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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Indeed, improved policies, training and oversight have been shown to be critical factors in reducing police shootings and injuries to suspects or officers. Such measures are likely to have a more significant impact overall than use of alternative weapons. In San Jose, California, for example, the police department obtained its first sizeable batch of new Tasers in 2002, a year in which police shootings fell to zero. However, police shootings in San Jose had been falling since 1999, a development attributed in large part to better training on the use of force; the introduction of a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) to defuse potentially dangerous situations involving disturbed individuals; and an independent auditor to monitor the department. Improved use-of-force policies, investigations and training led to a fall in police shootings and dog bite injuries in Washington, DC, where the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) was once notorious for its high rate of officer-involved-shootings and injuries to suspects from police canines.(31) Other departments, including the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department (LASD), have noted similar trends.(32)

In fact, in San Jose, police shootings started to rise again after the introduction of Tasers (which were issued to all patrol officers in May 2004), reaching a five-year high in 2004. (33) Their effectiveness in resolving use-of-force situations has been questioned by the San Jose Independent Police Auditor, who announced a review of the department's Taser use in September 2004, following concern about two incidents in which police shot disturbed individuals after Tasers failed to subdue them.(34) One case concerned a mentally disturbed man who became agitated after being asked to stop smoking in a coffee shop and allegedly threw a chair at officers. He was shot after the Taser failed to subdue him. Questions have been raised as to whether other force tactics might have been more safely deployed in such a situation.

1. 4 Low on the force scale

Although described by the manufacturer as a suitable tool for "aggressive, focused combatants", the Taser appears to be a relatively low level force option in many US police departments. A survey by Amnesty International of more than 30 US police departments (including 20 of the largest city or county agencies) indicates that Tasers are typically placed in the mid-range of the force scale, below batons or impact weapons rather than at, or just below, lethal force. (35) Some departments place the entry level for Tasers at an even lower level, after verbal commands and light hands-on force.

For example, a number of law enforcement agencies allow Tasers to be used against "passive resisters" – people who refuse to comply with police commands but do not interfere with an officer and pose no physical threat.(36) Others authorize Tasers at an entry level of "defensive resistance", typically defined as "physical actions which attempt to prevent officer's control but do not attempt to harm the officer".(37) The Miramar Police Department, Florida, told Amnesty International (in response to concerns raised about the stunning of a schoolgirl during a minor disturbance) that Tasers were available "prior to the use of intermediate weapons" such as batons. A Philadelphia Police Department directive states that Tasers may be used, among other scenarios, to "overcome resistance to arrest". Indianapolis police told Amnesty International that the entry level at which Tasers could be used was "at any point force is needed".(38) While many departments authorize Tasers at the level of "active physical resistance", according to a number of policies Amnesty International has seen, this can be in the form of "bracing or tensing" or "attempts to push or pull away". These scenarios hardly depict the "combative" or "aggressive" individuals described in promotional literature.