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August 22-28, 2007

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Who's probing the probes?

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Who's probing the probes?: The SJPD is more confident than ever in its taser program, but several groups want to see more documents about how they're being used and on whom.

State of Shock

The national taser discussion is a joke, but no one's laughing. In Silicon Valley, at least, there's a search for real answers.

By Steve Palopoli

IN AN ERA when The Daily Show and The Onion reign, when Yahoo! posts articles from the Weekly Word News without any kind of disclaimer, you can't help but second-guess the news anymore. And lately, for real news you can barely believe is real, it's hard to beat tasers.

Last week, the big story was a man tasered while holding a newborn baby. For anyone who doubted it when it showed up in their email box, the incident—which ended with the infant dropped on the ground (on her head, according to the father) and the off-duty Houston police officer who fired the taser decried as a "moron" in national news stories—was captured on videotape when it went down April 13, a tape that finally surfaced last Wednesday. The next day, a Florida black bear made headlines for dying after being tasered. Hours later, a story broke about a secret $100,000 deal to pay off a taser-related wrongful-death lawsuit in Gwinnett County, Ga. In that same roughly 24-hour period, police incidents involving taser-related deaths in Stanislaus County and Jackson, Mississippi hit the news wires.

The problem with the taser-scandal delirium that's infected the pop culture is that it's heavy on sensationalism, short on context. How much this barrage of barely examined bits is affecting the national mood on tasers remains to be seen.

But in Silicon Valley, a much deeper and more substantial debate on tasers is in full swing, and next month could be a pivotal turning point. First, City Attorney Rick Doyle will be coming to the City Council in September with his report on liability issues involved in expanding the powers of Independent Police Auditor Barbara Attard. Attard can currently review police actions resulting in death by firearm, but has asked for the power to look into suspect deaths caused by any means of force, including tasers. Doyle's analysis of the legal issues involved could make or break her request.

At the same time, the city's Sunshine Reform Task Force is drafting a proposal for new rules that would require the SJPD to release individual officers' reports whenever they use force to subdue a suspect. Officers are already required to file these reports; however, the department has refused to release them. Instead, earlier this year, they released a report on general statistics for incidents involving the use of force against suspects, including tasers, in 2006, and included one appendix which specifically summarized taser usage for six months in 2005.

Sanjeev Bery, director of the San Jose chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, agrees with the task force that the department's summaries don't provide enough information about taser usage, and he's been engaged in an intensive letter-writing campaign urging Chief Rob Davis to release key documents concerning the SJPD's use of tasers.

"That process has been very frustrating," says Bery. "The San Jose Police Department refuses to release any of their use of force reports, so there's no real way to evaluate whether the officers are using tasers in compliance with policy. There's no way to know just from aggregate statistics whether the force is being applied in line with the Police Department's new taser guidelines."

Those guidelines were adopted in September of 2005 after three taser-related deaths in San Jose that year. In June of 2004, the department had eliminated rules that prohibited the use of tasers on "restrained, unconscious, noncombative, or otherwise incapacitated persons."

Whatever the policy, says Bery, the department's taser use is basically going unchecked.

"We have not way of evaluating how accurate use of force statistics are if we have no way to see the core documents on which those statistics are based," he says.

Taser Leader

That San Jose should be at the forefront of the national debate over tasers isn't surprising, since early in 2004, the SJPD became one of the first law enforcement agencies in the country to equip each of its patrol officers with a taser. Since then, taser use has skyrocketed. The device's manufacturer, Taser International Inc., reported 7,000 law enforcement agencies using tasers in 2005; in two years that number has jumped to 11,000.

With that has come a huge jump in controversy as well. As of June, Amnesty International counted 250 incidents in which suspects died after being tased. At the time, the manufacturer said tasers had officially contributed to cause of death in only 12 cases.

San Jose has had its share of taser-related incidents, most recently the May 25 death of Steve Salinas, who died after being tased while naked and unarmed outside a motel room.

Salinas' daughter Noreen has experienced the lack of transparency in such incidents firsthand. She's still waiting for key information about the circumstances surrounding her father's death, though she's been told autopsy results will be released this month. She's been frustrated at every stage of the discovery process, with toxicology reports shipped to Pennsylvania and what she feels is a longer than necessary wait for the department to collect reports from the officers involved.

"It's just absurd," she says. "They're holding back a lot of information they shouldn't be."

Police Confident

What information does exist about the use of tasers by San Jose officers isn't easy to decipher. Lt. Laurence Ryan of the SJPD's Research and Development Unit, who handles the public's questions about tasers, is tired of seeing information from the department's reports explained erroneously. And he thinks the slew of negative stories in the national media regarding tasers are uninformed.

"There's a lot of research that's been done on the taser, there's considerable medical research that supports tasers, but that's not what you see in the media," says Ryan.

Basically, the taser is a stun gun. When Jack Cover invented it in Arizona in 1969, he christened it in honor of all-American teen wonder Tom Swift; the name is an acronym for "Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle." It shoots two wires with prongs on the ends that are designed to attach themselves to a suspect. Propelled by compressed nitrogen, they deliver 50,000 volts of electrical pulse for five seconds, which is meant to incapacitate the target for up to several minutes by causing his or her muscles to contract involuntarily. A second "drive stun" mode allows the device to be held against the target's body without being fired to deliver voltage.

On the strength of an aggressive marketing campaign by the manufacturer, tasers began gaining popularity among police departments as a "nonlethal alternative"; that is, a weapon officers could use when in a dangerous situation that would not involve drawing a firearm. The notion that the taser improves officer safety in such situations while reducing the number of police shootings has been key to the widespread acceptance of tasers within law enforcement.

"The baton offers about 29 inches of distance between you and the suspect," says Ryan. "That gives you a little bit of distance, but the taser offers you 21 feet."

He points out that a suspect's death following the use of a taser does not necessarily implicate the device itself.

"There's a lot of circumstances around those cases," says Ryan. "There's a lot of cases where [suspects] died where tasers weren't used."

He says that despite controversy, the department's confidence in tasers has "absolutely" increased since they became a full-time part of the arsenal in 2004.

"It's a great tool," he says.

Trouble With Numbers

In some respects, the SJPD's numbers would seem to bear him out. According to the Taser Usage Report covering May 1, 2005–Dec. 31, 2005, and included as Attachment C in the Force Response Report released earlier this year, tasers were used in only .05 percent of cases handled by the department, and they were successful in allowing an officer to bring in a suspect in 94 percent of the cases where both probes attached to the target.

However, the numbers in the Force Response Report, which covered the entire year of 2006, were much different. Tasers received an effectiveness rating of 71.8 percent for probe deployment, 60.9 percent for drive stun mode. Both numbers were lower than any other method of force studied, other than carotid restraint (which was used only four times and was effective twice, for a 50 percent effectiveness rating, whereas tasers were used 232 times).

Ryan dismisses the 2006 numbers because they did not eliminate instances where the probes missed the target, or where the device malfunctioned, or any other situation where the taser did not connect and operate properly.

"There's a lot of things that when you just look at the numbers, it doesn't take into account," he says.

Fair Use?

Aram James, a retired public defender and Palo Alto resident who campaigns against tasers and helped found the Coalition for Justice and Accountability in 2003, says those numbers in the 60 percent to 70 percent effectiveness range are what everyone, including law enforcement, should be looking at. Because of the many variables that can sabotage the deployment of a taser, the device doesn't serve its purpose as a nonlethal alternative, he says—and officers know that.

"You don't bring a taser to gunfight," says James. "If you shoot them with a taser and that doesn't work, you're a dead cop."

Because of that, James and other anti-taser activists believe tasers are more often used to bring unarmed suspects into compliance in non-life-threatening situations.

"To use it in a deadly force situation implicates officer safety, and it's not safe for the cops to use it on unarmed individuals. So when is it safe?" asks James.

Nor does he think better training is a viable solution.

"Even with the best of training, the result is no different," he says. "You can't draft a safe policy for an unsafe device."

Critics of tasers are split on whether to call for a ban on the device or a moratorium pending further study, or neither. The ACLU and Amnesty International have not come out against the use of the device.

"My position personally is that they should be banned, and the coalition's position is that they should be banned," says James. "But at the minimum there should be a moratorium until there is independent testing to determine whether they can be used safely on unarmed citizens and vulnerable populations."

Ryan says he believes the controversy around tasers is natural for any relatively new weapon, and will subside.

"There were people [in the department] that were skeptical," he says. "Personally, I was skeptical. But I've seen situations where a greater amount of force would have had to be used if it wasn't for the taser."

Without disclosure of which suspects are being tased and under what circumstances, it's impossible to know if its Ryan's or James' vision of taser usage that rules in reality. But the national stories about stupid taser tricks aren't going away, taser-related lawsuits keep piling up and more people than ever are demanding answers that so far law enforcement has been unwilling to provide.

"If they're so confident," asks Noreen Salinas, "then why are people dying?"

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