Palo Alto Weekly

News - September 10, 2010

Auditor's report details Taser firings

Recent Taser deployments would have violated police department's new guidelines

by Gennady Sheyner

Incidents in late 2009 and early 2010 in which Palo Alto police officers fired their Tasers at suspects would have violated the city's new policy for deployment of the controversial stun guns, Independent Police Auditor Michael Gennaco has concluded in his new report.

The report details five recent incidents of Taser use, including one in which an officer fired a Taser at a "young" burglary suspect who tried to run away from the officer. Some of the Taser deployments would have been appropriate under the previous department policy, which permits Taser use when suspects are "actively resisting," which includes such actions as "tensing" or "bracing" to resist arrest. The new policy, adopted by the police department earlier this year, created a stricter standard and requires that the suspect "pose an immediate threat of physical injury before firing a Taser is appropriate."

In the case of the unnamed "young man," the officer who fired the Taser appears to have violated even the original, less strict, policy. The officer fired the weapon after the young man ignored an officer's order to stop and then began to run away. The officer missed, but the man, hearing the sound of the Taser, stopped running, lay down on the ground and allowed police to handcuff him. He had a small knife and a screwdriver in his pocket and was arrested for possession of burglary tools, according to the auditor's report.

Though a police supervisor initially determined the officer's use of the Taser fell within the department's policy, Police Chief Dennis Burns had "misgivings" about the incident and ordered a new review. That investigation concluded the officer failed to comply with the existing policy because the officer had minimal evidence at the time about the suspect's intent to burglarize and because the suspect's flight did not constitute "exigent circumstances" or "active resistance or active aggression." The auditor agreed with the review's findings, and the officer was forced to undergo new training and receive counseling.

In other cases, officers appeared to have followed the department's previous Taser policy (which was in effect at the time of the incidents) but would not have been in compliance with the revised policy. In one case, officers tried to handcuff a male suspect who appeared "angry, intoxicated and agitated" and who became "verbally confrontational." Two officers grabbed the man's hands and bent him forward; a third officer, under direction from his supervisor, fired a Taser at the man's back.

Though the supervisor said the suspect in this case was "actively resisting" by "tensing" during the arrest, both Gennaco and managers in the department had "significant concerns" about the incident. They concluded the Taser deployment was "minimally within the original policy" but would have been in violation of the new policy.

Gennaco reached a similar conclusion in another case, in which a suspect hit a police patrol vehicle with his car, ran a red light and hit three parked cars and a light post before stopping his car. He then tried to run away, but officers soon apprehended him.

The officer whose car was hit caught up to the suspect while the other officers were handcuffing him. Though one hand was already in a handcuff, the suspect's "muscles tightened" while officers were trying to secure his left arm. The officer whose car was hit then fired a Taser at the suspect, who was arrested without further incident.

After reviewing the incident, the department and Gennaco concluded that "had this Taser deployment been undertaken under the new revised policy, the application would have been out of policy."

Gennaco wrote that the police department's revised policy also provides guidance on "multiple cycling" of the Taser. Under the new policy, an officer must re-evaluate the circumstances and consider whether the suspect still poses an "immediate threat" before a Taser is fired for a second time.

"The new policy restricts use of the Taser to more appropriate situations that are consistent with recent legal opinions," Gennaco wrote. "Now that the revised policy has been issued, the Department has begun to provide the necessary training to familiarize officers with the new requirements."

The report also mentions an incident in which an officer's firing of the Taser appeared to be "timely, appropriate and in compliance with the Department's policy, then and now." This case involved two brothers, one of whom the police knew had a history of mental illness (his mother told the police he was "possibly violent, suicidal and delusional"). After leaving his vehicle, the older brother approached a female officer and "raised his arms over his head." The female officer pulled his hands down and other officers moved in to try to restrain him, but he began to wrestle with them.

At this point, the female officer fired a Taser at his back, but the darts "made insufficient contact and were ineffectual." The younger brother joined the fray but was quickly pulled away by an officer. Other officers arrived and tried to place the older brother into the police vehicle but could not do so. Ultimately, paramedics and firefighters arrived, secured the older brother to a gurney and took him to a hospital in an ambulance.

Gennaco said he reviewed tapes of the entire incident and was "impressed by the officers' calm professionalism during the incident and their patience in dealing with a mentally disturbed individual."

Comments

Posted by c, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 9, 2010 at 2:15 pm

we have come to the conclusion that police are given too much authority. they are never to be trusted for any reason forever.


Posted by don't tase me, a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 9, 2010 at 2:16 pm

Cops who use their weapons in violation of department policy should be fired and arrested for assault and battery (or worse).


Posted by annoyed, a resident of another community
on Sep 9, 2010 at 9:43 pm

The second and third use of the taser were within the policy that was in affect at the time of use. It doesn't matter that they would have been in violation within the new policy. IT WASN'T IN AFFECT AT THE TIME!!! This is similar to the data collection cards. You can report on the numbers which ever way you want to use them. Bravo to Chief Burns for not accepting the first incident. It shows that he is doing the right thing.


Posted by The Brothers, a resident of Southgate
on Sep 10, 2010 at 8:12 am

So if they come out with a more restrictive policy in a few years, will they review all the current taser issues and tell us if they were out of compliant with the complaints that are to come? How ridiculous. Why are they spending so much time on whether things are acceptable under policy and practices that were not in place during the time of the actual incident? POST DE FACTO GINACO!


Posted by Dennis, a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 10, 2010 at 10:41 am

I think reviewing past incidents to test them against a new policy makes a lot of sense.

So, there were some past incidents which were within past guidelines but not under the new ones. Of course! Otherwise why bother changing the policy if it makes no difference in practice?


Posted by pecuniac, a resident of Meadow Park
on Sep 10, 2010 at 4:53 pm

A story from a couple of big nightclub bouncers makes me hesitant to be a knee jerk PC type on the subject of Tasers. These bouncers said that when young men, hopped up on steroids, come out of their clubs looking for a fight, it can take more than a couple of big, bad dudes to subdue them. While many of our Palo Alto Police officers are big bad dudes, it is doubtful that any individual could stop an out of control druggie. An officer has a right to defend themselves from assault. The choices are martial arts, club, Taser, or bullets. The Taser seems like the tool to inflict the least damage under those kind of circumstances.


Posted by only, a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 11, 2010 at 2:19 pm

only problem, they act like ''big bad dudes''all the time when stopping non whites who are non confrontational. they think all non whites are ready to explode all the time. that is an erroneous assumption! very dangerous attitude of police.


Posted by OhCome ON!, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 11, 2010 at 9:02 pm

Good grief! Let the police do what they need to!!! They have had a lot of training.


Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 13, 2010 at 3:18 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Let's go back to the good old days where the Cop either bashes you in the head with a loaded billy or shoots you. Hey, it was good enough for Grandpa.
Or, we could teach our kids not to challenge the police. Nah, that might suppress their self esteem.


Posted by Walter walter walter, a resident of Stanford
on Sep 13, 2010 at 8:53 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


Posted by Excited-Delirium blog, a resident of another community
on Sep 13, 2010 at 8:40 pm

There are two basic problems with tasers, and one arises from the other.

The root problem is that, for many years, Taser International mounted a campaign to convince everyone that tasers were essentially perfectly safe; that they could never be a cause of death - and these claims were false. Some of the propaganda techniques used to convey this false impression amount to deceptive marketing (perhaps much worse). The naive law enforcement community was played like a dime-store trumpet.

They've been forced by the growing liability risk to issue new warnings (May 1, 2010) that finally include an admission that (for example) tasers can cause risk-of-death heart effects if a dart happens to land on the wrong spot on the chest. That certainly explains some of the many deaths... They also admit that tasers, when used repeatedly or for long durations, can cause lethal acidosis. That would certainly explain some of the other many deaths...

By the way, their latest warnings end the debate about taser safety. They and their fan-boys were wrong, and the critics were correct.

The secondary problem arises from the first. Police, having been misled that tasers are safe feel free to use them on anyone, even those that do not represent an actual threat. Back-talking speeder? Zap. Kid asking annoying questions? Zap. Minority suspect failing to display sufficient respect (hey, it's true)? Zap.

The cross product of the first problem with the second is that people are being killed by the police that did not do anything that deserved a potentially-lethal response. The police themselves probably are as shocked as anyone when someone dies immediately after being tasered.

The initial solution is to restrict tasers to situations where the subject is already displaying immediate violence to the police. Hopefully the police can distinguish ACTUAL threats from simple frustration that may also result in what appears to be "an aggressive stance". If they would spend some time practicing their de-escalation techniques, everyone would be safer.

Long term, someone needs to seriously investigate how Taser International is getting away with being involved with hundreds of deaths, influencing the medical examiners with their vastly overused "excited delirium" excuse for taser-linked deaths, and how they get away with acts and omissions that are clearly deceptive and misleading.

This is a very complex issue and there is a great deal of sleight-of-hand going on by some of the pro-taser folks. My blog has 2000 posts on the subject, all linked to sources so you can fact-check until your eyes bleed. Some of our findings include some amazing examples of corporate or personal misbehavior.


Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 13, 2010 at 9:43 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Some folk obviously don't get satire. Imperfect as the Taser might be, it is undeniably safer than a pistol or a billy. Safest of all is to submit peacefully to arrest and work it out in court. I do recognize that for society to work there must be an overwhelming bias toward voluntary compliance with the laws. I will not send police out but deny them the means of controlling resisters. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


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