CONFRONTED WITH a suspect who is agitated or disorderly, police generally wrestle the person to the ground with fists, batons or flying tackles. Well, that’s how they do it on TV, anyway. In real life, increasingly, they tend to use Taser stun guns, or rather overuse them.
Case in point: In April 2013, Montgomery County police used Tasers to subdue Anthony Howard, an unruly man, high on cocaine, who had been tromping on the roof of a parked SUV in a residential neighborhood in Gaithersburg. When officers arrived, Howard, down from the SUV, disregarded their orders to lie on the ground, although he made no threatening or violent moves toward them.
“Are you gonna kill me?” Howard asked, standing with his back to a rowhouse, shortly before the police shot him with their Tasers.
According to the Baltimore Sun, which obtained a video of the event recorded by a witness, Howard, 51, was shot nine times for a total of 37 seconds — more than twice the elapsed time recommended by Taser’s guidelines. He collapsed, kicked spasmodically on his back while four officers stood over him and, shortly afterward, stopped breathing.
Howard was African American; the police who confronted and shot him were white.
Policing is hard, dangerous work; no one underestimates the professionalism most officers bring to the job. Still, the officers’ actions with Howard suggest that police in that incident, as in others, were too quick to resort to using their Tasers.
In a review of hundreds of incidents over a three-year period in Maryland, the Sun found that many officers and law enforcement agencies failed to follow best safety practices recommended by Taser and by national police groups.
Disturbingly, Maryland, like most states, has no standards for the use of Tasers, meaning that their deployment varies considerably from one police department to another. Only Connecticut and Vermont have adopted statewide policies; Maryland lawmakers considered doing so a few years ago, briefly, before resistance from police dissuaded them.
Equally disturbing, the Sun found that black men accounted for 64 percent of the approximately 3,000 suspects shot with Tasers by Maryland law enforcement officers over the three-year period ending in 2014.
The Howard case has particularly troubling aspects. According to the Sun, Montgomery County police withheld videos they obtained from neighbors of Howard’s family, prompting them to drop legal action in the case. And two bystanders told the newspaper that when the police returned their devices, videos they had shot of the incident had been erased.
One video — a clear and complete one — did survive, however. Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) has ordered the police department to review its policies on the use of Tasers. Law enforcement officials should also answer hard questions about whether they engaged in a coverup of the circumstances surrounding Howard’s death.