Tasers and the APD

Police leadership says stun guns protect officers and prevent injuries, but critics charge they are dangerous and overused

In March 2004, the Austin Police Department acquired 730 new X26-model Taser International brand electro-shock weapons. (The department already had 144 of the older-model M26 Tasers, which were redistributed among officers in specialized units – like homeland security detail – once the newer weapons were in use.) According to Chief Stan Knee, the supposedly less-than-lethal weapons should help reduce injuries to officers and suspects and, most importantly, reduce the number of officer-involved shootings. Although police use of lethal force is rare, Knee's plan to arm officers with electro-shock weapons was an integral part of rebuilding police-community relations in the wake of the highly publicized and widely criticized Eastside police shootings of Sophia King in 2002, and Jessie Lee Owens in 2003. Initially, the plan was applauded by those who considered it a positive step toward police-citizen peace after several months of hostility.

Now it appears the Taser honeymoon is over.

Electro-shock weapons (Tasers are the most well known) function in various ways. Tasers shoot a pair of metal darts two inches deep into a person's clothing or skin from as far away as 25 feet, delivering a low-watt, 50,000-volt shock of electricity lasting five seconds (or longer, if the officer keeps a finger on the trigger). The shock overrides the body's central nervous system, causing uncontrollable muscle contractions. The device can also be used as a contact weapon at close quarters, delivering a similarly powerful but localized jolt in its "drive stun" mode. A version of the weapon was first introduced in the Seventies, but it's only within the last decade that the weapons have become popular law enforcement tools – nationwide, about 7,000 law enforcement agencies currently use electro-shock weapons.

Since 1998, Taser International, the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company that is the current sales leader in electro-shock weapons, has equipped approximately 135,000 law enforcement and corrections officers with the weapons, which the company says have been deployed in 55,000 police confrontations. According to Taser International, the weapon is safe and reduces injuries and instances of lethal force. And according to a Feb. 10 memo from Chief Knee to the mayor and city council, in the first six months of 2004, officer injuries decreased by more than 50% over the same time period in 2003 and injuries to arrest suspects dropped 46%.

Nonetheless, both the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Amnesty International have called for a national moratorium on the weapon, reporting that since 1999, at least 80 people in the U.S. and Canada have died after being shocked. In at least 12 of those cases, medical examiners listed stun-gun shock as a factor that directly contributed to the death. Taser International and the weapon's numerous police supporters dispute that tally, arguing that the deaths were not caused by the weapon, at least directly, but were instead the result of underlying heart problems or the effects of drug use. Nonetheless, both the Scottsdale and Las Vegas PDs have since decided against requiring their officers to stun one another during electro-shock weapon training, reportedly because of concerns about officer injuries.

In November, AI reported that "far from being used to avoid lethal force, many U.S. police agencies are deploying Tasers as a routine force option to subdue noncompliant or disturbed individuals who do not pose a serious danger to themselves or others. In some departments, Tasers have become the most prevalent force tool." Indeed, even the 20,000-member International Association of Chiefs of Police has urged all law enforcement agencies to review their electro-shock policies.

Locally, the activist organization Austin Spokescouncil has undertaken an anti-Taser campaign, in an effort to end the weapons' further deployment by APD. Late last month, the City Council indefinitely postponed plans to buy another 90 Tasers at a cost of $75,000, while Knee performs a review and revision of APD's stun-gun policies. Under the current policy, electro-shock weapons may be used to control a "dangerous or violent" suspect whenever deadly force does not appear "justified" or "necessary," or when an attempt to subdue a suspect by "other conventional tactics has been, or will likely be ineffective." The policy forbids shocking individuals who are already handcuffed or are only demonstrating "passive resistance" to arrest.

On Dec. 28, Knee reported that Assistant Chief Rick Coy had issued a new directive to all APD commanders, with additional Taser-use guidelines – including limiting the number of officers who deploy the weapon on a suspect to "only one officer at a time," and warning officers that "Tasers may be a source of ignition for individuals immersed in flammable substances," like pepper spray. Critics of the department allege that APD officers have used their Tasers to subdue individuals who pose no physical threat and have only demonstrated verbal noncompliance with police requests. But Assistant Chief Robert Dahlstrom says that APD officers don't just "walk up and tase" people, "which is what the critics might say." Tasers are "much less intrusive" than other methods of force, Dahlstrom said, like police batons, or "fistfights."

Austin Human Rights Commission Chair Bill Hale says the AHRC also has some concerns about electro-shock weapons and APD use of force. The commission voted unanimously to review APD force policies and plans to hold a public hearing (tentatively scheduled for April) to allow citizen response on force policies and procedures, as well as related citizen testimony on instances where police force may have been misused.

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