Palo Alto Weekly
Spectrum - January 17, 2014
Editorial: A Taser lesson learned
Police auditor report gives public valuable peek at risks of Taser guns when police must make instant judgments
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.
Posted by Aram James,
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 20, 2014 at 8:30 pm
FROM MY ARCHIVES ON TASERS in Palo Alto, Yes or No!
Dear Enoch Choi, MD: (Attn: All members of the Palo Alto Taser Task Force & City Council members)
My name is Aram James I am a citizen of Palo Alto, a retired Santa Clara County deputy public defender and a member of the Santa Clara County Coalition for Justice & Accountability.
The Coalition for Justice & Accountability came into existence shortly after the murder of San Jose citizen Bic Cau Tran which occurred on July 13, 2003. Said murder was at the hands of San Jose police officer Chad Marshall.
Our organization monitors a wide variety of police practices issues including officer involved shootings, acts of racially discriminatory law enforcement, all forms of police brutality and speaks out against the use of Tasers by law enforcement.
Members of our organization meet with local politicians, community organizations, independent police auditors, members of law enforcement, members of the District Attorneys Office, expert witnesses, and others in the criminal justice system in order to make certain that our police are not acting in a lawless manner and are living up to their responsibility to serve and protect the public, not terrorize them.
Our organization initially supported the use of Tasers believing that they would save lives having naively bought the propaganda and deceptive ad campaign put out by the major manufacturer of Tasers, Taser International.
This same propaganda/deceptive ad campaign --re the alleged benefits of Tasers to both the police and those in the public that are brutalized by this weapon--has been parroted by some in law enforcement (including by our own police chief Lynne Johnson).
The most pervasive misconception/lie put out by Taser International is that Tasers would be used as an alternative to deadly force. This is simply not true. Tasers were designed to be used as an intermediate force weapon, in-other-words as a substitute for batons, control holds, mace, verbal commands, canines, etc.,--but not as an alternative to deadly force.
In fact, in researching information for my article-- What cops already know: Tasers are unsafe, I spoke to several Taser training officers (in Scottsdale Arizona and Las Vegas Nevada) who advised that officers are specifically trained not to use a Taser if the suspect has a gun, knife or other deadly weapon within close range of the officer.
In deadly force situations the officer is trained to shoot the suspect at center mass with a gun. The reasoning behind this is that Tasers only bring down their intended target 3 out of 4 times (75% of the time). In other words, to ask an officer to use a Taser in a deadly force situation would be to ask the officer to put his/her life on the line. I am sure you agree this would be an unacceptable risk to our police officers.
After much study of the subject our organization came to the conclusion that not only did Tasers not save lives but their use by police was causing many unnecessary deaths. In addition Tasers were and continue to inflict unacceptable levels of extreme torture and subsequent psychological trauma on many others.
Ultimately, after much though, research and debate we came to the conclusion that the use of Tasers by the police was not consistent with law enforcement in a democratic society and that these weapons of torture and death must be banned.
In an article I wrote for the Mt. View Voice back in January of 2006, I pointed out that many in law enforcement hide behind a dirty little secret--they already know Tasers are unsafe.
But despite this knowledge many in law enforcement continue to advocate for their use for a variety of inappropriate reasons. I will, in a separate e-mail, send you a copy of my article: What cops already know: Tasers are unsafe. I look forward to your feedback on the piece.
Fortunately, not all members of law enforcement have uncritically accepted the false advertising claims of Taser International. In fact, the police chief of our neighbor across the bay--Newark California, Ray Samuels has refused to arm the Newark police with Tasers having said the following:
"I can't imagine a worse circumstance than to have a death attributed to a Taser in a situation that didn't justify deadly force. It's not a risk I'm willing to take." (Ray Samuels--Chief of Police Newark California.)
As a representative of the Coalition for Justice and Accountability I will be asking to meet on an individual basis with as many members of the task force as possible. My goal in these meetings is to express our Coalition's view on the Taser controversy and to offer as much written and oral information as possible to each member of the Taser Task Force.
Ultimately, I hope this will assist in making certain that each member of Taser Task Force is as fully informed as possible on the Taser controversy. I look forward to meeting with you in the next few weeks.
CC: All members of the Palo Alto Taser Task Force, All members of the Palo Alto City Council.
P.S. Dear Dr. Choi in order for the public --citizens of Palo Alto --to be as fully informed as possible re the make up of our Taser Task force I will do my best to submit questions to as many members as possible. Some of the questions will be general in nature and others designed based on the specific expertise of each member. I look forward to your responses.
Questions for Enoch Choi, MD-- re Tasers
1) Please advise how you came to be appointed to the Palo Alto Taser Task Force?
2) What is your knowledge re any independent medical testing of Tasers before they were unleashed on an unsuspecting public?
3) Do you own stock in Taser International?
4) Are you aware that many in the medical profession have raised serious issues/concerns about whether Tasers are safe to use on humans? If so, what can you tell us in this regard?
5) What are your own medical concerns re the use of Tasers, if any?
6) Questions have been raised re the ethical appropriateness of a physician sitting on a Taser Task Force whose mission it is to recommend to the city council whether to arm the PAPD with Tasers. Do you believe there are any legitimate ethical issues re an MD sitting on such a task force?
7) Do you believe you would be violating your Hippocratic Oath if ultimately you did in fact recommend that this weapon of torture and death (Tasers) be unleashed on the citizens of Palo Alto? Please Explain.
7a) Do you believe if you recommend Taser use, by members of the PAPD, and subsequently an unarmed individual dies or is seriously injured that-- you could be held legally/financially responsible for this death/injury? That any medical group or organization you are employed by could be similarly liable/financially responsible? Please explain.
8) Have you been involved in any independent medical studies involving safety concerns re the Taser? If so, please explain.
8a) Have you read any such studies? If so, please list them. Please give your conclusions re any such studies you have read.
9) What if any official or unofficial connections do you have to law enforcement? Have you ever been employed in a law enforcement capacity? As a volunteer? If so, list all such connections, jobs, etc.
10) Many have raised questions re the medical appropriateness of using Tasers on unarmed individuals --85% of those who are tased are unarmed --36% have been tased simply for verbal noncompliance--in addition to concerns re using Tasers on those with preexisting medical conditions i.e., heart problems, pace makers, age related vulnerabilities, pregnant women, those under the influence of street drugs, prescription drugs, the mentally ill, etc. What are your concerns from a medical point of view? Please explain.
11) Have you published any articles on Tasers? If so, please name them.
12) Have you participated in any Taser related studies? If so please explain/details.
12(a) Have you ever submitted to a Taser blast? If so, please describe your reaction.
13) Have you testified in any Taser related litigation? If so, please explain.
14) Have you been offered any form of compensation by Taser International for you participation on the Palo Alto Taser Task Force?
14a) Have you ever be a consultant to Taser International. If so, please explain.
15) Have you been offered any form of compensation by the Palo Alto Police or other members of city government for your participation on the Taser Task Force?
16) Do you believe you have any conflict of interest that should prevent you from serving on the Palo Alto Taser Task Force?
17) Please list any and all articles, journals, etc., you've read re the Taser controversy.
18) Do you believe it is medically sound to allow Tasers to be used on those with preexisting medical conditions, those under the influence of street drugs, prescription drugs, those suffering with mental illness, etc.? Please explain
18a) Do you believe-- as Amnesty International has called for --that at minimum--given the recent rapid increase in Taser related deaths ( 225 to date) that a moratorium on any further Taser usage should be imposed until adequate independent medical testing re Taser safety has taken place.? Please explain.
19) Would you personally be willing to submit to a five second Taser blast under controlled circumstances? On a mat, with spotters ready to catch you if you fall. If not, why not? A five second Taser blast under real world conditions on the street --no spotters, no matt? If unwilling to submit to a 5 second blast under either condition (controlled or Street) would you submit to a 1 second Taser blast under controlled conditions? Under real world conditions-- on the street?
20) Given what you know about the current limits of Taser technology re the effectiveness of Tasers (they only work on their intended target 75% of the time) do you believe that Tasers can reasonably be used as an alternative to deadly force? If so, why? If not, why not?
21) In your medical practice have you treated anyone, police officer or ordinary citizen, who has been injured by a Taser Blast? If so, please describe.
22) Based on your personal or professional knowledge would you agree with the statement that Tasers are used by police hugely disproportionately on African Americans and other people of color? Explain.
23) Would you agree that since more than 225 people have died after being tased that the idea that Tasers are non lethal is not only misleading/and deceptive but is in fact an out right lie? Explain.
**Note: to 23a) (-The proposition that Tasers are non lethal has been the oft repeated claim by their manufacture, Taser International. Certain members of law enforcement--including PAPD Chief Lynne Johnson- have also perpetuated/parroted this false claim).
24) Would you agree that in the context that Tasers are actually used --against the unarmed and those who are simply verbally non compliant-- that they are in fact not only not-less-lethal but in fact the most-lethal of the intermediate force weapons ( baton, mace, control holds, verbal commands, take downs, canines, etc.)?
25) Given the context of questions 23 & 24 above would you agree that Taser International's claims that Tasers are both non-lethal and less-lethal are simply not true and in fact constitute deception of the worse kind? Please explain.
26) Palo Alto Police Chief Lynne Johnson recently stated at a city council meeting that based on discussions with San Jose Police Chief Rob Davisthat frequently all the police need to do to get compliance from a citizen is to pull out and point the Taser. Do you believe that Tasers should be used in this fashion--- as a compliance appliance? Does this potential use of Tasers by law enforcement raise troubling First Amendment concerns in your opinion?
27) Taser International and some police departments claim that the use of Tasers reduces injuries to both police and those tased. Have you seen any hard statistics to support this claim?
Would you expect to analyze any such statistics before simply taking law enforcements word for them?
28) Are you aware that a number of law enforcement agencies no longer allow their officers to submit to a Taser blast even under tightly controlled circumstancesstanding on a mat, with protective goggles, while being spotted by two fellow officers---due to numerous injuries to the officers (including some career ending injuries) and subsequent lawsuits filed by the officers?
29) Are you aware that Taser International provides a public relations kit to many police agencies that purchase Tasers and that on occasion this information (PR) has been parroted by law enforcement to the public with out police having first scrutinized Taser International's claims?
30) Please feel free to add any other information you think members of the Palo Alto Community should know about you relevant to your appointment to the Palo Alto Taser Task Force. Thank you very much.