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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(29) Indeed, in a letter to the Miami City Attorney, dated 13 March 2003, the Justice Department expressed concern that the Miami Police Department's policy on Tasers was insufficiently stringent, noting that it failed to define what constituted a reasonable use of force or to place Tasers on a "use of force continuum". The Justice Department recommended the introduction of a force continuum as a valuable tool which "emphasizes that an officer's presence, verbal commands and use of soft hands techniques (using hands to escort rather than control) can often be used as an alternative to other, more significant, uses of force."

(30) There have been many reported instances of abusive use of pepper spray and chemical sprays by US law enforcement officials against people in police custody, in prisons and in juvenile detention facilities, including their use as a front line of control in the case of individuals who fail to comply immediately with orders. Complaints have been documented in lawsuits, by civil liberties and police monitoring bodies, and in Amnesty International reports.

(31) Justice Department press release on the MPD, dated June 2001: "In the past two years … MPD has achieved a significant reduction in the rate at which it uses deadly force and the rate at which its canines bite suspects". Officer-involved-shootings fell from 16 fatalities in 1990 to four in 1999 and two in 2000. The MPD did not have Tasers at that time.

(32) In the LAPD, for example, police shootings and total use-of-force incidents deceased significantly between 1990 and 1999, during a period in which an independent monitor noted that there were "better investigations, better oversight, greater scrutiny on the use of force" than ever before (former Inspector General Jeff Eglash, quoted in L.A. Weekly, September 2002). The LASD saw police shootings fall by 70% from 1991 to 2000, during a period in which the number of arrests remained constant. The Special Monitor appointed to oversee the department reported in 2003 that that "excessive force has been substantially curbed", and that better reporting and monitoring had contributed to this trend. Civilian Oversight of the Police in the United States, Merrick Bobb, September 2002.

(33) There were eight police shootings in San Jose in 1999; five in 2000; four in 2001; zero in 2002; four in 2003 and six in the first nine months of 2004. (1999-2003 statistics from IPA 2003 Report.)

(34) "Police to review use of stun gun", Mercury News, 29 September 2004

(35) The mid-range on the force continuum is generally where pepper or chemical sprays are placed. Taser International told Amnesty International that 86% of US agencies placed Tasers at this level.

(36) Several police departments have recently changed their policies to raise the entry level for Taser use from "passive" to "active" resistance following controversial cases. These include 11 police agencies in Orange County, Florida. Other departments reportedly continue to authorize such use, either in a written policy or in practice (they include the Honolulu Police Department, Hawaii; the Portland Police Department, Oregon, which is reported to allow Taser use against people who are non-compliant but not a physical threat; several agencies in Colorado are also reported, in practice, to have used Tasers against people passively resisting arrest, or refusing to obey a police order.)

(37) Examples include the Mesa Police Department, Arizona; the Chula Vista Police Department, California and the Putman County Sheriff's Office, Florida.

(38) Telephone interview, March 2004