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Eugene Weekly : News : 8.9.07




EPD's Shocker

Police plan to use Taser against non-violent people

BY ALAN PITTMAN

The Eugene Police Department plans to begin using a 50,000-volt weapon against nonviolent people. The weapon has been linked to more than 70 deaths and hundreds of lawsuits and complaints of police abuse.

EPD announced that it will initially buy 30 Tasers and begin using them after September when it finalizes a policy for their use.

After press reports and other documents linked Tasers to widespread abuse in recent years, the human rights group Amnesty International has called for a moratorium on their use pending an objective scientific study of their safety. If police departments refuse, AI has called on them to only use Tasers as an alternative to deadly force such as in armed stand-offs or other incidents where the "target presents an immediate threat of death or serious injury to him/herself or others."

But the draft EPD Taser policy would allow use on a wide variety of nonviolent and nonthreatening citizens whom AI's recommendations would protect. The policy allows officers to use 50,000 volts on:

• Individuals who "display the intent" to physically resist "an officer's attempt to control a subject, but do not involve attempts to harm the officer."

• Fleeing nondangerous suspects, although an officer should "consider the severity of the offense" and "what other options are available."

• Pregnant women, children under 12, the elderly and those who could fall from height, after officers "carefully evaluate" the potential danger to people, the severity of the offense and alternatives to gain compliance and call an ambulance after the shock.

• People engaged in passive resistance by locking arms in a sit down strike, holding on, or "making other efforts to resist being taken into custody."

• Political protesters approved for shocking by the police chief or "designee."

• Handcuffed people with "overtly assaultive behavior that cannot be reasonably dealt with in any other less intrusive fashion."

• The mentally ill or deficient.

• People at risk of death or injury from shocks due to "excited delirium" brought on by drugs or mental illness although officers should call an ambulance after shocking the individual.

The EPD draft policy allows shocks of unlimited duration or repetition if an officer decides they are "reasonably necessary."

The vague policy appears designed to maximize police flexibility in the use of the weapon and contains few outright prohibitions. Officers "should not intentionally aim for the head, neck or groin" and will call an ambulance if a taser dart is lodged in a groin, breast or eye. "The taser shall not be used punitively or to harass or inflict undue pain on any individual." The word "undue" is not defined, and there is no specific prohibition on using the Taser to torture suspects for information.

Police and Taser Inc. have justified use of the weapon by arguing that it safely saves lives by providing police an alternative to shooting people. But newspaper and other investigations have repeatedly shown that's not the case:

• The Denver Post reported in 2004 that Denver police don't often use their stun guns in life-threatening situations. "More often, Denver police have used Tasers to force people to obey their orders, to shortcut physical confrontations and, in several cases, to avoid having to run after a suspect." Most people charged with crimes after being Tasered faced misdemeanor charges or a ticket, and at least 16 people were Tasered while already wearing handcuffs.

• The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported in 2004 that Tasers were "being used routinely in far less threatening situations — including against juveniles, pregnant women and people who have already been handcuffed."

• The Indianapolis Star reported in 2005 that the "indiscriminate use of the stun gun by police officials has led to 112 unarmed suspects being Tasered while fleeing IPD or sheriff's deputies and at least 87 handcuffed people being shocked while handcuffed." Police electro-shocked a pregnant woman, a man in a wheelchair and a fleeing 13-year-old girl, the paper reported.

• The Arizona Republic reported in 2004 that Phoenix police use the weapon mostly against unarmed suspects in petty crimes. The Republic has also reported that Taser Inc. secretly gave stock options to officers to promote the weapons, secretly was involved in military safety studies and was sued by five officers claiming they were seriously injured from shock demonstrations in training classes.

• Amnesty International cites studies showing that police use of deadly and other force has not declined due to Taser use. "Far from being used as a substitute for deadly force, Tasers are increasingly being used as a routine force tool at the expense of other, less dangerous or painful techniques."

Eugene police have a record of excessive force with supposedly "less lethal" weapons. A decade ago AI condemned the EPD for "torture" in emptying every can of pepper spray it had against nonviolent tree sitters protesting logging heritage trees for the Broadway Place development downtown.