Taser use questioned

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 18, 2008

In the wake of the recent death of a Bertie County man after being tasered by law enforcement officers, many questions have been raised regarding the safety and proper use of such devices.

The Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald spoke with all four sheriffs in the Roanoke-Chowan area (Bertie, Hertford, Northampton and Gates counties) as well as a representative from Amnesty International USA, a human rights organization that has been outspoken in its belief that tasers may not be as safe as their maker claims.

&uot;This is not an uncommon situation unfortunately.

I get calls all too often where an individual is tasered and then died,&uot; stated Jared Feuer, the Southern Regional Director for Amnesty International.

The organization keeps track of the number of taser-related deaths in the United States, and currently the count is up to at least 300, all occurring since June of 2001.

&uot;We don’t have an exact number because the deaths keep happening, but right now there are more than 300,&uot; Feuer noted.

Amnesty also follows the number of police departments that use tasers.

As of November 2007, around 12,000 out of the country’s 18,000 police departments have purchased the devices.

&uot;On average, 125 new police forces per month are distributing tasers among their officers,&uot; Feuer added.

That statistic also means that, more than likely, the actual number of law enforcement agencies now using tasers is closer to 13,000 as of this month.

Amnesty’s position on tasers is simple.

They believe the devices need further study before being used.

&uot;We support the development of non-lethal alternatives and we want to make sure that police officers have the tools they need to promote public safety,

but with tasers we just don’t know enough about them at this point,&uot; Feuer stated.

He continued, &uot;We are calling for an independent medical study into deaths following taser use to determine why these people are dying and use that to guide policy and training as to where tasers fall on the use of force continuum.&uot;

Currently, Amnesty claims taser training is not based on any independent medical study, but rather on information that Taser International itself provides.

&uot;So we’re sending officers into the field with tools that they think are safe, but they really are not,&uot; Feuer added.

He continued, &uot;What’s going on is tasers are commonly being used as a weapon of first resort and not as an alternative to a firearm, but as an alternative to negotiating. That shouldn’t happen.&uot;

Amnesty International further holds that since there has been no comprehensive medical study on the safety of tasers, police departments should only allow the use of tasers as an alternative to lethal force.

&uot;If somebody is not complying, but poses no danger, that is not an appropriate situation to use a taser,&uot; Feuer noted.

In North Carolina, there have been 11 confirmed taser-related deaths since 2004.

The death of Clarence Smith Jr., who died July 8 after being tasered by Bertie County deputies, would increase that number to 12, more than double the average of other states.

But there are two sides to every story.

In the Roanoke-Chowan area, two of the four county sheriff’s departments, Bertie and Hertford counties, have equipped their officers with tasers.

In Bertie County, the first tasers were purchased in mid-2006.

&uot;We phased them in a little at a time because they’re expensive,&uot; explained Bertie County Sheriff Greg Atkins.

Atkins estimates that two thirds of Bertie County law enforcement officers are equipped with tasers, although the Sheriff says the department owns enough of the devices to outfit all officers once they are trained and certified in taser use.

&uot;They’re not allowed to have them until they are trained and certified.

It’s a standardized training that they must go through to get certified into proper use of the taser,&uot; Atkins noted.

He continued, &uot;It’s significant that all our officers themselves are tasered during the training, so obviously they are safe or we wouldn’t be using them on each other.&uot;

All officers using a taser in the field must fill out a use of force form after deploying the device on a person, just as they would if they had engaged in a physical altercation with a suspect.

&uot;The purpose of the taser is not to hurt anybody; it’s to keep people from getting hurt.

When a situation deteriorates so far that you have to use force, it’s just not good, but you’re looking for the least use of force as a way out to end the struggle,&uot; Atkins stated.

Atkins further said that since the tasers were implemented two years ago, his officers have reported they don’t have as much trouble apprehending suspects.

&uot;I don’t know our county’s specific statistics, but I read the other day that use-of-force related injuries in large places that use them have gone down by 78 percent in (law enforcement) offices that use tasers,&uot; he remarked.

In Hertford County, the sheriff’s office began using tasers in January 2006 and every single lawman is outfitted with one for a total of about 20 of the devices.

Like Bertie County, the Hertford County Sheriff’s Office has a policy in which a use-of-force form is filled out after a taser is used.

Hertford County Sheriff Juan Vaughan also noted there was a decline in the number of people resisting arrest since the tasers were first put in place.

&uot;Since January 2006 our resisting arrests have gone down tremendously percentage-wise,&uot; Vaughan said.

He continued, &uot;We have used it before, yes, but not many times.

It’s just because suspects know you have them that they are less inclined to resist.&uot;

Vaughan and Atkins both stated their departments had no policy in which tasers should only be used as an alternative to deadly force.

Vaughan commented, &uot;I had known officers to have to struggle and fight with someone before we got them (tasers), but now if they struggle and fight we just use the tasers to take care of the situation and help get someone under arrest or to detain someone.&uot;

Gates and Northampton counties have not purchased any tasers for distribution to their deputies, but both Gates County Sheriff Ed Webb and Northampton County Sheriff Wardie Vincent told the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald they have been exploring the possibility.

Last month, the United States Department of Justice (USDOJ) released a study on the use of conducted energy devices (or tasers as they are commonly known).

It found there is no conclusive medical evidence that indicates a high risk of serious injury or death from the direct effects of tasers.

However, the study also said that for safety reasons, the use of tasers should be avoided in certain population groups, including children, the elderly, pregnant women, people with diseased hearts, and those experiencing an abnormal mental state.

&uot;Abnormal mental status in a combative or resistive subject may be associated with a risk for sudden death,&uot; one part of the study summary reads.

In the case of Clarence Smith Jr., Smith’s family had called in law enforcement for an involuntary commitment, questioning his mental state.

The USDOJ study also cautions against multiple activations of tasers as a means to accomplish subdual.

Those findings seem to be in line with Amnesty International’s previous claims that the risk of death following taser electroshock was elevated in certain circumstances.

The organization found that death was more common in those who had been subjected to more than one shock with the taser, were in restraints, were either agitated, intoxicated or had a heart condition.

Smith was in handcuffs at the time he was tasered, as confirmed by the sheriff’s department.

His family also claims he was tasered more than once.