Even before the recent death of an unarmed 19-year-old hospital patient after being shocked with a high-voltage electronic weapon by Baltimore police, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland had been looking at police Taser usage.
They noticed something striking.
They compared recent Taser discharge data obtained from Maryland police agencies with data from the same agencies published in a 2009 report by a statewide task force. (The task force was formed after the death of another unarmed young man, a hearing-impaired 20-year-old shocked with a Taser by local police in Frederick in 2007.)
What they found was that Taser discharges by Baltimore police roughly doubled since that report five years ago. Meanwhile, usage rose slightly in some other jurisdictions – and in one case fell sharply, dropping by half in Montgomery County.
“This is very interesting. It doesn’t suggest the police department here has changed its ways at all,” said David Rocah, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland.
Among the conclusions in the 76-page report issued by Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler:
That Electronic Control Weapons (ECW’s, aka Tasers) are potentially lethal and that “repeated or prolonged discharges (i.e., beyond the 5-second standard cycle) should be avoided whenever possible.”
A city police officer, on May 7, applied a Taser five times to patient George V. King, according to an attorney for the King family.
King went into a coma and died a week after personnel at Good Samaritan Hospital had summoned police to help subdue him.
Policing the Police
Rocah’s comments come as the ACLU, a civil rights group, two attorneys and a state lawmaker called for the Baltimore Police Department to declare a moratorium on the use of Tasers.
“I am concerned whether this is a policy that is adequate or not, or whether we have a rogue cop that is taking the law into his own hands,” said Rev. Cortly “C.D.” Witherspoon Sr., president of the Baltimore chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Speaking yesterday outside city police headquarters, Witherspoon and others called for the moratorium, for the City Council to hold a hearing on the use of Tasers and for an independent review of city police policy and practice on ECW use.
“If we’re not careful, we could have another George King,” Witherspoon said.
Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, meanwhile, has been moving to expand Taser usage in Baltimore and has announced his intention to issue one of the devices to every officer.
The only moratorium he has imposed so far has been poorly received. Batts recently announced on the Marc Steiner Show that he has instructed his officers not to respond to hospital emergency calls without clearing it with a supervisor.
King family attorney Granville Templeton III commended Batts for “trying to save peoples’ lives” but he said there’s a deeper problem “if he’s policing the police.”
“That’s not a good sign, that’s not a good endorsement for his police department,” said Templeton. “If the community can’t trust the officers on hospital calls, can we trust those same officers to make a decision on the use of guns? On Tasers?”
Also addressing the media was Del. Aisha N. Braveboy, of Prince George’s County, who called for universal policing, so that policies and practices for use of force, including Tasers, are the same across the state.
“We are losing too many young people in situations where we don’t have to lose them,” said Braveboy.
Baltimore State’s Biggest User of Tasers
In a letter sent yesterday to Batts, Rocah asked on behalf of the ACLU for an opportunity to review and give feedback on the Department’s policies and training.
Rocah acknowledged that it is “clearly premature to assess the role of Taser ” in King’s death or the appropriateness of the officer’s actions. But he offered some telling data and context from the ACLU’s recent review and from the state Task Force, a panel of physicians, prosecutors, police and civil liberties lawyers assembled after the 2007 death of Jarrel Gray.
The King case, he wrote, is at least the 15th incident in Maryland and the fourth in Baltimore city since 2004 in which an individual has died following the use of a Taser.
He noted that Baltimore had the highest number of ECW discharges in the state, based on 2012 data, the most recent available. (City officers discharged Tasers 257 times in 2012, according to the 2012 data, compared with 123 times in the 2009 report. Montgomery County police, by contrast, discharged their Tasers 120 times, down from 222 times in 2012.)
The city also had the highest rates of discharge-per-Taser-in-use in the state, he wrote.
Non-force Options, Including “Containment”
The report stresses the need for “a more limited deployment” of ECW’s and offers detailed recommendations, Rocah said. But in the King case, he said, there appear to have been multiple ways in which the officer’s actions contradicted Task Force recommendations.
Rocah pointed out several recommendations he said “should be considered both in the Department’s investigation into Mr. King’s death, and as part of an assessment of the adequacy of its policies.” Quoting from his letter:
• The Task Force found that an ECW can cause death or serious injury, and as such, recommended that its use be allowed “only when an individual poses an imminent threat of physical injury to themselves or others.”
• Because the risk of death or injury may be higher in certain at-risk populations, including “persons in mental/medical crisis,” and “persons under the influence of drugs,” the Task Force recommended that in deciding whether to discharge an ECW on a person falling within one of these categories, “the officer should consider the heightened risk of serious injury or death for these groups and be able to articulate the justification for exposing a person to increased risk.”
• In particular, when dealing with an individual experiencing an apparent mental health or medical crisis, the Task Force recommends that officers should consider [whether] non-force options, including containment, are feasible before using an ECW.
• Repeated or prolonged discharges. . . should be avoided whenever possible,” Taser International, also warns that “repeated, prolonged, or continuous [ECW] applications may contribute to cumulative exhaustion, stress, cardiac, physiologic, metabolic, respiratory, and associated medical risks which could increase the risk of death or serious injury.”
• The Task Force found that an ECW should not be used in drive-stun mode (as reportedly occurred in Mr. King’s case) to gain compliance from a subject. Unlike the ECW’s conventional probe mode, which seeks to incapacitate an individual’s muscle movements, drive-stun mode is designed solely to administer pain.