Courts & Crime

Police defend use of Tasers as safety questions keep rising

MODESTO, Calif. — Every sheriff's deputy working at the Stanislaus County Jail in downtown Modesto starts the day in the detention facility's armory.

There, deputies grab Tasers and make sure the devices are working before they start their shift supervising an average of more than 370 of the toughest inmates in the county.

Some inmates are awaiting trial, others are awaiting sentencing and none of them wants to be there.

Deputies are forced to confront men who can turn combative when facing transfers to state prisons, who toss nasty cocktails of bodily fluids at staff members and who turn on each other with makeshift weapons.

Whether in a detention facility or on the street, law enforcement officers say they always have to be watchful and do their best to maintain a safe distance during confrontations. They say the Taser allows them to do that while subduing aggressive or uncooperative people.

Taser usage has grown dramatically because law enforcement officials believe the electronic device is a tool that reduces injuries to suspects and to officers. At the same time, Tasers have fallen under intense scrutiny by the courts and civil rights groups after a few of those subdued with the device later died.

A variety of agencies and researchers have conducted studies to determine whether Tasers can be dangerous, but the studies have not found that the devices cause death. However, some have raised concerns of "negative outcomes" because of improper use of the devices.

Law enforcement agencies have responded to those concerns by modifying their techniques for using the devices to reduce the chances of seriously injuring suspects or inmates.

In the past 10 years, law enforcement agencies in Stanislaus County have added Tasers to their arsenals. Almost every Stanislaus County sheriff's deputy and Modesto police officer carries a Taser.

Sheriff's patrol deputies used Tasers 43 times in 2007 and 74 times in 2009. Modesto police officers used the devices 65 times in 2007 and 146 times in 2009.

Industry reports suggest about 11,500 law enforcement agencies in the country have acquired about 260,000 "conducted energy devices" such as Tasers, according to a 2008 report by the National Institute of Justice.

Last year, three men died in custody at the Stanislaus County Jail after law enforcement officers used Tasers and other force to subdue them. In one of the three deaths, the Stanislaus County district attorney's office investigated the use of Tasers by Sheriff's Department personnel but found no wrong- doing. The investigations into the two other deaths are pending.

Merced incident scrutinized

Merced police also came under scrutiny after officers used a Taser in September on an unarmed man with no legs who was using a wheelchair. He recovered, but claims the officers used excessive force.

Taser International, the largest manufacture of these devices in the country, has recommended law enforcement agencies change the way they use the devices to "avoid any potential controversy on this topic."

Critics have called for stricter regulation, while others have asked for independent investigations of Taser incidents by someone other than law enforcement.

"I understand why the Taser is scrutinized; it's a relatively new tool," said Acting Modesto Police Chief Mike Harden. "But I do believe in the studies I've read that it is a safe and effective tool that makes everyone safer in the long run."

According to Amnesty International, more than 360 people have died in the United States since 2001 after being stunned by police Tasers. Taser International estimates its devices have been used more than 660,000 times on suspects or inmates.

"Tasers are not the 'non- lethal' weapons they are portrayed to be," said Angela Wright, U.S. researcher for Amnesty International and author of its 2008 report on Tasers. "They can kill and should only be used as a last resort."

A study by the National Institute of Justice found "there is no conclusive medical evidence that indicates a high risk of serious injury or death from the direct effects of conducted energy device exposure (Tasers)." The study, however, found that many of the deaths were associated with continuous or repeated discharge of the device.

Dr. Zian Tseng, a professor of cardiology at University of California at San Francisco, and colleague Dr. Byron Lee co-wrote a paper published in the American Journal of Cardiology on a survey of California police and sheriff's departments that use Tasers.

The survey found a sixfold increase in people dying in custody the first year after stun guns were deployed, but the number of deaths returned to previous levels in subsequent years. The authors attributed the decline to police changing their techniques.

Based on their research, Tseng said the chances of a Taser causing sudden death increase when the device's darts hit the chest on both sides of the heart, the darts penetrate deep into the skin, the device is triggered multiple times or the person has prior drug use or a heart condition.

"To use Tasers safely, you need to first have the recog- nition that they can be po- tentially dangerous," Tseng said.

Tasers aren't the only option for police officers and deputies. They also can use batons, pepper spray, rubber projectiles, bean bag guns and other devices to try to subdue people.

But law enforcement officials say Tasers remain the must-have tool for dealing with combative people.

"The beauty of a Taser is that you have the ability to maintain a safe distance from the suspect," said Stanislaus County Undersheriff Bill Heyne. "To use a baton, you have to be close."

Deputies also use the Taser as a deterrent, said sheriff's Lt. Ronald Lloyd, commander at the downtown jail.

A deputy can pull out a Taser and pull the trigger without shooting the darts at anyone. He said the sight and sound of the Taser's electrical spark has convinced inmates to comply with deputies' orders.

"It's not a horrible tool," Lloyd said. "It helps keep staff and inmates safer."

He said the Taser's shock only lasts as long as the trigger is pulled, and anyone hit with the Taser can regain control of their body as soon as the finger is off the trigger.

Deputies get stunned

Almost every deputy working at the jail has experienced receiving a jolt from the device, including Lloyd. He said deputies are hit with a Taser during their training, so they can know what it feels like.

Critics, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, believe Taser use is underregulated and more warnings should be given to officers before they use them.

The ACLU says it isn't opposed to new technology that might reduce injuries to suspects, inmates or law enforcement personnel. Medical evidence, however, suggests Tasers can pose a risk of death, said Peter Bibring, staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California.

"Any new weapon technology has to be used appro- priately in light of the potential risks they carry," said Bibring, who specializes in police practices. "We're concerned that Taser International and law enforcement don't recognize these medical risks."

He said ways to minimize the risks include limiting the number of officers that can shoot a Taser at a suspect at the same time and limiting the number of times a Taser can be used on one person.

Taser International recommends that law enforcement personnel avoid shooting stun guns at suspects' chests. In an Oct. 12 training bulletin, the Arizona-based company says shooting a suspect in the chest poses a risk, albeit extremely low, of an "adverse cardiac event."

Stanislaus County sheriff's and Modesto police officials said they have updated their Taser policies to meet Taser International's recommendations.

Bibring said the recommendation was a significant step that showed the manufacturer recognized there was credible evidence of medical risk.

"Our concern is that officers have been given these devices as a substitute for a firearm and told they will not have a lasting effect," Bib- ring said. "They're using Tasers in ways they would never use a firearm."

Taser International spokesman Steve Tuttle said in an e-mail that the recommendation was not a significant shift and was designed only to avoid controversy.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco last month said a Taser constituted excessive force when used against an unarmed man who did not pose a threat, and it refused to allow a police officer immunity for its use.

Officials: Policies reviewed

Stanislaus County sheriff's and Modesto police officials said they have reviewed their department policies on Taser use and made sure they are within the guidelines set by the appeals court decision.

Sheriff's officials say Tasers are used to de-escalate a situation and to convince suspects it's better to give up than to fight.

"We're not using these tools to inflict pain or harm; that's not the oath we took," said Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson. "We're not looking for a fight or to injure or kill someone."

In April 2007, Sheriff's Department personnel at the Stanislaus County Honor Farm in Grayson brought a race riot under control with pepper spray, Tasers and batons. About 15 black inmates were assaulted by as many as 85 white prisoners, and 10 inmates suffered minor injuries.

All deputies carry Tasers at the Honor Farm, where the devices are needed more than ever. The facility has been forced to house higher-risk inmates because of jail overcrowding and budget cuts.

"The Honor Farm was designed for lower-security-risk inmates, like for people who wrote bad checks," said Gina Leguria, a legislative analyst for the Sheriff's Department. "Now, it's a whole different world out there."

Wendy Byrd, president of the Modesto-Stanislaus Branch of the NAACP, said her group understands stun guns are necessary in certain situations, but thinks more oversight is needed.

"It appears to us that many of the officers are using the device to gain compliance instead of self-defense," Byrd said.

The local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has submitted a letter to the Stanislaus County civil grand jury asking for independent investigations of recent Taser incidents.

Byrd said an agency without ties to local law enforcement and prosecutors is needed to provide an independent review.

Christianson said he welcomes any investigation, because his department is willing to be held accountable to ensure it has the public's trust.

The family of Craig Prescott, who died after jailers used a Taser and other force to subdue him, is preparing to file a civil lawsuit against the Sheriff's Department, the family's attorney has said.

The coroner's office determined Prescott died of hypertensive heart disease. An autopsy report commissioned by his family says he died from a lack of oxygen to the brain during the struggle with jailers.

Manuel Dante Dent was hit with a stun gun by Modesto police officers as he ingested a small bag of methamphetamine. He died the next day at the jail. Toxicology results determined an overdose of meth killed Dent.

The family of Alton Warren Ham, who also died at the downtown Modesto jail after jailers used a Taser to subdue him while he was being moved to another cell, has submitted a claim against the county that could be a precursor to a lawsuit. An autopsy showed Ham had an enlarged heart, but the cause of death is undetermined until toxicology results are returned.

Harden said lawsuits are always a concern, and it always will be a legal avenue people can take.

But officers are forced to make split-second decisions in volatile situations with violent suspects, he said.

"It's a risky business, and sometimes officers have to put their hands on people and sometimes there's a bad outcome," Harden said. "We'll let the courts decide on whether an officer's actions were appropriate."

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