Taser Use Prompts Lawsuits

Some police use weapons on nonviolent suspects

Jan 4, 2011 at 2:06 pm

When properly used, Tasers can be an effective tool for law enforcement agencies to subdue suspects. But Taser use can be excessive and even deadly in some instances.

Local attorney Al Gerhardstein is concerned about the training and policies of law enforcement agencies regarding the justification and constitutionality of Taser use on nonviolent suspects. Gerhardstein currently is involved in multiple lawsuits throughout Ohio that cites Taser deployment as excessive use of force by officers resulting in permanent injury and death.

When misused, a Taser can be a dangerous tool, Gerhardstein says, especially when officers ignore warning labels and manufacturer recommendations.

In November, Matthew Hook scaled an 8-foot fence while trying to flee from a Perry Township officer due to a property crime in Dublin, a Columbus suburb. After being shot with the Taser, Hook fell head-first onto the concrete pavement which caused severe brain injury. The police action constituted excessive force, Gerhardstein says, as the weapon's manufacturer, Taser International, clearly displays warning labels against discharging the weapon at someone on an elevated platform.

Also, he cites the 1985 Supreme Court ruling stating deadly force should not be used from people fleeing from property crimes.

“It was just not a situation where deadly force was appropriate and when you tase somebody on top a fence, you are actually using deadly force and that’s what it amounts to, and that’s just wrong,” Gerhardstein says.

Perry Township Trustee James Roper declined comment because the lawsuit is currently in litigation.

In a similar case, U.S. District Judge Timothy Black recently declined a motion to dismiss a 2008 case in Cincinnati involving Keith Cockrell who jaywalked then was subsequently immobilized by a Taser after fleeing Cincinnati Police. Black’s decision questions the constitutionality of the city’s training program and policies that allow officers to fire Tasers at suspects fleeing from nonviolent misdemeanor crimes.

The Cincinnati Police Department's procedure manual on Use of Force, (12.545) allows officers to use Tasers on suspects actively resisting arrest which include, “when the suspect is making physically evasive movements to defeat the officer’s attempt at control, including fleeing, bracing, tensing, pushing, or verbally signaling an intention to avoid or prevent being taken into or retained in custody.”

Sgt. Danita Kilgore, a Cincinnati Police spokeswoman, also declined comment due to ongoing litigation. But Kilgore did refer to the public record of police policy regarding Taser use, and confirmed Cincinnati police officers go through specialized Taser training.

The policy manual states the Taser X26 “should never be aimed at the subject’s head, neck, eyes, or genitals. When possible, the preferred target area is the back and the lower-center of mass for front shots.”

Also, the manual outlines the internal tracking chip that is reviewed and monitored by Cincinnati Police supervisors every three months. The chip stores the time and date of the last 2,000 times the Taser was fired. The manual states investigations will be conducted for “activations lasting 10 seconds or longer in duration,” and “three or more consecutive activations with minimal time in between the activations.”

The length of time for Taser use is crucial in one of Gerhardstein’s other cases.

A northern Ohio man was shot in the chest for more than 21 seconds — far exceeding the recommended five-second discharge — resulting in seizure and severe brain injury after Painesville police responded to a disturbing the peace call.

In another case, an agitated patient at University Hospital went into cardiac arrest after being shot in the chest by campus police and died three days later.

Gerhardstein understands cops have a difficult job where very often deadly force becomes necessary, but he’s looking for more restraint when it comes to Taser use on nonviolent offenders.

“I’m not asking any member of the public to feel sorry for my clients — every one of those clients wishes that they had adjusted their conduct so that they didn’t trigger the police response,” Gerhardstein says.

“We know that law enforcement officers must arrest people,” he adds. “We also know that they shouldn’t use excessive force when they arrest people. Now we need to apply those basic principles of what is reasonable force to use the Taser and we have drifted from sound judgment to this practice of endangering people over conduct that's simply not important enough to risk their lives.”

National organizations including the NAACP have also expressed their concern about improper Taser use. Washington Bureau Director Hilary Shelton says problems arise when law enforcement agencies choose to ignore the extensive manual issued by Taser International and disregard warnings and recommendations for use.

For example,while Taser use on children is strictly discouraged by the company, many police departments — including Cincinnati's — have allowed the action in their policies, Shelton says. The public needs to educate itself on local law enforcement policies and become a catalyst for change in Taser use.

The key, Shelton says, lies in following the manufacturer guidelines.

“It’s kind of like you bought a new flat screen TV, they’ll give you their policies and their recommendations for things you should and should not do with them, but if you don’t, the company’s not going to come in and take your TV back,” Shelton adds. “They know how it works, they know the best way to utilize and how to get the best use out of it and the same goes for Tasers.”