No Hard Rules for TASERs

Federal Suit Over TASER Stuns GPD

– Few hard-and-fast rules govern TASER usage among Gilroy
Police are discouraged from stunning kids, seniors and pregnant
women, who might fall onto their bellies; they’re advised to aim
away from the head, face and groin.
Gilroy – Few hard-and-fast rules govern TASER usage among Gilroy cops.

Police are discouraged from stunning kids, seniors and pregnant women, who might fall onto their bellies; they’re advised to aim away from the head, face and groin. But the only solid rule, inside the department or out, is that a suspect must refuse to comply.

“You can’t write a policy that says, in this circumstance, do this,” said Gilroy Police Sgt. Kurt Svardal, explaining the department’s approach. Officers must be justified in using force, he said, in accordance with GPD’s use-of-force policy, but “we don’t dictate to the officer which tool they’re going to use.”

Police are undergoing the first department-wide TASER training since June 2004, when the controversial weapons landed in cops’ holsters. Over the past decade, as police departments have snapped up TASERs nationwide, human rights groups have lodged complaints that the device, which jolts suspects with 50,000 volts, are too often used when lesser force might suffice. Amnesty International cites more than 120 TASER-related deaths nationwide – a claim that TASER International, the weapons’ manufacturer, disputes.

In Gilroy, police counter that TASERs can defuse explosive encounters, preventing them from pulling a gun. Nine times in the past year, merely brandishing the TASER made rowdy suspects reconsider, and comply with police orders, said Svardal. Besides the skin wound made by the TASER’s fishhook-like prongs, they haven’t caused any “associated injuries,” he said, and “zero deaths.”

“The public thinks [the TASER] is way up there with deadly force, and it’s not,” said officer Joseph Deras, one of two officers who runs the department’s Defensive Tactics Training. For the past week, he’s been teaching police how the stun guns work, using a CD primer from TASER International. Every officer in the department has to attend the four-to-six-hour training to keep a TASER in their holster.

The lightweight weapons are more convenient than the less-lethal rounds, such as bean bags or plastic pellets, which are fired from cumbersome rifle-like guns, usually left behind in officer’s cars. Among Gilroy police, Deras said, roughly 85 percent tote the TASER on their holster, on the opposite hip from a gun. Unlike pepper spray, which lingers and spreads, the weapon can be targeted; unlike a baton, it leaves little trace.

Asked where the TASER fits in among other nonlethal force options such as pepper spray, plastic rounds or batons, Deras said he couldn’t say. Gilroy police don’t rank force options, progressing from one to the next; they’re authorized to use any weapon, provided they “only use that force which is necessary to effect the arrest,” Svardal explained.

That worries human rights advocates such as Mona Cadena, deputy director of Amnesty International’s western region.

“There’s no consistency in how police departments are using them,” said Cadena. “Some put them very low on the force continuum, with pepper spray and batons. In other departments they’re higher up, closer to a lethal weapon” – and where Amnesty International insists they belong. Cadena is unconvinced that the TASER has been proven safe.

“All the medical studies that have been done on the TASER have been done using source data from the manufacturer,” Cadena said. “The jury’s still out.” With medical questions left unanswered, she said, the TASER should be “a last resort.”

This year, Gilroy’s TASER training includes a new term: excited delirium. Deras calls it “not a medical diagnosis – a theory.” The phrase refers to a hyped-up physical state, enhanced by stimulants and stress, that could put suspects at higher risk when stunned. TASER proponents claim that in-custody deaths have been falsely pinned on TASERs, instead of excited delirium.

By introducing the term, Deras aims not to dissuade officers from stunning affected suspects, but to raise awareness and keep medical resources close at hand. If suffering from the condition, he said, some may go into full cardiac arrest within minutes.

Cadena is skeptical of the term.

“There’s a lot of controversy on whether it’s a real state,” she said, “and when prisoners die who are being detained, the cause is often listed as excited delirium.”

After a suspect is tased in Gilroy, officers notify a sergeant and dispatchers via radio. The use is also reported to police administration. The suspect is taken to the hospital to be cleared by a doctor, and photographs are taken as evidence. The weapon even tracks itself: a confetti-like sticker shoots from the weapon when it’s deployed, marking the person with the gun’s serial number. TASERs keep an internal log of when they’re used and for how long, which can be downloaded from the gun to a computer. Deras said it’s tamper-proof.

Amnesty has focused much of its criticism on multiple cycles: using the TASER repeatedly to subdue a suspect. Most TASER deaths occurred after the officer used multiple shocks – “anywhere from 3 to 23”, said Cadena. “Additional shocks is like playing Russian roulette.”

Gilroy police are advised to use no more than three 5-second cycles, said Deras, but it’s a recommendation, not a rule.

Police say the furor over TASERs is misplaced, recalling public worries over pepper spray in the 1980s. More than 300,000 volunteers have taken the shock, said Deras – including Svardal, Asst. Police Chief Lanny Brown and former Dispatch reporter Lori Stuenkel. TASER International’s training materials claim that the weapon’s shock is tamer than that of a Christmas tree bulb. Most importantly, said Svardal, the quick shock incapacitates a suspect before the situation escalates.

During last summer’s Garlic Festival, police shot a TASER at one suspect when a fight broke out in the amphitheater, Svardal recalled.

“One of the people had his hand drawn back, ready to punch,” said Svardal. “Another officer used his TASER, and that suspect couldn’t assault someone … Everyone else saw that the guy was tased, and that was the end of it.”

Gilroy police haven’t evaluated whether the weapon has reduced officer injuries, Svardal added, but “larger departments that have done it have reported a significant drop.”

Stricter regulations would hamstring officers, Deras said, and criminalize those rare situations where stunning a kid, senior or pregnant woman might be the lesser of two dangers. Deras cited one instance, not in Gilroy, when police tased a girl to stop her from cutting herself with glass. If a TASER use – like any use of force – constitutes excessive force, Svardal said, sergeants and their higher-ups can cite the officer. Thus far, he said, it hasn’t happened.

Cadena remains leery. Other police departments have adopted restrictions on TASER use that take exceptional situations into account, she said, and haven’t encountered problems. Police in Portland, Oregon, are generally prohibited from tasing minors, seniors, obviously pregnant women, demonstrators, passive resisters, and handcuffed suspects, among others.

“Police officers are looking for less lethal ways to subdue suspects, and we applaud that,” she said, “but for us, the unanswered questions outweigh the benefits it might have, on the street.”