Imagine your 16-year-old son riding his bike on Palo Alto streets and, like too many bicyclists, cruising through a stop sign without stopping.
This time, your son is unlucky enough to have police witness the infraction. But instead of stopping, your son makes his second mistake: He attempts to get away. Moments later, a police officer makes a bad decision of his own: to use his Taser gun in an attempt to apprehend your son while he is still riding his bike.
Unsuccessful in shocking him with the Taser, another officer cuts your son off using his patrol car. After colliding with the car, your son winds up at the hospital with minor scrapes and bruises, is cited and released to your custody.
Details of this incident were among several reported in the most recent biannual report from Palo Alto's independent police auditors, outside consultants who review and investigate citizen complaints and how they were handled and resolved by the department. Because of this process, information on police conduct and citizen complaints are more transparent than ever before, and vastly better than in most other communities where police have strongly resisted any type of civilian review or accountability.
The result is a department that is more open to admitting its mistakes, reevaluating its policies and sharing with the public how it resolves complaints against its officers. That openness ultimately leads to both better police conduct and a greater understanding by the public of the pressures under which the police often operate.
In reviewing the bicycle Taser case summarized above, the report points out that the bike turned out to have been stolen, but that fact wasn't known to officers pursuing the boy. The report does not disclose the race of the boy, a fact that should be made public, especially in light of the past concerns about racial profiling and treatment of minority crime suspects. If the boy is white, it would at least remove one element of possible controversy.
In responding to this particular incident, according to the auditor Palo Alto police conducted a thorough internal investigation, determined that the officer (a training officer no less) who used his Taser did not follow department procedures because it was more force than appropriate under the circumstances of the crime, it was unsafe to use a Taser against a person riding a bike, and the required warning was not given.
As a result of the investigation, the department is reviewing how to improve its written policies and its training, and unspecified discipline was administered against the officer.
Most parents would be accepting, if not delighted, with the idea that their child would have the learning experience of facing a consequence for riding through a stop sign, especially at a busy or dangerous intersection. And worse, for not obeying a police officer's order to stop.
But no one, juvenile or adult, should be put at risk of serious injury by being tased while riding a bike. It is exactly this type of incident, which could have had a far worse ending, that leads to public skepticism about Tasers and their availability to police caught in situations requiring instant judgment.
If a training officer made the judgment to use his Taser in this instance, would he or other officers had made a similar decision in pursuing a teenager who had been drinking with friends in a neighborhood park and who chose to run when confronted by police? What about a juvenile running from officers breaking up "egg wars" among high school students?
The conduct described by the auditors in this case isn't up to our community's values and expectations of how police work should be done. But it also clearly demonstrates the dangers and risks associated with Tasers having become standard-issue police gear.
Tasers have been touted as providing a non-deadly force alternative available to help subdue an aggressive or violent suspect, and in those limited cases can equip police with a way to avoid using a gun and risk seriously injuring or killing a suspect.
But the fact that use of a Taser was even considered by this officer warrants the thorough reexamination of department policies that the report assures us is taking place. We urge Police Chief Dennis Burns to share with the public the changes he implements on Taser use and the lessons learned from this unfortunate incident.
Tasers have only been used in a few instances since being issued to officers in Palo Alto, but this case illustrates their risk and underscores the need for vigilance in monitoring the rules for their deployment.