recommend the mayor ban them, continue to allow SWAT team officers to use them or something in between.
Although Anderson has been a police critic - as an attorney he sued officers for misconduct and, as mayor, hired an investigator to probe allegations of excessive police force - he hasn't ruled out Tasers, said Ty McCartney, who is heading the Taser committee as administrator of the city police-watchdog Civilian Review Board.
"He hasn't said, 'Hey, I don't like them,' " McCartney said Monday. "The mayor is going into this with an open mind so he can make the best decision."
The review is prompted by a national debate on Tasers, which can zap a suspect with 50,000 volts. Arizona-based Taser International maintains they cause no long-term harm. The American Civil Liberties Union argues Tasers have contributed to numerous deaths. And Amnesty International says the stun guns can be abused by "unscrupulous officials" because they are portable, easy to use and leave no major marks.
Late last year, an Orem man died after Heber City police shocked him with a Taser. The Wasatch County attorney found the jolt didn't kill the man, but said it may have been a contributing factor. Douglas Meldrum, who was high on ephedrine, had punched a cop in the mouth and head when he was zapped.
Taser International has noted that Taser deaths happened when the targets were on drugs or had other health problems.
That link concerns McCartney, a former police officer, who wants to know whether Tasers are the best nonlethal option. One alternative, he said, are pepper-ball guns, which can break glass and contain pepper spray. McCartney remembers shooting a running fugitive with the pepper-ball gun.
"I shot him in the back and he kept running," he said. "The Tasers are more effective."
Salt Lake City's Police Department allows only SWAT team officers, who also fight gangs, to pack Tasers. Lt. Tim Doubt said 25 of the city's 400 officers have been certified to carry them since 2003. He said they have been used 13 to 14 times since then.
Doubt said his officers aren't allowed to use the weapons like Arizona State University police did in January on Ute fans who tried to storm the field after the University of Utah football team won the Fiesta Bowl.
"We wouldn't use them as a crowd-control tool," Doubt said.
Until a month ago, Tasers in Salt Lake City could be used when officers normally would employ pepper spray. But in light of the deaths, the policy changed so that Tasers are now akin to using batons.
"We've had no serious injuries with it," Doubt said. "We wanted to err on the safe side."
The ACLU advocates that Tasers be used only in place of firearms.
A 2004 statewide review by The Salt Lake Tribune found that 85 percent of the times stun guns were used, it was on unarmed individuals.
"Last I saw, there have been over 80 deaths [nationally]," said Dani Eyer, executive director of the ACLU's Utah chapter. "We're not calling for an elimination. They may be a legitimate tool for the police to have."
Utah Peace Officer Standards and Training has not investigated police use of Tasers, said Lt. Randall Richey, who will sit on Anderson's Taser committee. POST does not include Tasers in its training.
"There are officers who swear by them," Richey said. "There are issues that have been raised we need to look at."