Concerns of liability may force more cities to rethink use of Tasers

Posted Saturday, Sep. 28, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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sanders Three years ago, more than 450 small white crosses were placed on a vacant lot next to New Mount Calvary Baptist Church in the far south Fort Worth community of Highland Hills.

The sign placed in front of the display at 5800 Oak Grove Road proclaims the site as the “Taser/Torture/Death National Memorial.” It goes on to say that it is in memory of Michael Jacobs Jr., who was “tortured alive for 54 seconds with a 50,000 volt Taser gun. His blood cries out from the grave for justice.”

Jacobs was a 24-year-old mental patient who died in April 2009 after being shot with a “stun gun,” officially called a conducted electrical weapon (CEW) and most commonly referred to as a Taser, the name of the leading manufacturer of CEWs.

Police had been called to the Jacobs home by his parents after he became aggressive when he failed to take his medication. An officer shot Jacobs twice with the electronic device, and the medical examiner found that the initial shock lasted 49 seconds. (The Taser used was designed to have a five-second deployment, but could go longer if the trigger was held down.) The second shot lasted five seconds.

Jacobs’ death was ruled a homicide, and the city of Fort Worth settled a lawsuit filed by his family for $2 million.

Those who created the memorial after his death — each cross representing a person who died after being “Tased” — called for an end to the use of CEWs by police departments, or at the very least a moratorium on their use until more independent studies could be done on these tools that were originally marketed as “nonlethal” weapons.

Tasers are being used by more than 16,000 law enforcement agencies in more than 40 countries, and most are not thinking of giving them up. Many police officials insist the weapons help save lives, as they are used when an officer otherwise would have to deploy a gun.

But as the number of deaths rise, along with the number of lawsuits against stun gun manufacturers, some police departments are beginning to re-examine their use of CEWs.

Just this month, five law enforcement agencies in North Texas announced they had discontinued using Tasers or were reviewing their policy regarding the weapons.

This comes on the heels of TASER International issuing on its website a new warning to law enforcement, stating that its conducted electrical weapon “can cause death or serious injury.”

The chief of police in Mansfield, after discussions with the city’s attorney, ordered that the 50-plus CEWs (all TASER brand) in the department be taken out of service, said Public Information Officer Thad Penkala.

That city’s legal representation is provided by the Fort Worth law firm of Taylor Olson Adkins Sralla & Elam, LLP, which also advises at least three of the other cities reviewing their Taser policies: Crowley, Richland Hills and Burleson.

Richland Hills Police Chief Barbara Childress said her department has suspended use of Tasers while it does further research, with a final decision expected by next week.

A spokesman for North Richland Hills, represented by the same law firm, said a press report that its department was discontinuing the use of Tasers was not true.

The policy is under review, Officer Keith Bauman said, but right now all 107 sworn officers still have their CEWs.

Years ago I suggested that there be a moratorium on use of Tasers, which I think are still overused by many police officers and are doing too much harm, often to unarmed people.

Since 2001, more than 500 people in the U.S. have died after being shot with these electronic devices, according to Amnesty International.

Although the Fort Worth Police Department, with more than 1,300 CEWs, is not likely to give up the weapons, many smaller departments must seriously consider the consequences of not banning them.

These small towns can’t afford to fight multimillion-dollar lawsuits, much less lose one.

Bob Ray Sanders' column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. 817-390-7775 Twitter: @BobRaySanders

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