In Houston, Questions of Bias Over Tasers
Monday, December 18, 2006
HOUSTON -- Roiled by allegations of using unjustified deadly force against Latino suspects, the Houston Police Department began using stun guns two years ago so officers could avoid pulling the trigger of an automatic weapon.
Now officers are facing a new question: Are they using the high-voltage Taser -- what police call a less-than-lethal "intermediary" weapon -- indiscriminately against black suspects? The recent arrest and use of a Taser against a black professional football player has once again put the police department of the nation's fourth-largest city under scrutiny.
The incident occurred around 1 p.m. Nov. 14, when Houston Texans lineman Fred Weary was stopped by police for changing lanes without signaling. An officer said later that Weary "looked suspicious" inside the vehicle and that when the 6-foot-4, 308-pound National Football League player was asked to place his hands on his car, he became "verbally combative," failed to obey orders and made threatening moves toward police. Weary was zapped with a stun gun, which knocked him to the ground. He subsequently described the pain of the shock as worse than any he has experienced on a football field.
The arrest and Taser deployment might simply have been another number in police statistics, but for Weary's fame. Instead, the incident -- and a Houston judge's decision to dismiss charges of resisting arrest because of insufficient evidence -- have become a rallying point for black activists and some city officials who say police unjustly use stun guns against black suspects. Police data show that in almost 1,000 Taser deployments since December 2004, 63 percent of the suspects were black. Houston's population of 1.95 million is 25 percent black.
"If that brother was not a Texans football player, if that brother didn't have the resources that he has, he would have been another big brother that was Tased, and that's it," said New Black Panther Nation's Quanell X, who organized a community meeting with police officials earlier this month to discuss Taser policy and police treatment of blacks.
"Not until a high-profile African American football player was Tased did the city sit up and notice," he said. "We need a cease-and-desist order of those Tasers until there is a complete and independent study of their use."
For a year, Houston City Council member Ada Edwards, who is black, has sought a medical study on the effects of the Taser and also a moratorium on its use because "we have such a preponderance of minorities being Tased," she said. Now Houston Mayor Bill White has called for an independent review of Taser use.
City Council member Adrian Garcia, chairman of the council's public-safety committee, said an oversight group of civil rights advocates and residents had already been created to review Taser policy because of "concern about racial issues." But Garcia said he was convinced that Taser use had cut down on police shootings and saved lives.
In a letter published in the Dec. 2 Houston Chronicle, Police Chief Harold L. Hurtt said the department's Taser-training staff had identified 39 instances in which officers used Tasers against an armed suspect when they could have been justified in using deadly force. "That statistic easily could have translated into 39 more officer-involved shooting incidents," Hurtt wrote.
Facing a small, emotional crowd at the community meeting, Charles McClelland, executive assistant chief of police, said Taser use is minimal. About 3,500 police officers, who receive special training, carry stun guns. Tasers were deployed just under 1,000 times over the past two years -- against one-half of 1 percent of suspects arrested -- and half the people arrested in that period were black. During those two years, officers were assaulted 700 times.
"We're not Tasing 1 percent of the people that we arrest," McClelland said. "What this debate has sparked is a golden opportunity to move to the next level, and that's the Taser Cam."
Forty stun guns with tiny video and audio recorders in the handle are being tested by Houston officers. McClelland said the upgraded Taser would "protect the public from abuse, protect officers from frivolous complaints and . . . assist in court to sustain or exonerate suspects."
Michael Dirden, head of the police department's internal-affairs division, said 50 to 60 complaints have been filed against officers for inappropriate Taser use -- including against children. After investigations, one officer was fired, five officers were disciplined and almost two dozen officers were sent for additional training.
Although the resisting-arrest charge against Weary was dismissed, the Harris County district attorney's office is still reviewing the case to determine whether the NFL player should be charged with a crime such as interfering with the duties of an officer. Assistant District Attorney Paul Doyle said that the officers' radio-dispatch tapes had been subpoenaed and that his office is seeking video footage of the intersection where the arrest occurred.
Weary's attorney, Charley A. Davidson, said he has found two witnesses who will corroborate the player's account that, as he placed his hands atop the car, he asked officers why he was being arrested. "The way the two officers described the scene was different than the way everyone else described it," Davidson said.