Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 5, 2010

Palo Alto revamps Taser policy

Police department tightens standards for Taser deployment

by Gennady Sheyner

Palo Alto police officers will no longer be allowed to fire Tasers unless the person they use it against poses an immediate physical threat, police officials told the Weekly this week.

The department has just finished revising its policy for Taser use, Police Chief Dennis Burns said. The revisions, which were several months in the making, establish stricter standards for when officers are allowed to use Tasers.

The department's current policy, which was adopted in 2007, relies on the vague "reasonableness" standard and allows officers to use only the force that "reasonably appears necessary, given the facts and circumstances perceived by the officer at the time of the event, to bring an incident under control."

But a recent court ruling and several controversial incidents on Taser use in Palo Alto prompted the department to raise the standards and clarify the policy.

The new policy specifies, "Absent exigent circumstances, the TASER X26 should only be used against persons who pose an immediate threat of bodily injuries."

The revised policy will be presented to the City Council in the coming weeks, police said.

Palo Alto police began using Tasers almost two-and-a-half years ago and have used or attempted to use them on 12 different suspects over that time period, according to a new report from Independent Police Auditor Michael Gennaco.

Most of these cases involved unruly and uncooperative suspects who attacked officers or refused to leave their vehicles. But Gennaco's newest report, released Wednesday night, also describes one case in which a Palo Alto officer mistakenly applied a Taser against an intoxicated man near a local nightclub. According to the report, the man had been trying to punch the bouncer at the nightclub when officers arrived and asked him to back away.

The man was allegedly swaying in place and mumbling, "What's the problem?" when an officer trained his Taser on him, the report states. The man allegedly moved his hands to his chest area, at which time the officer deployed the Taser.

The man fell to the ground and "failed to put his hands behind his back as ordered." The officer then deployed the Taser in "stun drive" mode against the man's leg, according to the report. The man was then taken to the hospital, received a medical check-up and was released for booking into jail, the report states.

Gennaco, who reviews every case of Taser deployment, said his review prompted him to conclude that this use of Taser "was a mistaken application of the current PAPD policy to the factual situation." After reviewing the reports and video footage of the incident, Gennaco said he believed that the man was "simply gesturing to his own chest while referring to his own experiences in the narrative" when he was shot with a Taser.

The second use of Taser was also questionable, Gennaco wrote, because it was "unclear whether the man had time to comply with commands after his fall to the ground."

Gennaco recommended that the officer who fired the Taser receive more training on Taser deployment and "debriefed on his failure to give warnings in this case." The officer should also be warned that future questionable Taser uses would likely lead to a formal internal-affairs investigation and possible disciplinary action.

Gennaco has been working with the police department to clarify its Taser policy. The department also considered last December's ruling by the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals against a Coronado, Calif., police officer who fired a Taser at a man after pulling him over for not wearing a seatbelt.

The court concluded that stunning a subject with a Taser is only justified when a suspect poses "an immediate threat to the officer or a member of the public."

Burns said the department had been in the process of revising the policy even before the federal court issued its ruling. He said he hopes the new guidelines will reduce instances of misapplied Taser use and clarify the standards for deployment.

"We want to give the officers more defined guidelines about where Taser use is appropriate," Burns said.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

Comments

Posted by PAPD-Critic, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 5, 2010 at 9:28 am


As a critic of the PAPD let me first state that officer safety should be the primary concern. Secondly, the Tazer is often referred to as a "Tool".

This alleged tool is in fact a weapon which has caused now over 350 deaths in the US and Canada alone.

What is disturbing is the fact that it was a recent 9th circuit court decision which changed the entire landscape of how the Tazer should be used and applied.

I believe Dennis Burns was very much aware of the hazards way before the lightning bolt decision was struck and should have issued changes to there existing policy before hand.

Doing so would have demonstrated sound leadership and "world class" policing strategies.



Posted by Waverley St, a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 5, 2010 at 10:37 am

Any reasonable person would probably realize that 'reasonableness' is a rather weak standard when allowing the use of a potentially lethal weapon by a power-seeking individual.


Posted by mark, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Mar 5, 2010 at 10:52 am

Burns will only do things in a reactionary manner and will never be proactive.


Posted by Alan, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 5, 2010 at 11:03 am

I think that officers need a non lethal "tool" to use in situations where there is violence that does need to be met with deadly force. I would much rather have the officer use the taser than a firearm to subdue a pugnacious drunk, for example, or a disoriented woman waving a vegetable peeler.

On the other hand, I have read of many incidents where officers (not Palo Alto police) have used the taser, which has the potential to be lethal, to remedy a situation of mere uncooperativeness.

I think that our police chief's new policy is exactly what was needed.


Posted by Micheal, a resident of another community
on Mar 5, 2010 at 12:16 pm

As someone who was in law enforcement for a long time, I know there is no easy way to subdue a resistive subject. When you have to use force, there is always the possibility that you may be hurt or killed. I saw the evolution from "Billy Clubs" to Tasers. Each has had their drawbacks. There is no one perfect system to subdue a resistive person. Everything must be view as a potential of an escalation of force and you need to have training and tools to address it. How proficient officers are in the use of their tools is extremely important. Ideally, you do not want to put your hands on a suspect to bring them under control.

Personally, I am not a fan of the Taser and I have always thought of it as one-dimensional. I preferred the 26-inch wooden baton. Not only is it an offensive tool, it is a very effective defensive tool. I know of two officers who received a letter of commendation from the defense attorney who represented a murder suspect that they had disarmed with only one blow to the wrist with a 26-inch wooden baton. Other times, people complained about officers who carried the 26-inch baton as being too brutal looking.

I support Chief Dennis Burns in tightening the protocols for the use of the Taser. I feel that a Taser is the last thing before you need to use your gun. Officers must have all the defensive and offensive tools to subdue resistive subjects. The better they are trained, the less likely there is of injury to either party.


Posted by Propeshia, a resident of East Palo Alto
on Mar 5, 2010 at 2:34 pm

Police have to make slit second decisions in tense, rapidly evolving, and dangerous situations. Those who determine if a police officer made the correct decision do so in the comfort of their offices, in the light of day, absent the stresses the officer felt at the time. Making a collaborative, deliberated decision based on reviewing taser camera footage and reading a report of the incident is not the same as being in that officer's shoes at the time of the incident. I don't believe that 12 taser incidents in two years is concerning given the voluminous number of enforcement contacts police have surely made during that time. Police are obviously not overusing the taser and that is probably a testament to the fact that they have received more and better training in taser use than other police departments.

Historically, people have sometimes died in police custody since there have been police. Other tools that have been blamed for those deaths including the police baton, pepper spray, and the carotid choke hold. The taser was designed to save lives and prevent injury but based on history we know that there most likely will be someone, somewhere that dies after fighting or struggling with police. If that person's heart exploded because they were high on PCP, meth, or cocaine and they fought with police and die, who is to blame? Of course the police will blindly be blamed by some no matter what those officers did or didn't do.

Let face it, police have to deal with situations that most people could never handle properly and safely. Most people don't have the courage to face the kind of threats police are exposed to daily. Police make decisions based on their perceptions at the time and the last thing they want is a career ending wrongful death incident that leaves them penniless or in jail.

Police standards and training standards should be set high, they are set high. Consequently, police are some of the most capable and well trained people in society. Be humble in your judgement of them. You will probably never know what its like to do their job.


Posted by pecuniac, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 5, 2010 at 3:25 pm

Yes, its easy to theorize about the proper use of force if your life revolves around your safe cubicle, your safe car, and your safe locked doors in an upper middle class suburb. But, if an inebriated lout is charging you with any handy cudgel, I think most people would choose something to prevent injury to themselves, something immediate. Romanticize all you want about TaiChi, the Dali Lama, or millenia of Kung Fu masters, most of us are not those and most cops are flesh and blood.


Posted by Robert, a resident of Greater Miranda
on Mar 5, 2010 at 3:27 pm

Given the low use of Tasers in Palo Alto, this is a bit of a non-issue, other than from a policy point-of-view. Giving police officers official notice that inappropriate use of these devices can lead to "disciplinary action" is about all that is changing here.

It would be nice if Burns would publish what would happen if someone were to die from a Taser burst, however. If the officer firing the Taser were found to be in no particular danger, would this case be subject to prosecution? Or is Burns only considering a typical "tap on the wrist".


Posted by Bob, a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 5, 2010 at 11:19 pm

Propeshia - Thank YOU!!!


Posted by Robert, a resident of Greater Miranda
on Mar 8, 2010 at 12:39 pm

> police are some of the most capable and well trained
> people in society.

Ah .. this statement is a bit too vague to be of use to anyone other than a police officer. How does an officer writing traffic tickets become "more capable" that a dentist, or a brain surgeon, or a software engineer, or a pilot, or a sonar operator, or any number of other very complicated professions? Sorry .. but given the parameters of the job .. there is a limit to what is expected of a police officer, and so there is a natural limit to the training provided.

How many people would go to a police officer to ask for advice about what college to send your child, or what major the child should pursue? Or maybe what stocks to invest in, or whether buying a house in a given location will result in a profit or loss? Sorry .. but there is little evidence that police officers are the kinds of people that society looks to for guidance about important personal, or societal, decisions ..

If the claim is that they are "well trained for the job at hand" .. then maybe that's true .. until we find that there is fraud or corruption in a given police department, and none of the officers were "trained" to recognize these failures in their fellow officers and that there is an obligation to turn these "bad actors" to their Internal Affairs department for prosecution.

Rational people agree that the police have a hard job .. but abusing the public with Tasers .. using them more-or-less like cattle prods, isn't endearing the police to anyone.



Posted by ED, a resident of Southgate
on Mar 8, 2010 at 9:39 pm

Robert is scared and weak.


Posted by Jake, a resident of another community
on Mar 10, 2010 at 2:52 am

I'll take being Tased by the police instead of being shot or struck by a baton any day of the week. More people have been killed after being shot or struck by a baton or night stick, than by Tasers.
The police should be using the Taser as a last resort PRIOR to shooting somebody or using their baton. Most people have no damage or injury after being Tased, and many police officers have been Tased themselves in Taser training to demonstrate the affects of the weapon. A Taser is not going to kill or wound and inocent bystander nearby either. I'd also prefer being Tased to having a police dog
rip into me.


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