After nearly two years of silence, Palo Alto Police Department Tasers buzzed to life earlier this year with officers deploying the stun guns on two occasions, according to a new report from Independent Police Auditor Michael Gennaco.
The semi-annual report, which covers the first half of 2012, details the first of the two cases and alludes to a second, which Gennaco is currently reviewing. The auditor concluded that in the first case, the Taser deployment was consistent with department policy.
The first case involved a traffic stop in which an officer pulled over a car because its registration sticker had expired, according to the report. The driver allegedly didn't have a license and did not own the car and the passenger "responded strangely" when asked questions, Gennaco wrote. A backup officer was called in and as he approached the car, he allegedly noticed the passenger bending forward as if he were hiding something.
The report states that the passenger had "bloodshot eyes, mumbled speech, and had a hard time standing still and was sweating." He also had a bulge in his front pocket and gave "erratic answers" to officers' questions, leading them to conclude that he might be under the influence of drugs. The passenger allegedly consented to being patted down by an officer but pulled away. He also tried to pull an unknown object out of his pocket even after being asked by officers not to, the report states. Officers then allegedly grabbed his arms to keep him from taking the unknown object out, Gennaco wrote.
"He slipped from the grasp of the first officer who pulled out his Tasr and fired it at the passenger," the report states. "The Taser was effective and the passenger crumpled to the ground."
Officers tried to place handcuffs on the passenger but he was lying on the ground with his hands "hidden under his chest," the report states. An officer deployed the Taser once again, after which time the backup officer handcuffed him.
The passenger was taken to a nearby hospital, where one of the darts was removed (the second one had fallen out at the scene). He was medically cleared for booking and arrested. According to the report, he tested positive for cocaine and the object in his pocket was a glass crack pipe.
After the incident a police sergeant and a lieutenant reviewed the incident and concluded that "Taser use was justified and conformed to PAPD policy."
Gennaco agreed and wrote that both five-second activations of the Taser were "reasonable."
"While the officer's perception of immediate threat -- a prerequisite for Taser use under PAPD policy -- was inherently speculative in this situation, it was a reasonable inference from the suspect's belligerent stance and his fixation on an object in one of this pockets and his vigorous struggle against the pat down search," Gennaco wrote.
Even so, Gennaco raised some concerns about the Taser deployment. The officer who fired the stun gun "did not give a verbal Taser warning as policy requires when possible," Gennaco wrote, though he noted that the "rapidly evolving nature of the physical struggle provides justification of a warning not being given in this case." Gennaco also noted that police had interviewed the vehicle's driver, who concurred that her friend "flipped out" and that officers were acting "very proper." But Gennaco noted that the officer interviewing her was the backup officer involved in the incident and that the interview took place while the driver was being detained in the patrol vehicle.
"These are far from ideal circumstances for a post use-of-force civilian witness interview and could easily have been avoided by having the interview conducted by an available supervisor in a setting outside the patrol car," Gennaco wrote.
Tasers were once a controversial topic in Palo Alto, leading to at least one lawsuit and settlement by the city. But they have remained largely in silent mode since the department changed its policy for the stun guns in 2009. The new policy created a stricter standard for firing Tasers, requiring that the suspect "pose an immediate threat of physical injury" before firing a Taser is appropriate. Previously, officers were allowed to fire Tasers when suspects were "actively resisting," which included "tensing" or "bracing" to resist arrest.