People's Police Report
Shootings & deaths
Taser Danger Probe: More Portland Cases Make
In recent months, reports have surfaced of numerous incidents of officers stunning Portlanders with Tasers, conducted electrical devices that jolt the victim with 50,000 volts of electricity for five second cycles.
The October 30 Portland Mercury reported that Christopher Newby, who was wanted on a bench warrant for an outstanding $900 fine in Washington state, was Tasered and bitten by a Portland police dog when taken into custody on July 17. Sgt. Phil Blanchard (#26848) ran after Newby, calling on a group of citizens to tackle him, which they did. Officer Ty Engstrom (#43502) applied the Taser while officer Ryan Hilsenteger (#39660)'s dog bit Newby, and again when Newby allegedly still refused to comply. The Mercury says Blanchard only reported one use of the Taser.
Then there was the case of Hung Tran, an insurance salesman who was supposedly engaged in an argument at the Cheerful Tortoise bar downtown in November, 2007. The September 4 Mercury says Officer Jennifer Thompson (#43484) claims Tran pushed her down, then after she gained control of him he pushed her hand away, so she used the Taser once on his chest in "drive stun" mode. However, four witnesses say Thompson pushed Tran, and that she took Tran in a chokehold and fired the Taser's 21-foot-wires with darts on the ends to hit him in the back. Photos show marks from the Taser's probes on Tran's back. One witness, the bar manager, added that Thompson smashed Tran's cell phone and digital camera as well. The Taser's digital record showed Thompson pulled the trigger twice, though she claims one was by accident before hitting Tran.
On September 27, federal marshals used a Taser to subdue James Joseph Bennett, an Alaskan wanted for cocaine dealing charges, when he allegedly tried to escape (Oregonian, September 28). There is no mention that Bennett was armed or posed any physical threat.
A week earlier, Worter Torriente-Vela, a former wrestling champion, was hit by four Taser jolts as Gresham police tried to arrest him at a convenience store on charges of trespassing, criminal mischief, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, and possessing cocaine (Oregonian, September 23). Although Torriente-Vela "tussled" with the officer, none of his charges have to do with any possible lethal violence, so why use a weapon that is potentially deadly?
Meanwhile, Taser International has unveiled a new long-range version of the weapon called the "Shockwave." Apparently it sends out six electrified charges that can drop several people at once in a crowd situation (Mercury, October 7). They also are working on the "Extended Range Electronic Projectile" (XREP), which can be loaded into an ordinary firearm. The XREP can travel up to 100 feet. A probe sticks into the victim and a second contact point comes out of the back of the projectile, completing a circuit. The probe then jolts electricity into the victim for 20 seconds, four times longer than a conventional Taser (Forbes, October 6). Dalia Hashad, director of human rights for Amnesty International, calls the new weapons "something out of a bad video game," pointing out that at least 350 people have died in police custody after being Tasered.
In a multiply tragic incident, New York Police Lieutenant Michael Pigott committed suicide about a week after ordering an officer to use a Taser on a naked man standing on a third story ledge, causing 35 year old Inman Morales to fall to his death. The police quickly admitted the Taser use was against policy, leading to Pigott's reassignment and perhaps his despair (New York Times, September 26 and Associated Press, October 2).
On November 27, the Mercury ran a two-page article on Portland's use of Tasers, raising the concern that they are "being used more often by officers to gain compliance from uncooperative subjects, and less often as a 'less-lethal' alternative to deadly force." According to statistics they obtained from the Police Bureau, Tasers were used in Portland 541 times in 2006, 476 times in 2007, and a projected 392 times in 2008. That seems like a downward trend until compared to 320 total uses from September 2004 to December 2005.
Portland Copwatch is a grassroots, volunteer organization promoting police accountability through citizen action.