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US: Torture by Taser

by Peter GormanFort Worth Weekly
June 24th, 2005

Robert Guerrero may have died because he wouldn’t come out of a closet.

The small-time crook had been looking to steal some electricity. When he tried to illegally reconnect a neighbor’s electrical meter at the North View apartment complex near the Fort Worth Stockyards last November, someone called the cops. And when the officers arrived, someone else pointed them to the closet in Apartment M where he was hiding.

Guerrero, 21, wasn’t a violent criminal. His rap sheet was littered with convictions for things like misdemeanor theft and burglary of a coin-operated machine. Normally, theft of electricity won’t even get you arrested — just reported to the electric company. But when Fort Worth police arrived at the apartment on Clinton Street that afternoon, they treated Guerrero like a dangerous character.

Two officers entered the apartment and pulled open the door to the closet, where Guerrero was hiding under a black plastic trash bag. Officer P.R. Genualdo, a six-year veteran, told him to step out of the closet. When the 143-pound Guerrero refused, Genualdo unholstered his Taser and shot him in the chest, sending electricity through Guerrero’s body. A police report of the incident indicated that Genualdo held the Taser’s trigger down for 10 seconds — double the normal length of time. Worse, in the next minute he jolted Guerrero three more times with five-second blasts before pulling him from the closet floor.

A few minutes after the officers pulled him from the closet, Guerrero stopped breathing. Neither the officers nor paramedics could get his heart started again, and Guerrero was declared dead when an ambulance got him to John Peter Smith Hospital a short while later.

The Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office later listed the cause of death as heart failure brought on by “acute cocaine overdose,” but a member of the ME’s staff —who asked not to be named — told Fort Worth Weekly that “the amount of cocaine found in Guerrero’s blood would not normally have caused him to have heart failure.”

What about the Taser hit? Manufacturers of the Taser maintain that no one has ever died from their “nonlethal” weapon, which is zooming in popularity among police agencies. But the Taser that hit Guerrero that day was no minor-league cattle prod. It delivered a 50,000-volt lightning strike to Guerrero’s chest like a Mack truck — and delivered that jolt four times.

His was one of two deaths following Taser use by Fort Worth police in the last year. The other Taser victim, Midland architect Eric Hammock, died in April after he ran from police, tried to take on an officer, and ended up suffering heart failure — like Guerrero, after getting hit repeatedly with a Taser while he had cocaine in his system. The Fort Worth cases are part of a tide of Taser-related deaths that is rising with the weapon’s popularity — more than 5,000 police agencies across the country have purchased them since 2000. In a massive report released late last year, Amnesty International documented hundreds of cases in the last three years in which Taser-happy police used the weapon on everyone from disturbed children to old men and women who didn’t follow orders fast enough to a Florida man — strapped down on a hospital bed — who wouldn’t provide a urine sample.

Fort Worth officers, who all receive at least a two-second jolt as part of their training with the Taser, are supposed to refrain from using the weapon until they face “active resistance” from a suspect — which could include fighting, fleeing, or showing a weapon. They are also supposed to limit the blasts to five seconds. Genualdo, who faced no such resistance from Guerrero, was suspended for 16 days without pay, both for using the Taser at all in that situation and for delivering a 10-second jolt. The second officer present received a three-day suspension.

Such punishments are rare. In similar cases around the country, Taser abuse has been found to violate no police policy. Despite the explicit rules that most law enforcement agencies follow about employing various levels of force, police in many parts of the country are using the devices, not like potentially death-dealing weapons, but more like light taps from the old beat cop’s baton — as if they were capable only of producing a little pain and punishment to encourage obedience. Meanwhile, a growing number of those hit with the Tasers, like Robert Guerrero, are turning up dead.

Fort Worth Police spokesman Dean Sullivan got shocked with a Taser as part of his training before being allowed to carry one. When the bolt hits, “you just lock up. There is no fighting it. Imagine the worst charley horse you’ve ever had in your whole life, and now imagine it from your head to your toes,” the lieutenant said. “It will definitely get your attention. And it hurts. It really, really hurts. But as soon as it’s over, it’s over. You can function and think and move. You don’t want to get it again. It is hard to imagine someone needing to get hit more than once.”

Since the 1950s, guards at jails and prisons have used stun batons — cattle prods — and stun belts on prisoners considered to be dangerous. Those devices carry a jolt of about 5,000 to 10,000 volts. Then in the early 1970s, police began using early-generation TASERS — an acronym for Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle. The punch these early Tasers carried was equivalent to or slightly stronger than that of a stun baton.

But those early Tasers were a far cry — a long, agonized scream, victims might say — from the powerful weapons being used by police today. In 2000, TASER International of Arizona introduced the M26, which the company touted as being nearly four times more powerful than its predecessors. Looking like something out of a sci-fi movie, the gun shoots two fish-hook-barbed electrical wires that can travel up to 21 feet and deliver a 50,000-volt shock in a cycle that lasts five seconds. It can also be fired by placing the weapon in direct contact with clothing or skin. The shock renders the recipient instantly immobile, and the five-second cycle may be increased if the officer continues to hold the trigger down. The M26, with bright yellow striping across a black body, comes equipped with “built-in laser sights and an onboard data chip that records the time and date of each firing to back up an officer’s use of force reports.”

Three years after the M26 came the X26, offering “even greater stopping power.” The company now markets both models worldwide and has sold them to more than 7,000 police agencies as well as to some units in the United States military. TASER International says the weapons are intended for use against “dangerous, combative, or high-risk subjects that may be impervious to other non-lethal means,” but also says the relatively low-amperage of the electric current (.004 amperes) prevents them from causing permanent damage to those the guns are used on. Tasers, the company literature suggests, lower the risks for suspects as well as police, because the guns give law enforcement officers a “less-lethal” form of force to incapacitate and then subdue an unruly or dangerous person. The company tagline, in fact, is “Saving Lives Every Day.”

But for a weapon whose makers crow about its “stopping power,” Tasers occupy a strange place in the police rulebook. Law enforcement officers learn what is called a “use of force continuum” to determine what means or weapons they may use in different situations. The “continuum” begins with simple police presence, then moves up to issuing commands, then the use of open hands, and after that, pepper or other chemical sprays, closed hands (including elbows and knees and other takedown moves), the use of a hard baton, and finally, the use of lethal force.

You might think Tasers would fit somewhere near the “lethal force” end of that list, right before a gun. Instead, however, many police agencies place Tasers immediately after the “issuing commands” force level — which suggests to officers that using a Taser is less serious even than a push or pepper spray. Which also means that if an officer asks you to produce your driver’s license and you ask “Why?” rather than immediately complying with the order, there’s a chance, in some jurisdictions, that you could, within their rules, be hit with a Taser for refusing the command. That’s in part how Tasers have begun to be used, not as serious, life-threatening weapons, but as a bully’s tool of compliance, something to get people in line — with sometimes egregious consequences.

In Florida, Orlando police figured Antonio Wheeler for a drug dealer. When they stopped him on the night of March 4 this year, he ran. Police gave chase, and when they caught him, Wheeler made the mistake of telling officers he’d swallowed some cocaine. (Officers had found a Chapstick tube where Wheeler had been stopped, filled with 0.8 grams of the drug.)

“Wheeler was taken to the hospital emergency room after he admitted he’d eaten cocaine because the police on the scene didn’t know how much he’d eaten,” Sgt. Brian Gillian, public information officer for the Orlando Police Department told the Weekly. “The officers were actually trying to save his life there, protect him from overdose.”

The 18-year-old was handcuffed to a hospital bed and ordered to give a urine sample — already a violation of his constitutional rights. When he didn’t produce one, he was strapped to the bed, and a nurse started to insert a catheter into his penis. Not surprisingly, Wheeler began thrashing around. At that point, Officer Peter Linnenkamp jumped on the bed and put his knees on Wheeler’s chest. When even that failed to get the desired results, Linnenkamp pressed his police-issue Taser against Wheeler’s leg — not once, but twice. “After the second shock,” Linnenkamp wrote in his report, Wheeler “calmed down enough to be given the portable urinal.”

Wheeler had another version. He was terrified, he said. “I basically felt like I was being raped.”

Within six weeks, Linnenkamp’s actions had been reviewed internally by the Orlando Police Department, and he was indicted for assault. The 18-year veteran of the department could lose his job and pension if he’s found guilty. It’s possible, but less likely, that he’ll do jail time.

The only thing surprising to Thomas Luka about Wheeler’s case is that an officer is actually being prosecuted for what happened. The Florida defense attorney has brought suit against several officers in Orlando and two neighboring counties over allegations of Taser abuse (though he isn’t representing Wheeler). He said that, in agencies where Tasers are used frequently, the weapon has changed the way police work is done, and not for the better. “Cops now approach suspects with a completely hands-off investigative technique,” he said. “They used to have to talk with people, do some real police work. Now it’s ‘Do what we say or we’ll Taser you.’ The cops are way over the top in their use of these things despite what they tell you,” he said. “A lot of them are just plain Taser-happy. And the police policies justify that approach.”

Among the cases Luka is handling is one in which police were called to a domestic disturbance involving a father and his adult son. When the officers arrived the argument was over. Nonetheless, the police ordered the father to leave the house. “He told the police he wasn’t leaving because it was his house,” Luka said. “So he turns around to walk to the kitchen, and they taser him in the back.”

It gets worse, the lawyer said. “I’ve got one guy tasered 12 times. The police report says he wouldn’t follow their commands. How could he? He was on the ground nearly paralyzed.”

None of Luka’s cases have been to trial yet. But David Henderson, an attorney in Bethel, Alaska, won a $1.08 million judgment for a client last October for torture in connection with Taser use. “My client was drunk, and he took his aunt’s snowmobile without permission,” Henderson said. “She sees it gone and calls the police, and they pick my guy up and put him in the local one-cell jail — which just happens to be guarded by his cousin. So in the morning, his cousin lets him grab a smoke outside, and he decides to wander off to go visit his girlfriend. A trooper goes to apprehend him, and my client resists. The trooper tasers him, my client falls down in the snow, and the trooper gets on top of him and handcuffs him. All legal so far. My client, by the way, weighs 140 and is hung over; the trooper is six-four and weighs 220.

“But then,” continued Henderson, “the trooper tasers him seven additional times — while he’s on the ground, face in the snow, and handcuffed. That’s not police work, that’s torture.”

At the trial, Henderson said, a representative of TASER International “testified that the Taser couldn’t leave scars. Well, my client was covered in them. And the fellow says, ‘Those are not scars, those are just skin discolorations.’”

The Bethel Police Department, which is appealing the judgment, claimed that Henderson’s client refused to cooperate, which is why he had to be hit with the Taser so many times.

Nonsense, Henderson said. “If that trooper didn’t have the Taser, he’d have had to do real police work — just wait my client out ’til he settled down. Now the police are all in a hurry to go get that next café latte, and the Taser makes things quick.

“To be honest, there are situations where they’re useful, but too often, giving a police officer a Taser is like giving a kid a new squirt gun,” he said. “Doesn’t matter that you tell him not to use it, he just has to go out and try it. And that’s when it can become a tool of torture. In my opinion it’s like giving police a portable electric chair.”

The cases recounted by Luka and Henderson are anything but rare. In the 97-page document released last Nov. 30, Amnesty International reported finding hundreds of instances between 2001 and 2004 in which the use of a Taser was at best a poor choice of force, at worst criminal. Among the most egregious cases:

— In Baytown, Texas, “a man who had reportedly suffered two epileptic seizures was touch-stunned in an ambulance when, confused and disoriented, he resisted while being strapped onto a stretcher.” The same police department blasted Naomi Autin — 59 years old and disabled — three times with a Taser for banging on her brother’s door with a brick. Autin was collecting mail for her brother while he was away and became worried after she couldn’t reach his house-sitter. She was the one who had called the police for help. In both cases, the officers were cleared of any wrongdoing, and no disciplinary action was taken against them.

— In Oregon, police used a Taser on people “after stopping them for nonviolent offenses, such as littering and jaywalking, selling plastic flowers without a license, and failing to go away when told to.” Amnesty also reported that Oregon police jolted an elderly man after he dropped “onto his hands and knees instead of lying flat on the floor, as ordered by police.” And 71-year-old Eunice Crowder was hit with a Taser jolt after ignoring police orders not to enter a trailer where Portland city employees had placed rubbish they had legally removed from her yard. Crowder won a $145,000 settlement from the city after it was learned that two officers “struck Ms. Crowder (who was blind in one eye) in the head with a Taser, dislodging her prosthetic right eye from its socket. She was also tasered in the back and on the breast as she lay on the ground.”

— In Mesa, Ariz., police shocked an unarmed suspect in a house burglary who had climbed into a tree to escape from four guard dogs. The man fell, landing on his head and leaving him partially paralyzed. In Chandler, Ariz., police told a man who was “standing on the sidewalk yelling and screaming at the sky” to be quiet. He continued screaming and was Tasered. He fell to the ground but “as the subject began to get up, the Taser was cycled a second time.”

—In Seattle, police shot a 16-year-old four times with a Taser on the back of the neck when the car in which he was a passenger was stopped for a faulty headlight. Police decided to frisk the youngster outside the car because they claimed he “made furtive movements in the back seat” and used the Taser on him repeatedly when he resisted.

— In Kansas City, Mo., a 66-year-old African-American woman was tasered twice in her home after she resisted being handed a ticket for honking her car horn at a police car.

— In Colorado, “a man was shocked in the genitals for continuing to resist” — while he was already handcuffed and sitting in the back of a police car. In another case in that state, police took an apparently intoxicated and possibly suicidal man to a hospital where he was put into restraints on a bed. The man, who was screaming for his wife, was “told to be quiet, and when he did not comply [the officer] placed the Taser against his chest and tasered him.”

In Guerrero’s death in Fort Worth, Officer Genualdo was at least disciplined. But in the cases cited by Amnesty, no police officers were found guilty of any wrongdoing. Amnesty did note that in several instances, following highly publicized and controversial Taser use, law enforcement agencies tightened their officers’ restrictions on future use — in most cases by prohibiting Taser use on those who simply don’t comply with police commands or offer passive resistance. Some agencies have implemented rules against using Tasers on children, pregnant women, and the elderly. None however, restrict the weapon’s use to potentially life-threatening situations. Amnesty officials noted that it is still a common practice in many police agencies to use the high-powered Tasers “to secure compliance in routine arrest and non-life-threatening situations.”

“Initially, our policy was that if someone resisted arrest — even passively, like not presenting hands when told to — we could use the Taser,” said Orlando Police Sgt. Gilliam. “Now, in light of reports that some officers have overstepped that boundary, we’ve changed the policy to where we won’t use it unless they’re actively resisting arrest — not just talking, but getting physical with us. But that includes fleeing. We’re not gung-ho on using it. ... Most of us, anyway.”

Still, the abuses continue. In January, officers assigned to security for the Fiesta Bowl college football game in Salt Lake City used the Taser on at least 24 fans who tried to rush the field in celebration after their team won.

And in Houston, the police department has issued 3,600 Tasers to its officers since November 2004. Added to the 100 such weapons already in use there, the city has the highest number of Tasers of any department in the country. And officers seem to be using them right and left.

Between November 2004, when the Houston Police Department began issuing Tasers to a large segment of the force, and the end of January 2005, cops in that city used their Tasers 194 times, according to Randall Kallinen, president of the Houston chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union — including 14 times when people were blasted simply for “verbal aggression.” That means, he said, “that, in the first three months of having these new Tasers ... HPD thought being told to ‘jump in the lake’ by someone they were talking to was reason enough to taser them.”

The weapons “were sold to the city with the promise that excessive police force against civilians would diminish, particularly shootings,” he said. “Well, in 2004 there were 10 civilians shot by HPD. It’s now June, and we have the Tasers, and while we still have had five civilians shot by HPD to date this year, we also have had several hundred uses of Tasers — which means that deadly force against civilians is remaining the same, but excessive force is increasing wildly.”

Tasers are to batons what bombs are to hand-to-hand combat, he said. “With the baton the officer hears the sound, watches you grimace, hears your scream. With the Taser, you just fall down and shake. You can’t scream. It gives the officer a more comfortable distance from the experience.”

Despite lawsuits and some highly publicized fatalities, Taser abuse by police seems to be growing rather than diminishing. Probably the most disturbing fact in the Amnesty report is that deaths following Taser attacks seem to be rapidly increasing. According to Amnesty, between 2001 and 2004 more than 70 deaths occurred in the United States and Canada to people in police custody within hours or days of their being hit with a Taser. But in 2005, those kinds of deaths reached 103 just by March — and there were at least two additional deaths in April, including Eric Hammock’s in Fort Worth.

While TASER International has repeatedly released reports to the press saying that no Taser has ever been proven to be a “direct cause” of a fatality, Amnesty International points out that “some medical experts believe Taser shocks may exacerbate a risk of heart failure in cases where people are agitated or under the influence of drugs or have underlying health problems.”

In reviewing the information on 74 deaths reported since 2001 — including autopsy reports on 21 — Amnesty points out that nearly all the deaths occurred in males between 18 and 59 years old, of varying ethnic origin. Most of them involved the M26 Taser, which is used much more frequently than the newer X26. The majority of those who died following Taser shocks had high quantities of drugs or alcohol in their systems, and “violent struggle, positional asphyxia, and excited delirium were cited in some cases as a sole or contributory factor leading to sudden cardiac arrest.” Amnesty investigators, however, believe that the Taser had a role in at least some of the deaths, suggesting the shock “could have exacerbated breathing difficulties caused by factors such as violent exertion, drug intoxication, or other restraint devices, triggering or contributing to cardiac arrest.”

Medical examiners in at least five cases included the Taser as a contributing factor in the deaths, though that number could be higher, according to an independent forensic pathologist who reviewed 16 of the autopsy reports for Amnesty.

Most disturbing is the fact that few of the people who died were engaged in violent criminal activity, which would normally be an assumption in deaths while in police custody. “In only 11 cases were suspects reported to be armed,” the Amnesty report noted. “While most of the deceased had been engaged in disturbed or agitated behavior, and some were reportedly combative during arrest, few appeared to pose an immediate threat of substantial physical harm at the time force was used.”

Several deaths, like Guerrero’s, occurred after incidents began with suspects being tasered while passively resisting arrest or “refusing to comply immediately with an order.” Those cases include one in which James Borden, 47, a mentally disturbed man, was jolted with a Taser six times for refusing to step out of his shorts while being booked into a jail in Monroe County, Ga. — and several of those jolts were administered while he was pinned down by four officers. He died almost immediately. Glenn Richard Leyba, 37, of Glendale, Colo., was blasted five times while he lay on the floor of his home in a drug-induced stupor. He died while being wheeled to an ambulance. Gordon Randall Jones, 37, was jolted at least 12 times with a Taser after he’d been disruptive outside a hotel in Orange County, Fla. “and refused to leave and pulled away from deputies.” After the 12th hit, he accompanied officers to an ambulance and died en route to the hospital.

More than 25 of those who died after being attacked with Tasers had a history of mental illness; several others were “ill through drug intoxication,” and at least two more had been shocked immediately following epileptic seizures. “Many of these individuals were not involved in criminal behavior at the time they were taken into custody. Amnesty International believes that the appropriate response in such cases should have been to seek medical attention or ... mental health crisis intervention rather than a law enforcement response,” the report said.

In all, four deaths following Taser use have occurred in Texas, including the one that occurred this spring when a 43-year-old architect driving across the state made an unexplained — and ultimately fatal — detour in Fort Worth.

Eric Hammock, 43, was on his way home from Louisiana to Midland on the night of April 3, when he got of I-30 at the Riverside exit at about 8:20 p.m. Autopsy results would later show that he was high on cocaine. For some unknown reason, he drove into the nearby Waste Management truck depot, which was closed at the time, and being guarded by off-duty Fort Worth Police C.P. Birley, a 20-year veteran. When Hammock ignored Birley’s request to stop his car, Birley radioed for backup, then followed Hammock in his civilian car when Hammock left the facility a few minutes later. After a short chase, Hammock — almost certainly unfamiliar with the area — drove onto a dead-end street, then abandoned his car and fled on foot. Birley and the backup officers caught up with him in the backyard of a house on Retta Street. According to Birley, Hammock tried to hit him, and the officer discharged his Taser, hitting Hammock in the chest. Hammock pulled the wires from his chest and had to be wrestled to the ground, during which period he was hit by the Taser multiple times. When he was finally subdued, Hammock complained that he couldn’t breathe. Police called for an ambulance, and Hammock was taken to John Peter Smith hospital, where he was pronounced dead 40 minutes later.

The medical examiner’s report, released on April 28, showed that Hammock suffered from heart disease and that he was jacked way up on cocaine. The official cause of death, in layman’s terms, was heart failure caused by cocaine intoxication. As in the Guerrero case, the Taser was not considered a contributing factor in Hammock’s death, despite the multiple jolts he had received. The case is still under investigation by Fort Worth police, and no officers have been disciplined.

Hammock’s family has hired an attorney. His widow told the Midland Reporter Telegram that a Retta Street resident who watched the end of the chase told her that police made no attempt to aid Hammock after he became visibly distressed and didn’t call for the ambulance until they saw the resident watching them.

Hammock’s aunt told the Weekly that Eric was a good father and husband and that she thinks he simply got lost “and then turned into that place and got cornered.

“I don’t understand any of it,” Jackie Hammock said.

Eight months before that, Troy Dale Nowell, 51, died after being shocked several times while being subdued by Amarillo police after assaulting three people. The autopsy gave the cause of death as a cardiopulmonary arrest during a violent physical struggle. Nowell had a history of heart disease that was listed as a contributing factor. No drugs were found in his blood. Following the death, the Amarillo Police Department immediately announced their intention to quadruple the number of Tasers the department employs.

The fourth Texas case involved Samuel Wakefield, 22, who was driving with three friends on the night of Sept. 12, 2004, when their car was stopped for speeding by an officer in Rio Vista, just south of Cleburne. The first officer called for backup because, according to the police report, one of the passengers was behaving furtively and trying to leave the car. When other officers arrived, Wakefield bolted. He was chased and tackled and then, when he continued to struggle, was hit with a Taser. He became ill and was brought to Walls Regional Hospital where he was declared dead. The autopsy listed cocaine intoxication as the cause of death.

According to Lt. Sullivan, the local Taser abuse cases are not being taken lightly by Fort Worth police brass. “We’re treating these as serious investigations. The Tasers record when they were used, how many times, and for how long a duration,” he said. The suspensions of the two officers in connection with Robert Guerrero’s death, he said, should send a signal to the rest of the force that abuse will not be tolerated.

“The thing to remember when you’re talking about Tasers is that they are not non-lethal weapons,” Sullivan said. “They are less-lethal weapons. That’s a big difference.”

TASER International would not discuss with the Weekly the question of Tasers contributing to deaths . However, in a February 2004 letter to the ACLU of Colorado, a company official noted that, “If the electrical stimulation of the TASER device were to play a causal role in the death, the death would be immediate, and this has never happened.”

Not surprisingly, a lot of folks remain unconvinced — including a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who received a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Justice Department to study the matter. Biomedical engineer John Webster told the Associated Press that he believes many Taser-related deaths were actually caused by a combination of drug use and medical factors, but that others may have been caused by a rare condition known as malignant hyperthermia, in which bodies essentially overheat as a result of an electrical jolt. He also theorizes that other deaths may be attributable to potassium released into the bloodstream after muscle contractions caused by a Taser shock reaching the heart. He’s hoping his research will help set standards for how powerful Tasers should be and provide guidelines for emergency room doctors on how to treat those who have been hit with the weapon’s jolt.

Those familiar with the realities of the streets and police work have no problem believing that drugs and electrical shocks are a potent combination. “In my experience,” Luka, the Florida defense attorney, said, “drug people are tasered more often than others, but the truth is that they tend to resist more. They tend to run, get upset and so forth. Still, introducing electricity into a body that’s already jacked up on cocaine or speed — well, boom! Heart failure. And while we’re not seeing it yet on a regular basis, you have to be careful about cops using these things on poor kids in inner cities. The thing is, cops just don’t have to interact anymore. Kid runs? Taser him. And people are dying.”

Police officers from several agencies around the country — none of whom wanted to be quoted by name — all said they assume that, in real-life Taser situations, the combination of fear, the heart-pounding nature of a physical struggle, and drug or alcohol intoxication substantially increases the chances of heart failure. “Add to that, that the guy just got shocked to shit and is in extreme pain, and you have a heart-attack cocktail if ever there was one,” one 30-year veteran officer said.

“Don’t forget that the same bad cop who’s going to bully a suspect with half a dozen shocks is the bad cop who’s probably going to hogtie him or chokehold him or kneel on his back 30 seconds longer than he needs to cuff the guy,” another officer said. “Perps die in custody, but they die in the custody of bully cops more often.”

The Amnesty report and the other stories of Taser-related deaths and abuses provide strong evidence that Taser use is out of control in the United States, given that only about 20 percent of those on whom the Tasers have been used were armed and that more than a third of the shocks were administered to people who were simply being “verbally noncompliant” with officers.

There is no national uniform code for the use of Tasers among police agencies. Meanwhile, police agencies are buying and issuing more Tasers every week — without, in most cases, rethinking the policies that list the weapons in their force continuum guidelines as if they were no more dangerous than a shove.

However, TASER International apparently is feeling the heat. In late April, the company announced that it has assembled a group of more than 240 people — from law enforcement, the military, and academic and medical communities — to talk about use-of-force policies regarding what the company continues to call its “nonlethal” product. But the person listed as a media contact on that topic refused to discuss it with the Weekly.

Despite the two deaths here in the last five months, Fort Worth police in general don’t seem to be Taser bullies. In about the last four years, Sullivan said, Fort Worth police have discharged their Tasers only about 180 times — a very conservative number compared to the 194 uses the Houston Police Department noted in just its first three months of using the weapons.

The Fort Worth department has about 600 of the weapons. “They’re issued to officers who take a course on their use — during which each officer who is issued a Taser gets tasered him or herself so that they know what kind of pain they’ll be inflicting,” Sullivan said.

He also suggested that there’s another way to use Tasers — the kind of tactic that police long ago learned to try before shooting a conventional weapon.

“What’s interesting is that while the FWPD has discharged [the Tasers] 180 times, they’ve been displayed another 223 times in which they were not discharged,” he said. “Our officers are trained to show the Taser, and shout: ‘Taser! Taser! Stop or I’ll taser you!’ You’d be surprised how many subjects begin to comply when they see that thing and hear those words.”

Peter Gorman is a Fort Worth-area freelance journalist. He can be reached at peterg9@yahoo.com.






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