TASERS ZAPPED BY BAD PUBLICITY
Portland Police officers' favorite new toy, the Taser, has been getting its fair share of negative publicity in the last few months.
Three articles in major newspapers on the week of July 12th raised serious questions about manufacturer Taser International's claims that the device is 100 percent safe. And locally, a 71-year-old woman whose prosthetic eye was popped out by officers restraining her was awarded a $145,000 settlement in part because she was also pepper-sprayed and Tasered three times.
The incident began when the woman, Eunice Crowder, challenged city employee Ed Marihart, who was forcibly cleaning up her yard based on a search warrant. Marihart called 911 and officers Robert Miller (#38512) and Eric Zajac (#3783) arrived. One of the officers struck her in the head, causing her false eye to come out. According to the April 23 Oregonian, police admitted pushing her into the dirt. Zajac Tasered her in the back twice and once in the breast. Crowder's 94-year-old mother, who came out and tried to let them know Crowder was hearing and vision-impaired, was not harmed. A judge dismissed charges against Crowder of harassment and interfering with a police officer.
When the case came to City Council, Commissioner Randy Leonard questioned the use of a Taser stun gun, which zaps victims with 50,000 volts of electricity, against an elderly woman. His comments may have led to the development of a new directive on Tasers, which was released in draft form to the public on May 21.
The new directive calls for police to give "consideration" before using the Taser on "children, women who are known to be or obviously pregnant and the elderly." It also prohibits "horseplay," use of Tasers at demonstrations without permission, and urges caution if a person might fall down and be injured. It specifically notes that some kinds of pepper spray (not used by the PPB, apparently) may ignite when in contact with a Taser.
Captain Crebs of the Training Division dismissed out of hand the idea that Tasers use be limited to circumstances in which officers would otherwise use deadly force. In fact, the new directive specifically states that "The Taser is not meant to take the place of deadly force options." This is unfortunate, since Tasers were originally bought in the wake of the José Mejía Poot shooting as an alternative to deadly force (see PPR #27).
The Willamette Week compared the new directive to the restrictions in Phoenix, where officers may only use a Taser after they "consider the magnitude of a crime and the suspect's propensity for violence" (May 26). Crebs told WW's Nick Budnick that he "misread" the Phoenix policy and would correct his recent report on Portland's use of the weapons. Hopefully this will stop the practice Budnick points out in which "Portland cops are specifically trained to use Tasers as cattle prods to shock handcuffed people into jumping into the back of police cars, even if those in custody do not appear violent."
Meanwhile, the devices are receiving much attention in the national press, not much of it positive. USA Today reported on July 14 that at least five people died between September, 2003 and July 2004 after being hit by Tasers. It quotes William Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International, saying "We believe there should be systematic medical tests conducted to ascertain the reason for the deaths, to determine definitively if they're connected with the Taser."
The New York Times ripped into Taser International's poor testing practices in its July 18 edition. The article states that the testing prior to sending Taser to market were done on "one pig in 1996 and five dogs in 1999." Setting aside the cruelty to animals, it boggles the mind that this company, which the Times says went from near bankruptcy in 1999 to a net worth of roughly $1.2 billion today, continues to tout the Taser as fully tested and safe.
In a defensive reply, Taser's spokesman Steve Tuttle claimed the Times was wrong. "These pigs that we tested in some cases took 280 back-to-back cycles. This is not just zapping a pig and going 'Oh, wow. It worked pretty well. Let's go shoot people'" (Scottsdale [AZ] Tribune, July 20).
The third article on the electroshock devices, published in the July 15 Christian Science Monitor, cited Atlanta lawyer Millard Farmer, whose client was Tased without warning during an argument at a traffic stop. "Sure, it's better to use Tasers than to use a gun. You can't get away with killing people. But you can get away with using it in a very vindictive way."
That article also quotes Tuttle, who claims that people worried about pepper spray when it was first introduced, but "eventually we learned that these aren't dangerous products at all." Perhaps he needs to speak with the families of dozens of people who have died after being pepper sprayed, including the family of Dickie Dow, who were paid $10,000 by manufacturer Armor Holdings as part of a wrongful death settlement in Portland (see PPR #26).
The good news is that following the New York Times article, the company's stock fell nearly 10 percent, and gadget-selling merchant Sharper Image decided not to sell Tasers over-the-counter to civilians (Scottsdale Tribune and San Francisco Business Times, July 20).
Other information on Taser abuse can be found in Amnesty International's annual report on human rights in the USA at http://web.amnesty.org/report2004/usa- summary-eng.
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