By Stephen Montemayor, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (TNS)
MINNEAPOLIS — Deadly police shootings across the country are forcing some big city police departments to take a new look at whether stun guns — typically called Tasers — could reduce the number of fatal encounters between officers and the public.
Last month, for example, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced plans to buy hundreds of additional Tasers for his city’s police department and ensure every officer is trained to use them by June. The plans followed heated protests after a dashboard video showed an officer shooting a fleeing teen 16 times in a 2014 confrontation.
But equipping all police officers with Tasers is expensive, and the evidence that the devices reduce the number of officer-involved shootings is mixed: A 2010 expansion of Tasers in Chicago failed to produce a dip in police shootings. In addition, Tasers themselves also have proved to be deadly at times.
Though law enforcement analysts concede that Tasers are not a perfect solution, some say it is inevitable that alternatives to deadly force will get a longer look within major departments, including Minneapolis and St. Paul.
“They are going to have to budget for that,” said Jeff Garland, a defense tactics instructor at Hennepin Technical College who spent 31 years in law enforcement. “If they don’t look at alternatives, the other alternative is like in Ferguson, Cleveland and Baltimore: You’re going to be paying a heck of a lot more money with wrongful death suits.”
Tasers don’t guarantee non-deadly encounters, however. A Star Tribune database of deaths after police use of force since 2000 includes more than a dozen deaths after encounters in which a Taser was used — though some cases also involved guns.
One man died when he fell and hit his head after an officer hit him with a Taser. Another “experienced a medical event” and died. A 76-year-old nursing home patient died after being tased and a 26-year-old’s heart stopped on the way to jail.
Studies and U.S. Supreme Court decisions influenced Taser guidelines advising officers not to use the device on a person for longer than five seconds at a time.
A 2014 study published by the American Heart Association said the devices can cause cardiac arrest if used for too long or on people with certain medical conditions. The study said police should treat Tasers “with the same level of respect as a firearm.”
Garland said the “five-second window” created by a Taser shock creates an expectation that the officer will have time to take the suspect in custody.
“If you give someone a five-second ride, if you do that more than three times you’re going to have to justify why you didn’t do other things to keep that person on the ground,” Garland said.
Asked if there was a more effective way than a Taser to avoid the need for lethal force, Elder said “officers respond to hundreds of different and individual situations, presenting dozens of unique and situational variables.”
For Burnsville Police Chief Eric Gieseke, anything short of a gun-wielding suspect is an opportunity to first consider alternative means of resolving the confrontation.
“We train them that if you confront someone with a gun, you have to meet them with the same force,” Gieseke said. “(But) firearms are a last resort for us; if there’s anything in between there to gain control, we consider that a success.”
Tasers may not be a perfect option, said Garland, the defense instructor, who said thick winter clothing may make it difficult for the device’s prongs to strike skin. But given the current challenges in police-community relations, Garland said Tasers and other alternatives, like beanbag guns or devices that shoot nets, will warrant a closer look.
“Before if it was not a priority,” he said, “now I think it will be.”
©2016 Star Tribune (Minneapolis). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Photo: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (L) and interim Chicago Police Superintendent John Escalante hold a news conference in Chicago, Illinois, United States, December 7, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young