Police and Tasers

Monday, May 10, 2010

TASERS, IN USE by police departments for more than a decade, are meant to be a weapon of last resort against dangerous suspects who pose a serious threat to police officers or a risk of flight. They are also supposed to subdue suspects, not kill them. But in too many cases, including at least one recent incident in Arlington County, suspects have died after being Tasered. And there is disturbing evidence nationwide that police officers are using them when less drastic, and less potentially deadly, measures would suffice.

Police routinely insist they fire stun guns only in dire situations, and most of the time no eyewitnesses materialize to contradict them. But for an object lesson in Taser misuse -- and a clue as to how itchy-fingered police officers can be -- look no farther than the outfield of Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, where the Phillies hosted the Cardinals last Monday before 45,000 witnesses. What they saw was a scrawny, unarmed teenager who jumped on the field and ran figure eights around huffing and puffing security and police officers. After a few seconds of this, a Philadelphia police officer took aim with his Taser and dropped the youth in pop-fly territory. As he lay face down on the grass, the crowd booed the police lustily -- and with good reason.

Fans who disrupt games should be prosecuted and fined and possibly face jail time; they should not be Tasered unless they appear violent or pose a threat more serious than disrupting a game. Still, the Philadelphia police commissioner, Charles Ramsey, who reviewed video of the incident, said his officer had acted within department guidelines. That's the problem. While Tasers have been useful in protecting officers from dangerous and out-of-control suspects, in too many police agencies the policy on using them is so loosely defined that officers can fire the weapons more or less when they feel like it.

Amnesty International, which has conducted detailed studies of the use of Taser guns, concluded that in about 90 percent of cases involving Tasers, the weapons were used on unarmed suspects. In many of those cases, the suspects may have been disrespectful, strange or defiant but seemed to pose little danger to themselves, others or police.

Most disturbingly, Amnesty found that 334 people had died after being Tasered between 2001 and 2008. And while most of the deaths were attributed to drug and alcohol intoxication, medical examiners and coroners found that Taser shocks caused or may have contributed to at least 50 deaths in that period. Based on that, and numerous studies suggesting that Tasers can have lethal effects on some people, Amnesty has called for a halt to the use of stun guns.

Unsurprisingly, Taser International, a 17-year-old firm based in Arizona, has disputed the studies and Amnesty's conclusions. But if police and the weapons' manufacturers want to avoid a public backlash, they'd be wise to tighten rules to preclude using the weapons on suspects who may be annoying or disruptive but ultimately pose no threat of harm.

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