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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In a report published in April 2004, the Office of Professional Accountability Review Board: OPARB, the police complaints oversight body for the SPD, recommended that "SPD Taser policy be refined to provide more detailed guidance and training delimiting officer discretion in light of growing Taser experience". The recommendation followed a critical review in the OPARB's annual report of two complaints involving police Taser use. In one complaint, a young African-American male (described as "a domestic violence assault suspect") alleged that he was tasered 14 times – a claim disputed by the officer who said he had tasered the suspect "only" four times. The OPARB questioned the police finding that the complaint was "unfounded", noting that, despite the disparity in testimony, the complainant was "undisputably tasered multiple times", an issue which it said raised questions about appropriate use. The other complaint included a claim that a suspect was tasered simultaneously by two officers in touch stun mode while lying handcuffed on the ground. The OPARB criticized the decision of the police department's Office of Professional Accountability to exonerate the officers without determining clearly how many times the complainant (who had photographic evidence of burn marks) had been tasered.(54) The SPD said it would review the OPARB recommendation and their policy and training.

In September 2004, a 17-year-old teenager zapped with a Taser four times on the back of the neck during a traffic stop received $25,000 in damages in settlement of a claim that Seattle police used had used excessive force and improper procedures. The incident happened in July 2003, when the youth, then aged 16, was riding in a car which was pulled over for a faulty headlight. The police report said he appeared to make furtive movements in the back seat. He was tasered when police searched him outside the car and, according to officers, he struggled and resisted. His attorney has reported that scars were still visible on the back of his neck one year later. In agreeing to an out-of-court settlement, the City of Seattle did not admit wrongdoing on the part of the police, but ordered the officer who had used the Taser to receive additional training.(55)

Kansas City, Missouri
In June 2004, a Kansas City police officer electro-shocked an unarmed 66-year-old African American woman in her home, as she resisted being issued with a ticket for honking her car horn at police. The incident started when Louise Jones honked her horn while parking behind a police car. The police officers, who were responding to an unrelated disturbance in the street, returned to Ms Jones' house and tried to issue her with a ticket for unlawful use of her horn. She protested and a tussle ensued, during which an officer shocked her twice with his Taser.

Kansas City Police Department's policy, introduced in April 2004, allowed officers to use Tasers on subjects who displayed "passive resistance": people who refuse to follow police instructions but do not physically resist an officer. Following publicity about the Louise Jones case, the department set up a task force to review its Taser policy. It also raised the threshold for when police could deploy Tasers, allowing their use only against those engaging in some form of "active resistance". Two officers involved in the Louise Jones incident were later reported to have been disciplined in the case, although the type of disciplinary action was not made public.

The Task Force issued preliminary recommendations to the Kansas City Police Department in September 2004, stating that officers could keep Tasers but the department should continually evaluate their use and conduct an independent study into their safety.

Cases reflect wider pattern
Amnesty International considers that using powerful electro-shock technology against unruly children; disturbed, intoxicated but non-dangerous individuals; and people who are non-compliant but who do not pose a probable threat of serious injury to themselves or others, is an excessive use of force which may also constitute torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.