Police explain Tasers and ‘use of force’

By Lindsay Carroll

This is the second installment in a series of reports by Lindsay Carroll, who enrolled in the… This is the second installment in a series of reports by Lindsay Carroll, who enrolled in the Citizens’ Police Academy, a 15-week training course run by the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police. Pittsburgh police officer Dave Wright pulled a Taser from the right side of his holster. He pressed the trigger. A little lightning bolt wavered inside the gun, and a loud clicking noise jarred his audience. The class ‘mdash;’ a group of average people enrolled in the city police department’s Citizens’ Police Academy ‘mdash; tensed when Wright turned on the Taser. They relaxed as he released the trigger. Police officers use Tasers, among other weapons, to control someone who is not complying with the law or resisting an officer. Wright, who teaches about the use of force at the Police Academy, explained that Tasers can be used in two different ways. Normally, when an officer pulls the trigger, a nitrogen-based cartridge ejects two metal probes at 179 feet per second toward the targeted person. The probes, connected by wire to the Taser, attach to his or her skin. Ideally, one probe reaches the chest area, and the other about 8 inches below. An electric shock of about 1,200 volts stimulates the body’s central nervous system, incapacitating the person. An officer can also use the Taser by removing the cartridge that ejects the probes, as Wright did during his demonstration. The officer applies voltage directly onto the person’s body. Wright said this method is very painful. When using the probes, the voltage affects both sensory (feeling pain) and motor nerves (ability to move). ‘ ‘ ‘ Use of force ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘It’s a very low statistic of officers who use excessive force,’ said Wright. ‘But those are the ones that get the press.’ In August, Swissvale police used a Taser on Andre Thomas, who was allegedly disturbing neighbors’ homes after using cocaine. Police arrived at the scene and stunned Thomas three times. He was taken to UPMC Braddock and died hours later, according to an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Last week, Allegheny County medical examiner Karl Williams said Thomas died of cocaine intoxication, not from the Taser’s shocks. However, Thomas’ family was not satisfied, and since, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala formed a focus group to address Taser use, according to the Post-Gazette. Police use the term ‘use of force’ to describe an effort to get compliance from an individual. Wright said it’s hard for a police officer to decide how much force is too much. ‘Use of force is not black and white. It’s gray,’ he said. The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable search and seizure. One example of unreasonable seizure would be excessive force used by an officer, said Wright. Police officers are supposed to use a ‘reasonable force’ against noncompliant people or suspects, and neither minimal nor excessive force should be used. Wright said many police officers hesitate to use deadly force, even in situations when a court might later deem it reasonable. ‘Human nature is not to kill another person,’ he said. An officer is permitted to use force at one level above the force he or she is resisting. For instance, if a person is verbally unwilling to cooperate, an officer can use a command and then act. ‘We’re going to do our best to get him to comply using our verbal skills,’ said Wright. Likewise, if a person uses active aggression or tries to hurt the officer, rather than simply using self-defense or running away, an officer could use deadly force, such as a handgun, said Wright. He added that many officers try not to use deadly force. He said in 2007, 55 police officers were murdered in action. Ten were able to pull out their gun before they were killed, and 37 were killed in ‘close range,’ within a 10-foot radius. This indicates that many of those officers hesitated to use deadly force despite being in a lethal combat situation, said Wright. ‘The officer will pull out a Taser when his gun should be out,’ he said. ‘That’s the human side.’ Gray areas Wright said that Tasers seem to be getting more coverage in the media. They have actually decreased both suspect and police officer deaths, even though they get a lot of attention. ‘Statistically, there’s a lot less injury by Taser than baton,’ said Wright, referencing another weapon an officer may use if he or she is facing a high probability of injury. He said thus far, all medical research on Tasers has upheld the product’s safety. Last year, an Amnesty International study prompted the group to ask the U.S. Department of Justice to research the potential risk of shock devices. They referenced 290 cases of deaths after Taser shock in the United States and Canada. A National Institute of Justice report, published in June, concluded that no medical research indicates a high risk of serious injury or death caused by Tasers. Although Wright did not comment on the issue of Tasers in specific instances, such as the Andre Thomas case in Swissvale, he said Tasers make suspects more willing to comply. ‘There’s something we call ‘compliance via fear of the Taser,” said Wright. He said Tasers could even save lives. ‘We have used a Taser many, many times to prevent suicide,’ he said. Wright said the police officers who do use excessive force probably get caught up in the situation. ‘Typically, resistance stops and force continues because of emotions,’ said Wright. ‘That’s a hard thing to teach somebody ‘- to stop.’ Judy Leonardi, a retired school teacher and class member, said that after the class, she felt she understood more about police tactics and use of force. ‘In my own feeling, I don’t have encounters with police, so I don’t have a lot of sympathy [for those who do],’ said Leonardi.