Tasers

Feb. 26, 2008

By Jacob Quinn Sanders
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

The Arkansas State Police has used a Taser in the field only three times since paying $51,000 for 50 of them in 2004.

Troopers have passed a Taser certification test 129 times since state police bought the weapons through the end of 2007, records show, including 10 who have earned a higher certification to train other troopers.

Yet no state police troopers carry one.

The reason is simple. No state police policy exists describing a Taser’s proper use. And state police say they have not yet decided whether to write one. Each Taser certification lasts for two years, records show, meaning the earliest certifications have expired.

Charisse Childress, a member of the Arkansas State Police Commission since 2003 and its vice chairman, said she found the lack of a policy combined with allowing the use of a Taser surprising.

“I have a hard time believing that,” she said. “I don’t know why we’d do that. If we have these and people train on them, it sounds to me like we should have some kind of policy. The state police should address that immediately.”

She said it was troubling that even some troopers were allowed to use such a weapon in the absence of a policy.

State police argue that the agency’s path is prudent and careful.

“At some juncture in the near future, there will be a report issued to the Arkansas State Police Director that will weigh pros and cons of equipping the troopers with tasers,” state police spokesman Bill Sadler wrote in an e-mail response to questions. “The report findings will be considered by the command staff and a decision will be made whether or not to purchase additional tasers and whether to move forward with field deployment.”

Having Tasers for training makes troopers more familiar with them in case another agency uses one, Sadler wrote.

Even though no patrol troopers and no investigators have Tasers, Sadler wrote, the state police special weapons and tactics unit has three in its arsenal — all bought before the others, in 2003. SWAT troopers have used a Taser twice, records show. A rookie patrol trooper, certified on Tasers, fired one belonging to a Conway County sheriff’s deputy another time. All three uses were during standoffs with armed suspects.

The Taser is designed to subdue dangerous suspects without killing them. The handgun-shaped model X26 Tasers state police ordered deliver a 50,000-volt electrical shock within 35 feet, either through barbs or direct body contact, according to their manufacturer, Arizona-based Taser International.

A copy of the purchase order dated June 10, 2004, shows state police ordered the weapons — $799.95 each — along with related equipment such as air cartridges and practice targets at a total cost of $51,624.56. Sadler said the agency paid for the weapons out of its general revenue fund.

FIRST USE

State police Cpl. Bobby Brown was the first in the agency to use a Taser in the field, records show. On Dec. 30, 2004, about 10:30 a.m., Brown’s pager alerted him to a man barricaded in a house near Milwood in Phillips County. Then an eight-year state police veteran, Brown drove the 2 1/2 hours there from central Arkansas to meet up with the rest of the SWAT unit.

James Wood III, 43, assaulted his father in a house near his own, then went home, records show. Brown wrote in a memo that Wood had shot at police in the past and that officers once wounded Wood shooting back. The SWAT troopers believed Wood was armed with a semiautomatic pistol and with a rifle, Brown wrote.

Hours went by.

Finally, Brown got word that Wood had come out and was walking around his backyard, according to the memo.

“A decision was made to try and arrest the suspect while he was outside the residence,” Brown wrote. “I felt this would give us the advantage because we could see that he did not have a rifle in his hands and we were not sure what would happen if we had to affect an arrest inside the residence.”

A team of six SWAT troopers and a medic made their way toward Wood. He saw them and two other troopers and ran, Brown wrote, so he unleashed his “SWAT deployment dog,” named Sator.

“‘Sator’, for reasons unknown, did not target the suspect and ran passed him towards another SWAT operator,” Brown wrote.

Then Brown pulled out his Taser, he wrote, which had “no effect on the suspect.” The memo does not say why.

Wood reached into his shirt and pulled out a chrome-colored handgun, Brown wrote. Four troopers opened fire and killed Wood. A prosecutor ruled the shooting justified.

It would be almost three years before another trooper tried using a Taser in the field. From that point through the end of 2007, troopers would pass Taser certification courses 102 times and train on the weapon for a total of 740 hours, records show.

POLICY, TRAINING ARE KEY

Sadler wrote in another e-mail that the Arkansas State Police would consider all the information it could find and felt no pressure to make a decision whether to give Tasers to its patrol troopers.

“Far more important than a deadline,” Sadler wrote, “is the expectation of the Director of the Arkansas State Police that all of the facts pertaining to electronic control devices, both good and bad, as well as a review of all technologies associated with these devices are taken into consideration long before a recommendation may begin to evolve and a decision implemented.”

State police Director Col. Winford Phillips, Deputy Director Lt. Col. Tim K’Nuckles and the agency’s certified Taser trainers would not sit for interviews for this article, Sadler wrote.

Speaking generally, not specifically about state police, Taser International spokesman Steve Tuttle said the key to an agency using Tasers well was “a good policy and good training together.”

Sadler wrote that certified troopers can use Tasers because of one line in the 10-page state police use-of-force policy, which allows the “use of electronic control devices.”

A 2005 U.S. Government Accountability Office review of Taser use in seven law-enforcement agencies, however, showed that all seven had extensive Taser-specific policies. Each agency reported that its policy covered daily visual inspections of the weapons, storage procedures, guidelines describing appropriate circumstances for using a Taser, weekly or daily testing and a prohibition on using Taser barbs to shock anyone in the neck or face. Shocking children and pregnant women was also forbidden, according to the review.

Some policies also mandated downloading and storing data from each of its Tasers, including how many five-second cycles an officer used on a suspect. In the three instances in which an Arkansas State Police trooper used a Taser, Sadler wrote, the agency kept no data.

PROS, CONS

The weapon’s name is an acronym. It stands for “Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle,” a reference to the main character in a series of adventure novels.

Tuttle said the company has sold Tasers to 12,500 law-enforcement agencies in 44 countries. In Arkansas, he said, 193 agencies use or are testing Tasers.

He estimated that the average time an agency would take to decide whether to use Tasers was six months.

“I’ve seen other instances where that time can be years,” Tuttle said. “It’s not something you can predict.”

Across the nation, the Taser has brought controversy almost since its first introduction in 1993. Only one state — New Jersey — prohibits law-enforcement agencies from using the device.

Taser International and some law-enforcement agencies swear fiercely by the weapon’s safety and practicality.

Fayetteville police have carried Tasers since September 2004. Of the city’s 119 sworn officers, only six lack Taser certification, Sgt. Matt Partain, the department’s training supervisor, said.

“I’ll have those six done at the first of next month,” he said.

Partain said the weapon was better at subduing suspects than pepper spray and likely prevented a few dozen injuries.

“When used properly,” he said, “this is probably the most effective tool for law-enforcement that has ever come along.”

But medical examiners and forensic pathologists in various states have cited the weapon as a contributing factor in some deaths after confrontations with police, usually in cases where the suspect was unarmed, physically restrained and high on a stimulant such as cocaine. And human-rights groups believe the Taser’s billing as a “less-than-lethal” weapon is misleading.

In a 2006 report outlining concerns about police Taser use, the nonprofit human-rights organization Amnesty International identified 85 deaths that occurred nationwide after a law-enforcement officer shocked a suspect with a Taser between November 2004 and February 2006. None was in Arkansas, though all the state’s neighbors but one — Mississippi — recorded at least one such death.

While not claiming that the Taser itself caused any of the deaths, Amnesty International applauded the announcement in 2006 of a two-year study by the Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice into Taser use and in-custody deaths. The institute’s findings are expected sometime this year.

USE BY TROOPERS

The last two times an Arkansas State Police trooper used a Taser in the line of duty came less than a month apart last October.

In the first, records show, first-year Trooper Eric Lee joined in the pursuit of a man driving fast away from Russellville police a little after noon on Oct. 3. A Pope County sheriff’s deputy and at least two state troopers joined the pursuit at the city limits, heading east on Interstate 40, records show.

The man got off I-40 at mile marker 101, records show, then later headed south on Arkansas 113. A Conway County deputy blocked the suspect’s car with his own and brought it to a stop.

“The suspect then pulled out a small pocket knife and threatened to kill himself repeatedly,” Trooper Chris Goodman wrote in a report. “He then threatened to kill himself by starting fire to the car with his lighter.”

The Conway County deputy gave Lee his Taser, a state police corporal broke out the suspect’s driver’s-side window and Lee shocked the 33-year-old man before arresting him.

Four weeks later, outside the Choctaw post office in Van Buren County, a 30-year-old man sat in his car with his ex-wife, 4-year-old daughter and a knife.

Officials with four different agencies tried for 15 hours to get the man to give up the knife.

Shortly before 6:30 p.m., Sgt. Steven Davis, a 19-year state police veteran and SWAT unit member, crouched down below the window on the truck’s passenger side, he wrote in a memo. A state police negotiator on the driver’s side mouthed silently that he was about to go for the knife, Davis wrote.

The negotiator jumped in the truck, grabbing the suspect’s arm, Davis wrote in a memo. Davis followed, he wrote, reaching behind the woman and the girl to jam his Taser directly into the suspect’s neck.

“The female and child, who were not injured, were taken to safety,” Davis wrote. “The subject was taken into custody without further incident.”

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