Publication Date: Wednesday, July 28, 2004|
(July 28, 2004) Palo Alto police may enter national debate over Taser use
by Bill D'Agostino
A 250-pound man, high on cocaine, is looking for a fight and refusing to listen to police officers.
Currently, Palo Alto cops would rely on their fists or batons to control the suspect. But soon, they may use a high-powered stun gun to inject 50,000 volts into his central nervous system.
When, and if, police should use such Tasers is a controversial issue that has increasingly split law enforcement officials nationwide against human rights groups. It's likely to do the same in Palo Alto since the department's leaders are pursuing a policy that would put them at odds with the American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International.
"Like any tool, if it's going to be used, it needs to be used in a very narrow circumstance and with sufficient oversight," argued Mark Schlosberg, the police practices policy director for the ACLU in Northern California.
The handgun-shaped weapon shoots two darts up to 21 feet. For up to five seconds, the weapon's shock scrambles a target's central nervous system, contracting his or her muscles and forcing them to crumple.
It is estimated more than 50 people have died nationwide after being shot by a Taser, but it's unknown how many would have died regardless. Officials with the manufacturer, TASER International, argue the guns are "non-lethal" and have never contributed to a fatality. But coroners have reportedly ruled that the weapons played a role in at least three deaths.
Amnesty International has called for agencies like Palo Alto's police force to restrain from purchasing such weapons until independent clinical tests can be done to evaluate their safety and until national standards are set for their use.
Meanwhile, police officials who currently use Tasers are baffled that the weapons are not seen as a safe, clinical alternative to perilous, uncontrollable fights. The company's officials also counter that Tasers have saved more than 500 lives through fewer police shootings.
Top Palo Alto police officials are advocating a policy that would put them at odds with the ACLU. The agency's policy will likely be to use Tasers "to safely subdue a person who wasn't complying with directions from an officer," Police Chief Lynne Johnson said.
For instance, police could use the weapon to capture a knife-wielding robber escaping from Washington Mutual Bank. An unarmed Caltrain rider refusing to listen to an officer's demands could also be a potential mark.
Because of the medical risks, the ACLU's recommendation is for Tasers to be shot "only as an alternative deadly force," Schlosberg said.
"I don't think that's realistic," said Palo Alto Lt. Dennis Burns. "That kind of defeats the whole idea of the thing."
The gun's main benefit, Burns said, is being an "intermediate use of force." The weapons will reduce injuries to both officers and suspects in chaotic situations when pepper spray or a baton or a K9 or a gun would have been used in the past, he argued. Workers compensation claims will then drop as a result, as will complaints about police brutality and lawsuits against the city, he added.
For officers on the street, controlling an unruly suspect is one of the most challenging parts of the job. "The beauty of these types of weapons is that they allow a cushion of distance," Burns said.
The police chief is planning to discuss those policies about the use of the weapons with the city's Human Relations Commission and City Council in the fall. Johnson estimated she needs to find slightly more than $80,000 in outside funding to purchase X26 Tasers for all her patrol officers. (The weapons cost $700 to $800 apiece.)
Still, after hearing about critical news stories last week, Burns said the department would take a more in-depth look and speak with additional medical experts.
"The last thing we want to do is injure somebody," he said. "The whole idea is not to injure them."
The manufacturer argues that none of the 50 known deaths following Taser shots were linked to the shock. The company has documented the cases on their Web site. Spokespeople frequently point out that the most of the deceased used high amounts of drugs prior to getting shot.
"No coroner says this kills people," argued Steve Tuttle, the spokesperson for TASER International, based in Arizona. "This technology is saving lives, not killing them."
However, at least three coroner reports, obtained by various news media, contradict the company's claims, reportedly illustrating cases where medical expects thought Tasers impacted the deaths. One of those was James Borden, who was shocked six times in an Indiana prison last November. The coroner ruled the Taser shot was the trigger to Borden's fatal heart attack.
In an interview, Dr. Roland Kohr, lab director of the Terre Haute Regional Hospital, noted that Borden had an enlarged heart, obesity and recent drug use. But Borden was riding in a car to the jail for half an hour prior to getting Tasered and was fine, Kohr said.
"I cannot believe it's a coincidence," said Kohr, who listed the electrical shock as one of three causes of death.
The doctor said he believes that "the Taser, in general, is a safe instrument for restraining people" and that Borden probably might have died had he been hit with a baton six times. But, he quickly added, "there's no way" the company can claim its weapon has a zero risk of death.
The company responded to the reports last week by posting on its Web site a letter from a Dr. Cyril Wecht, a well-known medical examiner hired by the jailer. The letter argued that Borden "was engaged in strenuous physical activity during his altercation with law enforcement" and that the Taser did not cause or contribute to the death.
The deaths following Taser shots are mounting as the weapon gains in popularity. Six suspects reportedly died in June, with investigations into those cases pending, according to a recent Sunday New York Times story. More than 5,400 police departments now use the weapons, according to Tuttle.
Amnesty International argues that more scientific research is needed to fully understand the risks of Tasers. Leaders with the human rights group have called for police departments to stop purchasing them until independent studies are completed, and national standards for their use and training are created.
There have been very few clinical tests, and none published in scholarly, peer-review scientific journals. One researcher, paid by the company, found in 1989 that a similar stun gun produced ventricular fibrillation in pigs with pacemakers.
"We killed the pig every time," said Andrew Podgorski, the Canadian scientist who conducted the tests. The energy from the Taser "coupled," and therefore amplified, the electricity coming from the pacemaker, he said.
"There's no doubt in my mind this should be tested to make sure everything is safe," Podgorski said. "Why die from such stupidity if this can be tested?"
It appears clear, though, that the weapons are much safer than guns. A 1992 study found that 50 percent of those shot by cops' guns were killed, compared to 1.4 percent by Tasers. But whether they are safe for suspects with heart conditions or on heartbeat-accelerating drugs is a hotly debated question.
"The unresolved issue is the effect (of) Tasering a person on drugs," wrote Leslie Geddes, professor emeritus of bioengineering at Purdue University, in an e-mail to the Weekly.
Repeating the manufacturer's claims, Palo Alto's Lt. Burns -- who was shot by one in the back as a test -- believes Tasers leave no lasting scars or injuries.
"It felt like getting a pretty good shock or a lot of hard pressure," Burns recalled. But a few seconds later, he was "as good as new."
Dennis Palmieri, public relations officer for Amnesty International's Western U.S. office in San Francisco, said that the oft-repeated notion that the weapon is completely safe lead officers down a slippery slope.
"All of those arguments reinforce in an officer's mind that they can use these things liberally," he said.
In May, the ACLU of Colorado alleged that local police departments were "using electroshock weapons in an abusive and cruel manner that constitutes unnecessary and unreasonable force and in some cases amounts to outright deliberate torture," according to a statement.
That ACLU branch believed officers were using the Tasers after suspects were in custody. Cops also reported shocked a handcuffed 9e-year-old girl in Arizona. Palo Alto police officials, however, insist officers will not use them on juveniles.
Training officers in the weapons' correct use is the key to using them safely, said Dr. Gary Ordog, a toxicologist from Santa Clarita who published a paper on injuries from Tasers in 1987.
"It can be deadly if used improperly," Ordog wrote to the Weekly in an e-mail. "It should not be used for more than a few seconds (the person stops breathing) or in someone with an obvious medical problem."
Police officials currently deploying the weapons wonder why they're so controversial. In San Jose, Police Chief Rob Davis chief recently purchased 700 for all his officers.
"This is a simply a tool we can use to get someone to comply," Davis said.
One sword-wielding suspect was shot with a Taser, not a handgun, probably saving his life, Davis said. Injuries to both suspects and officers have decreased since the rollout, he said. The department has used them once every other day.
"It's to everyone's advantage ... Palo Alto would be wise to grab them," Davis said.
The police department in Phoenix, Ariz. was one of the first to arm officers with the weapon. Last year in Phoenix, officer shootings were at a 14-year low, a fact highlighted on TASER's Web site. But that might have been a coincidence. Last year's total of 13 police-shootings was already matched by April, Sgt. Randy Force said.
During January 2002 to September 2002, the Phoenix department monitored every instance that a police officer used some kind of force, and found Tasers to be much safer. In the 128 times Tasers were used, suspects were injured 9.4 percent of the time and officers were injured 2.3 percent of the time. In the 347 times other times officers used force, suspects were injured 33 percent of the time and officers were injured 10 percent of the time.
In the 978 times a Phoenix officer has used a Taser, they have never once injured anyone more severely than an abrasion, Force said. He called the weapons "humane" and "the best, most effective tool" police have to capture suspects.
"It's frustrating that such a good tool has been called into question," Force said. If police agencies listen to the controversy and don't purchase them, he said, "that may cause some unnecessary injuries to officers and some unnecessary injuries to citizens."
If doctors have one perspective on the debate and police officers have another, Dr. Robert Norris is square in the middle. He is the head of emergency medicine at Stanford Hospital and also a reserve officer with the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office.
"It is a very useful devise for law enforcement when used appropriately," Norris said of Tasers. "It gives the law enforcement officer another option once they've gone from hands-on and weapons like batons and pepper spray, to before they have to go to lethal force."
Norris argued Tasers should not replace other methods of restraint, but rather bridge the gap that currently exists between them and guns. Palo Alto police officials are proposing using Tasers on par with batons and other intermediate uses of force.
There do appear to be real risks with Tasers, especially for people with pacemakers or heart problems, Norris said. But, he added, "If I had a pacemaker I'd much rather be shot with a Taser than a Glock 22."
Still, nothing is 100 percent safe, Norris said. "It is obviously a less-lethal weapon, not a non-lethal weapon."
Staff writer Bill D'Agostino can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
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