Police Organizations Tout Tasers as Nonlethal Weapons
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LEE HOCHBERG: One hundred thousand American police now carry a taser, an electric-shock gun that jolts crime suspects with 50,000 volts of electricity.
SPOKESPERSON: This is a five-second exposure, correct?
SPOKESPERSON: All right. Say when.
SPOKESPERSON: Go. ( Screams )
SPOKESPERSON: That’s it. All right?
SPOKESPERSON: Mm-hmm. Whoo.
LEE HOCHBERG: Police officers in Beaverton, Oregon, recently trained on the weapon, shooting each other. Two electrified darts sent five second bursts of electricity through the human targets. Police say the weapon gives them a non-lethal tool with which they can incapacitate crime suspects or suicidal persons. Its manufacturer says the taser has helped save 500 lives. Taser International president Tom Smith:
TOM SMITH, Taser International: What it’s doing is it’s allowing officers to be able to use a technology to end a confrontation before it ever escalates to the point of a firearm being required, and they’re able to use this technology to be able to not have to take a life.
LEE HOCHBERG: The number of people shot and killed by police in Phoenix declined by 50 percent last year after police got tasers. For the first time in 15 years, Seattle and Miami went without any police-involved fatal shootings.
SPOKESPERSON: Stay on the ground! Stay on the ground!
LEE HOCHBERG: But as police embrace the weapon, critics are challenging the way it’s being used. Lawsuits in Oregon, California and other states allege police are using tasers simply to get people to comply, when less painful approaches would work. Criminologist David Klinger is a former Los Angeles police officer.
DAVID KLINGER: I think the problem is using it too much. Police officers are being authorized to use the taser at low levels of resistance, and so they appear to be using the taser too quickly, too often, too soon.
LEE HOCHBERG: A 2002 study by Taser International found of 1,600 people tased, only 20 percent were armed, and fewer than 5 percent were carrying guns.
DAVID KLINGER: There are some agencies around the country whose policy allows police officers to use the taser basically when they say “sir, turn around and put your hands behind your back,” suspect says “I’m not going to.” Immediately the taser comes up, they tase them.
SPOKESMAN: He shot me and another cop was running at me.
LEE HOCHBERG: 20-year-old Dontae Marks of Portland says that happened to him. He was among a group of club- goers who questioned the tactics of Portland police as they arrested an intoxicated man outside the club. When Marks’ friend was taken into custody, Marks says he asked police what they were doing.
DONTAE MARKS: The cop had the red beam on my chest and I looked down and he said “if you don’t walk away I’m going to shoot you with it.” That’s all he said to me. So I walked eight or nine steps away and I had my back turned to him and I said, “I’m not going any further,” and they shot me. They didn’t say anything else. They tased me.
LEE HOCHBERG: The police report confirms marks’ account. It says when he failed to obey their order, police tased him twice and ten more times once he hit the ground. A court acquitted him of any legal charges, but he still has scars on his back. A Portland newspaper found city police on other occasions tased a woman found passed out in a car, and two 71-year-olds, including a woman with only one eye. Such stories aren’t just in Portland; an investigation has been launched in Tucson, after police tased a handcuffed nine-year-old girl.
SGT. TOM MACK: I just think that we’re not spending enough time with the verbal skills and we’re starting to rely too much on gadgets.
LEE HOCHBERG: Portland police sergeant Tom Mack believes officers should use the taser only when suspects present a threat. He’s troubled colleagues have tased 25 people who were already in handcuffs, an act prohibited in Los Angeles, Denver, and Phoenix.
SGT. TOM MACK: You need to work on language skills, presence and demeanor skills, defusing skills that don’t necessarily mean me clobbering you.
LEE HOCHBERG: Portland Police Chief Derrick Foxworth answers that in 30 percent of the situations when his force deployed the taser, it prevented deadly force from being used. Still, under citizen pressure, he’s proposed a ban on using tasers on pregnant women, children and the elderly. He rejected a ban on tasing people in handcuffs, citing officer safety.
DERRICK FOXWORTH: Our policy says that its okay for an officer to then do what is called a dry stun, which is merely putting the contact probes on an individual, delivering a shock to get them to comply to get into the police car. Officers are often times injured just because of pushing, pulling and fighting with combative subjects.
LEE HOCHBERG: He says those injuries cost the force money, as do lawsuits when police gunfire from traditional weapons leads to a death.
DERRICK FOXWORTH: If you can reduce those lawsuits, if you can reduce the times that an officer is off work from fighting or being injured during the line of duty, then the investment is worth it.
LEE HOCHBERG: This summer, tasers have come under fire for being dangerous. In June, six suspects nationwide died in custody after being tased. In none of the cases was the taser definitively blamed, but 50 people now of the 30,000 who’ve been tased in the last three years have died shortly afterwards. The ACLU of Colorado’s Mark Silverstein has demanded Colorado police consider the safety issue.
MARK SILVERSTEIN: The more of these deaths that occur, the less I’m willing to accept an explanation that says “these are all coincidences, that person would have died right at that moment without any law enforcement intervention or without the electro-shock weapons being operated.”
LEE HOCHBERG: There has been no large-scale, independent study of the effect of tasers on the body, and no federal agency regulates tasers. The gun’s manufacturer studied the effect of the weapons on a pig and five dogs before introducing it in 1999. It says thousands of police have been tased voluntarily.
TOM SMITH: It makes it sound like we went into the backyard and just shot the pig and the dog and said “hey, they’re fine, let’s go.” When in reality, I’m talking about 150,000 people being hit over the last four years. There is not one case that you can say “boom, right here, it was the taser from Taser International that killed this individual.”
LEE HOCHBERG: There were, however, at least two deaths which local medical examiners blame on tasers. Look at these two. This one, electrocution. Cause of death: Electrocution with a stun gun. This one, cause of death: Electrical shock.
TOM SMITH: And we dispute that. And we strongly feel that the coroner made a mistake here.
LEE HOCHBERG: The company also points to recent testimony from medical experts in Orange County, Florida, where four people have died after being tased. The medical panel said it doesn’t believe tasers caused the deaths.
DR. JAN GARAVAGLIA: One died five minutes, one died 15 minutes, and one died 25 minutes after being shot by a taser. Electricity doesn’t stay in your body. The taser is not going to have a delayed effect.
LEE HOCHBERG: The ACLU’s Silverstein says most of those who have died had drugs in their system or a heart condition, and there’ve been no medical studies of the taser’s effect on such people. Nor is there data on the human health effect of receiving more than one five-second jolt, as did Dontae Marks.
MARK SILVERSTEIN: This is a laissez-faire situation. Police rely on the assertions of safety that comes from the manufacturers, who have a profit motive, and I think that can be a potentially dangerous situation.
LEE HOCHBERG: The Portland Police Bureau has ordered 150 new tasers; the chief wants every officer on the street to carry one.