USA: Excessive and lethal force? Amnesty International's concerns about deaths and ill-treatment involving police use of Tasers

November 29, 2004

USA: Excessive and lethal force? Amnesty International's concerns about deaths and ill-treatment involving police use of Tasers

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  • A man who was drunk and verbally abusive was tasered in the back for struggling while police applied handcuffs as he lay on the ground. He was given another jolt of electricity when he continued to resist as police walked him to a patrol car.
  • Police tried to arrest a man for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend in the street. The man ran away and an officer followed him slowly in her police vehicle and told him to "Stop running or I am going to Tase you", before reaching out of her vehicle, while steering it with one hand, and firing the Taser at him. The man fell to the ground and was tasered again when he tried to stand up.
  • A man escorted from a restaurant by police officers was touch stunned in the leg for "refusing to obey verbal commands".

In September 2004, the Denver Police Department's Chief of Police, Gerry Whitman, announced that he had changed the department's use-of-force policy to allow officers to use a Taser only on suspects exhibiting "active aggression" or "aggravated active aggression". Previously, about 20% of the department's Taser incidents involved police responses to the lower standard of "defensive resistance" by a suspect. Under the department's policy, "active aggression" is defined as an assault or imminent assault, while "aggravated active aggression" constitutes more serious violence that could, in some cases, justify deadly force.

However, a report published by the Denver Post on 20 September 2004 found that policies among Colorado law enforcement agencies varied widely and that in some jurisdictions police continued to "shock suspects who do little more than mouth off, pull an arm away from a handcuff, run or refuse to obey an officer's orders quickly". In three local departments – Longmont, Pueblo and Glendale – police had used Tasers at a rate, on average, nearly four times greater than in Denver. The article cited cases in which suspects were subjected to repeated jolts or shocked while they were handcuffed. In one case, Commerce City Police Department officers used a Taser on an allegedly drunken man seven times as they tried to take him to a detoxification centre; six of the electro-shocks were administered while he was in handcuffs. Of more than 500 cases reviewed by the Post from 15 local police agencies, only two were deemed by the departments concerned to have been inappropriate.

Portland, Oregon
An investigation by a weekly journal, Willamette Week (WW), into Taser use by the Portland Police Department, Oregon, published in February 2004, reported that, over a 19 month period, officers had deployed Tasers in more than 400 cases, including on 25 people who were already in handcuffs.(46) The WW report, which was based on a review of police incident reports, stated that "numerous potentially lethal situations" had been averted using the Taser, including suicidal individuals trying to force the police to kill them.(47) However, the WW also reported on incidents in which Tasers were used against people who were not a serious threat but were merely verbally abusive or failed to comply with police commands. According to the newspaper, Oregon police had tasered people "after stopping them for non-violent offenses, such as littering and jaywalking, selling plastic flowers without a license, and failing to go away when told to". Police also used Tasers on two 71-year-olds, one a woman who was blind in one eye, and the other a man who was trying to restrain a knife-wielding woman. The elderly man was shot with the Taser after dropping onto his hands and knees instead of lying flat on the floor, as ordered by police. (See under Lawsuits, below, for details of the 71-year-old woman).