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City's Taser Audit Fails To Highlight Weapon's Dangers
Over a year in the making, the Portland City Auditor released a report on Portland Police Bureau (PPB) use of Tasers in mid-November.
Unfortunately, despite good suggestions about further limiting the use of the electroshock weapons, the audit only asks limited questions about the appropriateness of deploying them. The report's narrow discussion about the possibility of fatalities could have been expanded by the Medical Examiner's September 2 finding that 87-year-old Phyllis Owens' death (PPR #51) was attributable to the 50,000 volt shock from a Clackamas County Sheriff's deputy affecting her pacemaker (Oregonlive, September 2).
To their credit, the authors suggest requiring a higher threshold before Tasers can be deployed (an actual threat or physical resistance, not just intent to threaten or resist) and instructing officers not to use multiple shocks. However, they did not question whether using Tasers is appropriate for Portland Police. They instead absurdly concluded that Tasers were "effective" in all 50 cases examined because deadly force was not used, without asking if deadly force would have been justified in each instance--which is extremely unlikely.
The auditors did not interview civilians who have been hit by Tasers, and ignored the hundreds of deaths after the use of Tasers around North America, including Portland's Timothy Grant (PPR #38). At least four other people have died after being hit by Tasers in Oregon--Nick Hanson in Ashland in 2006 (also PPR #38), Gregory Rold in Salem in 2009 (PPR #48), and Daniel Barga in Cornelius (PPR #50) and Ms. Owens in 2010.
The audit also presumes the police point of view as fact. a) They repeatedly refer to Tasers (and other weapons) as "tools." This mindset leads to Tasers being used on a daily basis in Portland rather than rarely. b) They analyzed police reports for the 50 incidents, calling each situation "resolved" even though police did not explain how suspects received injuries. They do not mention whether complaints or lawsuits were filed. c) They use the term "agitated delirium"* throughout, which, while used by the Bureau, is not a real medical condition. It's a term that Taser Inc. started using to explain why so many people have died after use of Tasers.
The report also contains inconsistent statistics on Taser use: previous reports have shown taserings in Portland remaining steady while other uses of force dropped (PPR #48). The Portland Mercury (Nov. 27, 2008) reported Tasers were used 541 times in 2006 and 476 times in 2007, yet the audit indicates numbers between 800 and 1000 for those years.
In noting that the PPB stopped using the "Laser Sight only" checkbox on their Use of Force form, the report fails to weigh in on whether the City should return to this important practice. The audit also doesn't mention that 18% of cases in the City's two Use of Force Reports involved officers who reported no resistance or mere failure to comply with commands--nor why those incidents weren't investigated as misconduct.
There is also no analysis of bullying tactics used by Taser, Inc. to quiet critics. Taser, Inc. goes out of its way to get jurisdictions not to blame their product for deaths, using billions they made selling their own stock.
The Taser is a weapon that disables a person's motor skills using electricity. This is not a "tool." In late November, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to revisit the finding in Bryan v. McPherson which found one particular Taser incident in California to be excessive force (PPR #50). Judge Kim Wardlaw blasted dissenting judges for "the largely unsupported and nonsensical belief that use of a device designed to fire a dart up to one-half inch into bare skin and deliver a 1200 volt charge somehow does not constitute an intermediate use of force."
Meanwhile, an incident in Chicago that involved a medical examiner's determination that the Taser caused the death of Ronald Hasse in 2005 (PPR #36) led to a $550,000 settlement with Hasse's family in late July.
Portland's audit is at http://www.portlandonline.com/auditor/index.cfm?c=51639&a=326891 .
*The conventional term for this non-medically recognized condition is "Excited Delirium."
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Portland Copwatch is a grassroots, volunteer organization promoting police accountability through citizen action.