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Opinion: Don't Talk, Tase

Poli Psy


Published September 29, 2010 at 9:46 a.m.

  • Taser

This summer, the Hardwick Police Department used federal stimulus funds to purchase two Taser X26 stun guns. Many other Vermont towns already have them, and the state police announced this month that it wants to buy 260 at about $1000 apiece, billed to the state.

A Taser is a high-tech version of that old police tool of persuasion, the cattle prod. It uses compressed nitrogen to shoot metal “probes” that lodge in the target’s flesh. The probes remain attached to the gun by wires, which transmit 50,000 volts of pulsing electricity into the body over five seconds, disabling the neuromuscular systems. The person usually falls down, smashing whatever parts of the body hit the ground first. As long as the probe stays put, shocks can be administered.

The Taser company and its fans say the weapon subdues the most aggressive comers without occasioning injury to officers, other civilians or the person Tased. Budget cutters love Tasers, too, since they slash police workers’ compensation claims.

Marketed as “less lethal” and praised for minimizing force, however, the Taser has a benign reputation that may actually have the effect of lowering the threshold for force — or worse.

Hardwick’s Taser policy is a case in point: It contains not an intentional instruction to excessive force but an allowance of discretion that can easily lead to it. For instance, in the past a cop probably would have considered a subject in control once he was handcuffed or shackled. The policy forbids the weapon’s use on a restrained person — “UNLESS physical resistance has to be overcome to stop an immediate threat (of possible injury) to the officer, subject, other citizens or property.”

Property? A shackled man attempting to destroy the furniture to which he is attached merits a 50,000-volt shock? The Hardwick policy recommends keeping the barbs attached until the “combative subject” is delivered to the police station, jail or medical facility.

Why does Hardwick need Tasers?

“Tasers are an integral part of law enforcement,” Police Chief Joe LaPorte told me, unhelpfully.

But aren’t the weapons the officers already carry — guns, clubs, pepper spray — sufficient?

LaPorte repeated what he’d just said, adding that Tasers are less harmful than those other things. He’d been Tased and he’d been sprayed, he avowed — and pepper is worse.

Others who’ve been at the wrong end of the wire differ with the chief’s assessment.

“My muscles contracted like this,” said “Robert” (who asked that his real name not be used), pulling his arms sharply back. “I fell down, tore up my knee, smashed my face.” Robert, 38, showed up at one of two recent community forums called “Questioning Tasers” organized by Aaron Kromash, an activist from Greensboro; the town contracts with the Hardwick PD for coverage.

“You have no control of your body,” Robert continued. “You drool, you cry, you twitch. I felt like I was being tortured.”

In November 2008, Robert recounted, he arrived at the emergency room at Copley Hospital in Morrisville suffering an extreme reaction to the smoking-cessation drug Chantix. Chantix’s advertisements warn that the medication may cause “anxiety, panic, aggression, anger, mania, abnormal sensations, hallucinations, paranoia or confusion.”

Robert was experiencing them all; he wishes hospital staff had immediately sedated him. Agitated, he exited the building past a Morristown police officer. The officer smiled, said Robert, then started Tasing — repeatedly — before dragging Robert back into the ER, where staff shackled and sedated him.

Once home, Robert was served with a citation for disorderly conduct. He contested it to the Lamoille County State’s Attorney, attaching medical and psychiatric records attesting that he was under the influence of a drug gone wrong and had committed no crime. No charge was brought.

Robert says he has suffered extreme aftereffects of the experience: nightmares, panic, inability to concentrate. He was hospitalized again and underwent outpatient therapy for 18 months. “And it changed me,” he told the meeting. “I used to think the police were there to protect people.”

Hospital records affirm Robert’s claim that he was shocked multiple times. The officer in question signed an affidavit saying he had administered only one five-second dose of electricity.

The Morristown Police Department denied my request for the incident report, citing “privacy concerns for the person of interest and the witnesses involved” and arguing it is not a public record. Both the ACLU and I dispute this interpretation of statute; the Supreme Court allows redaction of names if privacy is a legitimate issue.

The only incontrovertible arbiter would be the data the weapon records with each use. But Vermont’s Public Records Law, which is vague and unevenly enforced, does not specify whether these data should be publicly accessible, or even require police to collect them. And the Taser leaves no visible trace.

Not considered firearms, Tasers are unregulated by the federal government. In 43 states, including Vermont, civilians may carry them. For under $400, I can purchase a “consumer” model about the size and shape of an electric razor in a selection of colors, including pink and “electric blue.”

Vermont has no statewide protocols governing the use of Tasers. Each police department makes its own rules and decides whether the rules have been broken. And if a citizen objects, the complaint — like other allegations of police misconduct — is usually handled by the department itself, or the local select board or city council.

The only recourse an aggrieved citizen has is to sue.

Even if the cop zapped Robert only once, that use could be considered excessive force. The UN and Amnesty International have condemned some cases of Taser use as a form of torture, in violation of international law.

In fact, the shock could have killed Robert. From 2001 to 2008, according to Amnesty, more than 300 people in the U.S. and 25 in Canada died — many from cardiac arrest — after being Tased by police. Other watchdogs put the number above 500 today. In the deaths Amnesty investigated, 90 percent of the victims were unarmed and “did not appear to present a serious threat” to police, other people or themselves.

Robert’s experience is not unusual. The growing roster of unarmed Vermonters Tased while committing no crime includes a homeless woman in Barre whose “active resistance” consisted of folding her arms in front of her chest when she was told to put them behind her back for handcuffing; patients at the Brattleboro Retreat; and protesters who had chained themselves to a barrel.

It is hard to imagine a person less capable of aggression than one chained to a barrel.

People taking certain medications, suffering heart disease or epilepsy, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol are especially vulnerable to the effects of Tasing. Yet anecdotal evidence suggests these are precisely the people whose unpredictable behavior inspires police to use the Taser.

One of these was Lawrence Fairbrother, 57, of Fairlee, who has a seizure disorder. When he started seizing at a friend’s home, the friend called the state police for help. Fairbrother crawled under a car in fear. He was dragged out, Tased, handcuffed and arrested for DUI. The charge was later dropped. Fairbrother’s 2007 federal lawsuit alleging excessive force won a $40,000 settlement from the state police — but no apology. “We still believe Mr. Fairbrother was not actually in the throes of a seizure,” said Assistant Attorney General J.J. Tyzbir.

Vermont has made some progress. After Disability Rights Vermont (then Vermont Protection & Advocacy) investigated police Tasings at the Brattleboro Retreat, a successful “safety plan” was instituted that largely obviates police involvement, says DRV supervising attorney A.J. Ruben.

Eighty percent of the state’s officers have undergone training in engaging with people with mental health problems. But the training has limitations. “It tells police to slow down, give space, not be so threatening,” says Ruben. “That’s in direct contradiction to standard operating procedure, which is don’t allow time to tick by, control the situation before things escalate.” Increasingly, that means don’t talk, Tase.

Cops have a right to work in safety. That said, risk of injury is part of the job. And that risk is rarely high enough to justify risking the death of a civilian, even if that civilian is breaking the law.

Amnesty International recommends a ban on Tasers until they can be proven safe. Like Amnesty, Vermont civil-rights groups, including the ACLU and Disability Rights Vermont, advocate restricting the weapons’ use to situations where deadly force would be employed. In 2007, the Vermont Association for Mental Health called for a moratorium on Taser shocks to minors — a policy that shouldn’t be necessary in the first place. The ACLU has repeatedly demanded clear protocols for holding police accountable for misconduct, including the abuse of Tasers.

Robert and his wife want to petition to keep Tasers out of Hardwick. Will town officials listen? According to activist Kromash, the select board deliberated for 13 minutes before giving LaPorte the go-ahead to buy the guns. Kromash invited the chief to the community forums, but he declined to attend.

And when I called LaPorte, he was irritated by the press attention the forums had stirred up. He didn’t want to talk to me, he said. “I’ve already spent too much time on this issue.”

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