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February 4th, 2004 Nick Budnick | News Stories
 

Is the Portland Police Bureau going TASER CRAZY?

     
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Officer Bill Ollenbrook's police radio crackled with what sounded like life or death as he entered a low-income downtown apartment building last May. Details were sketchy, but according to the dispatcher, a man, possibly armed, was facing off with cops in a fourth-floor hallway.

Ollenbrook sprinted up the stairs and around a corner. A 40-year-old man stood mid-hallway with his back to him, brandishing what looked like a pistol beneath the T-shirt he'd wrapped around his hand and wrist.

"9 millimeter!" the man screamed at officers on the other end of the hallway. "Just shoot me! Kill me!"

Behind him, Ollenbrook reached down, unsnapped his holster and drew his weapon. His gut said: sick, innocent man--don't kill. His training said the opposite: potential gun--must eliminate threat.

The cop squeezed the trigger.

The man, who turned out to be unarmed and suicidal, lived--because Ollenbrook's weapon was not a gun, but a taser. The man was subdued with the help of 50,000 volts of electricity pumping through his body.

"It dropped me like a rock," the man said last week when contacted by WW, saying he was glad Ollenbrook packed a taser in addition to his pistol. ""If they didn't have that option, I don't know what would have happened to me."

In the past 19 months in Portland, almost 400 people have been jolted by the newest weapon in the local cops' expanding arsenal. And that number is sure to rise. Because of their potential to save lives, there's been a "taser revolution" in police forces across the U.S. Chief Derrick Foxworth has vowed to acquire 190 more of these high-tech stun guns at a cost of $799 apiece, enough so every on-duty cop will carry one.

But even with tasers in only limited service, a WW investigation shows that Portland cops are using them at an unusually high rate and in circumstances that other cities actively discourage or explicitly forbid. With only 62 tasers, Portland tases more people each month than do cops in Phoenix, where 1,250 tasers are in use, or Los Angeles, which has 500 of the weapons (see chart, page 21).

Those on the receiving end of these blasts in Portland include 25 people who were already in handcuffs, as well as two 71-year-olds--one of whom was a woman with only one eye.

While the advantages of non-lethal weapons are obvious, some critics claim the Portland Police are just a bit too eager to use them.

Richard Brown, a community-policing instructor who works closely with cops, says some of them think the bureau is a little taser-crazy. "There are officers out there that don't agree with this stuff," says Brown, who sits on two advisory committees to the Portland Police Bureau. "I know that because they tell me."

The way the bureau has cops using tasers "doesn't make sense to me," says Officer Tom Mack, a former police-union official who says publicly what other cops told WW only privately. "There's a group of us that think these things are being pulled out too quickly."

The 446 instances of taser deployment in the past 19 months, which WW reviewed, didn't reveal a pattern of abuse. In fact, numerous potentially lethal situations have been averted using the taser, including as many as 17 situations like the one Ollenbrook faced, in which a suicidal person tries to force some unlucky cop to kill them.

But several taser incidents seemed questionable even to police interviewed by WW.

"From the reports you're reading me, I think what you're seeing is unnecessary," says Mack.

Loren Christensen, a recently retired cop and defensive-tactics expert, says the reports related to him remind him of the now-infamous "sleeper hold," which he introduced to the agency and which was abused prior to the controversial 1985 death of Lloyd Stevenson. That death led to the choke hold's ban.

"I would listen to people talking about how they were using it, and I would think, 'Boy, I'd never use it in that situation,'" Christensen says.

The taser was invented by a fan of Victor Appleton's adventure novels featuring Tom Swift, sort of a techno-genius cousin of the Hardy Boys, and its name stands for "Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle."

At close range, it can be used as a stun gun relying on direct contact with clothes, as opposed to skin. At a distance of up to 21 feet, a taser also can fire nitrogen-propelled darts with tiny, straightened-out #8 barbed fishhooks on the end at a speed of 100 mph. These wire-bearing darts remain attached to the taser by a thin wire, so that the officer can trigger a second jolt of electricity if needed.

The electrical blast is so powerful it overrides a person's nervous system, usually causing a loss of body control and causing major muscle groups to contract in rapid-fire fashion. It also hurts like hell, as Officer Greg Stewart learned last year when he was tased by accident.

"Suddenly I feel like my eyeballs were popping out of my head," Stewart later testified in court. "My eyeball was--pow! pow! pow!--throbbing...a charge traveled down my neck, through my cheek.... I was in a lot of pain and having a lot of difficulty focusing on anything." The five-second cycle, he said, "seemed like forever," and after the incident, "all I wanted to do was get to the hospital." In fact, a resulting neck strain forced him to miss work for a couple of days.

Such accidental officer tasings are rare; the device has scant downside for the officer compared with other less-lethal weapons like red-pepper spray, which is hard for cops to use without catching blowback, or batons, which require close proximity.

Because of the device's advantages, Taser International, the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based manufacturer, says the number of police agencies using tasers has jumped from 125 to 4,300 in the past three years. In the past 12 months, the company's stock has skyrocketed from $3.65 per share to almost $147.

To officials and bean counters, the weapons seem like the ultimate silver bullet. In Denver and Orange County, Fla., for example, police departments credited tasers with a large drop in injuries both to officers and citizens, translating to lower medical costs and fewer lawsuits.

In Phoenix, a city considered one of the most clear-cut taser success stories, officer-involved shootings have dropped by more than half thanks to the taser, says Sgt. Randy Force; his officers shot only 13 people last year, nine fatally; all were brandishing guns at the time.

Phoenix, in other words, had no Kendra James, no Jose Mejia Poot--none of the controversies that bubble up regularly when Portland cops fire their guns.

"To have an entire year where you don't shoot anybody unless they were carrying a gun, that's remarkable," Force says. "I can't think of a single advance in law-enforcement technology that is going to save the number of lives that the taser will save; and no, I don't own stock in the company."

Dane Reister, a Central Precinct officer, believes existing bureau safeguards prevent officers from abusing what he calls an "incredibly" useful tool. But, he says, there may be a risk of overuse: "It's like a kid in a candy store or with a new toy: He's going to play with it as much as he can until he gets tired of it."

Foxworth says he is confident that the current policy is appropriate, despite the concerns expressed by some subordinates. "We've had discussions...where supervisors had concerns about officers' overreliance on the taser," he says, adding that individual officers are given a talking-to when questionable instances occur. "Still, I don't think officers are overrelying on it."

At 3 am on May 3, 2003, three weeks before Officer Ollenbrook subdued the suicidal man in a dramatic standoff, several cops responded to a more mundane call at Southwest 3rd Avenue and Stark Street: a drunk using a shovel to liberate his keys from a parking-lot kiosk.

As officers took him into custody, a nearby line of clubgoers had formed at Chinto's Burritos cart. Among them was Dontae Marks, a 20-year-old amateur bodybuilder who had been out at the Red Sea club with his friend.

To Marks and his friend, the way the officers dealt with the man looked like brutality. The friend went closer, cursed at the cops, then returned to the burrito line.

A short time later, two officers approached the friend and cuffed him, saying he was drunk and headed to detox. As they escorted him to a squad car, Marks protested to an officer on the outskirts of the scene that his pal wasn't drunk. The officer told him to leave. Marks refused. Another cop, Jason Lile, repeated the order and drew his taser, positioning the red dot of its laser sight on Marks' chest.

Scared, Marks backed away about 10 feet and turned his back to Lile. "I thought if I turned my back he wouldn't shoot me," he told WW. Marks says he shouted that he had a right to stand there.

Mark says he got one warning; Lile's account says it was a half-dozen. Regardless, the report acknowledges the precipitating moment came when Marks looked over his shoulder and called back, "Go ahead and shoot me, you fucking pussy."

Lile pulled the trigger and the darts flew into Marks' back, automatically triggering a five-second cycle of shocks and a noise sounding like a muted string of firecrackers: KAK-KAK-KAK-KAK.

Marks was tased even though, according to the police report, he had his back turned to the officer. "The darts appeared to hit him in the back but had no effect as he walked away," wrote Officer Lile in the incident report.

Marks says he felt the charge but was able to keep walking. He walked 10 feet further away, said the report, then stopped to pull the taser probes out of his clothes. Lile approached from behind and attempted to tase Marks again in the neck, using the weapon's touch-stun mode.

Marks, the police report says, brushed Lile off, assumed a "fighting stance," and soon found himself under a pile of six cops. Lile's report says that even while face down on his stomach, Marks "continued to resist." While cops punched him, pepper-sprayed him and clubbed him with an telescoping baton, Lile touch-stunned him with at least 10 more five-second cycles--KAK-KAK-KAK.

Horrified, the Chinto's crowd yelled and cursed the cops. The next day Marks' wife, Aurora, counted marks from 13 separate taser burns spread across his back, neck, buttocks, and rear of his legs.

Last August, Marks was tried on charges of resisting arrest and interfering with a police officer by failing to disperse. In court, Marks' attorney, Amy Elkanich, argued that he'd rightfully disregarded an unlawful command. After deliberating for 20 minutes, the jury acquitted Marks on both charges.

Elkanich says the Marks case shows how tasers give cops a new power that is too easily abused.

Officer Lile had not told Marks, "Leave or you will be arrested." Nor, in his report, did he say the taser was needed to take Marks into custody. Rather, Lile wrote that he tased the bystander because "I believed Marks would physically resist any attempts to move him."

"They went straight to the taser, because it was quick and easy for them," Elkanich says. "He was doing what they wanted him to do, but because they didn't believe him, they tased him. And that's what blew that situation up. Without the taser, that situation would never, ever have occurred. I think that they are using these too soon in their interactions with people."

It's not just defense lawyers who are disturbed by the Marks case. WW read the report to a handful of Portland cops, including Christensen. "That's from a police report?" the retired officer said when the account was read to him. "That doesn't sound good at all.... Not having been there, I don't have all the facts, but it sounds a little unnecessary."

Officer Mack doesn't understand why Marks was tased the first time, let alone 12 more times.

"If you want to tell me I'm a 'punk,' or a 'pussy,' I'll say, 'Whatever: Your friend is going to detox, and you should probably walk away or you'll be joining him,'" he says. "I wasn't there, but hearing the report, I don't get it. How is that not abusive?"

As part of the bureau's standard procedure with each taser use, police officials reviewed Lile's actions and deemed them "within policy," meaning the officer wasn't disciplined.

To date, those higher-ups have found each one of Portland's 446 taser deployments to be justified, though the Police Bureau has received 10 complaints from people who say they were tased unnecessarily, says Internal Affairs Captain Darrel Schenck. His unit reviews each complaint and has found no taser usages that don't comply with Portland's policy. Several complaints are pending.

Officer Tom Forsyth drew up Portland's taser policy, contained in a three-page directive, after examining the policies of several other agencies. He says Portland, like most other police departments, treats tasers as equivalent to red-pepper spray in terms of when it can be used. Specifically, the policy allows tasers to be used on people who "display the intent to engage in violent, aggressive actions," are suicidal, or "display the intent to engage in physical resistance to a lawful police action."

At WW's request, Portland Capt. Mike Crebs, in charge of training, reviewed the Marks report and conceded that he "had some concerns" because the report was unclear on whether Lile tased Marks in order to take him into custody--which would be appropriate--or simply because the guy didn't leave when told to.

Thanks to the vagueness of Portland's policy, reports show, officers can tase you for being slow to comply with an order or for yelling at them while glaring with "fists clenched."

In Phoenix, by contrast, Marks' tasing would be extremely unlikely, thanks to a policy that, unlike Portland's, prohibits officers from using tasers for "coercion" or "intimidation." Also unlike Portland's, it discourages cops from using the taser on people who are not threatening or suspected of a violent offense.

Similarly, Denver taser trainer Steve Palka told WW that a "leave or I'll tase you" command would be unacceptable under his department's rules.

Denver cops are trained to avoid using tasers in place of traditional policing tools such as wrist-locks and pressure points, says Palka, who notes that the majority of tasings in Denver are at a distance: Only 10 percent are of the close-range "touch-stun" variety. That compares to a figure of 43 percent in Portland, according to the bureau's taser database.

In Portland, reports show, officers frequently use the taser as a "compliance tool" in situations where previously a wrist-lock or old-fashioned manhandling would likely have been used. For example:

* In December 2002, officers responding to an underage-drinking party in Northeast Portland were met by an 18-year-old kid who walked toward them, fists clenched, saying, "Get the fuck out of my house!" Officer Meredith Hopper's report says she tased him and ordered him to put his hands up, which he did, but when they started to drop she tased him again, causing him to go "down on his stomach and scream in pain."

* In January 2003, Officer Scherise Bergstrom--whose taser exploits have given rise to the nickname "Lady Lightning" within the bureau--responded to a car crash in which the driver was arguing with cops and being "uncooperative." According to her police report, Bergstrom drew her weapon and warned that he would be tased if he did not "follow directions and stop being lippy."

* In March 2003, a woman who fell asleep in her car parked outside a North Portland 7-11 awoke to cops opening her car door and tasing her; according to taser officer Ken Reynolds' report, she had glared at them and reached for her pocket even after being warned. His partner's report, however, states that there was no warning and the tasing was not prompted by any move for her pocket--an account the woman echoed to WW when contacted.

* Last July, a driver pulled over on the Fremont Bridge, angry that his car was being towed for lack of insurance, turned his head and body toward Officer Bret Barnum once too many times while complaining, and got tased.

Forsyth, the taser program's head, defends the taser usage as appropriate, citing the nuances of each situation, such as the danger of a large, threatening suspect near the bridge railing--which he called a "textbook" use of the taser. As for the discrepancies in the 7-11 reports, he figures Reynolds just wrote a more complete report.

Like several other cops interviewed by WW, including Mack and Christensen, Forsyth defends the tasing of handcuffed people who are actively resisting, noting that some individuals are big enough that they're dangerous whether they're restrained or not. As for preventing abuse, he notes that with every use of the taser, a supervisor is immediately notified who must subsequently write an "after-action" report analyzing whether its use was appropriate.

He says that because Portland's taser policy gives officers more leeway in its use than colleagues in other cities, it's not surprising they use them more often.

Brown, the police advisory board member, says he wasn't surprised by WW's findings. "I'm concerned that in the short period that we've had these, they have been used so many times," he says.

Several cops told WW that the advantages of the taser that make it so effective in saving lives--its ease of use, range, effectiveness and lack of a downside--also make it susceptible to abuse, especially combined with Portland's permissive taser policy. "I think the threshold should be higher," says Mack.

Foxworth disagrees with the notion that a taser-happy police force might jeopardize its relations with the community, saying that if it "is going to improve officer safety, reduce the number of injuries to officers and citizens, and reduce the number of deadly-force situations, I think that's what the community is crying out for."

But when told that model taser cities such as Phoenix and Denver had achieved impressive results with far tighter policies, Foxworth's boss, Mayor Vera Katz, had a different reaction: "If we're going to be distributing these to a lot more officers, then we need to make sure that all of these issues are looked at."

Tased and Confused

A reporter gets the shocking truth about stun-guns.

For several weeks, each time I made the trek to the Portland Police Bureau office where I reviewed the stack of taser files, Officer Tom Forsyth, who heads the taser program, would cheerily offer to tase me--just so I could see how safe and harmless it is, he assured me.

One day, seduced by the need to be macho, I agreed.

Instead of being subjected to the usual barbed darts used when a taser is in pistol mode, or the touch-stun probes used at close proximity, Forsyth hooked two metal clips to my pants pockets. The clips were attached to wires connected to the next-generation X26 taser that Police Chief Derrick Foxworth hopes to make standard equipment for Portland cops.

With two WW interns looking on, I feigned nonchalance. Forsyth had me kneel while two other cops supported me at my shoulders.

When he hit the button--KAK-KAK-KAK-KAK--I realized why he'd taken the precautions: My body suddenly pitched forward as my legs involuntarily straightened and my back, as one intern put it later, "arched like a salmon."

Forsyth promised I'd get only a one-second burst, not the standard five-second blast cops use. But it sure felt longer. Two words cycled urgently through my brain: "Ow!" and then "STOP!"

As it ended, my thigh muscles were tight as if given a charley horse. There was a stinging sensation in my skin where the clips had been.

"Ow," I said. "That sucked."

Feeling an urgent desire to rip the alligator clips from my pants, I reached toward them--then stopped, recalling the police reports I'd reviewed, in which any sudden move led to a second tasing. I looked at Forsyth. He still held the weapon, his finger disturbingly close to the trigger. "Can I take the clips off now?" I asked nervously, prepared to grovel if necessary--anything to get the torturous device off me.

"Sure," he said.

Over the course of the next week, Forsyth kept asking, "Any lasting effects?"

I didn't know how to answer. For the first few hours after getting tased, I felt a bit dazed. But it wasn't the physical pain that lingered, it was the horrible firsthand knowledge of what total submission feels like.

The cops, for their part, thought I was a great sport--or incredibly stupid.

"Wish we'd known in advance," Assistant Chief Bruce Prunk quipped a few days afterward. "We could have sold tickets for charity."


Portland has 147 taser-trained officers, all of whom must undergo a 10-hour training course.

The taser's arrival in Portland has given rise to new cop-lingo within the bureau: Tasers are used to "light someone up." People who are tasered "ride the buffalo."

The racial breakdown of people tased in Portland roughly mirrors the population of those arrested (which is disproportionately African-American). Of those tased so far: 65 percent white, 25 percent African-American, 7 percent Latino, 2 percent Native American and 1 percent Asian.

Alcohol and/or drugs were involved in more than half of the incidents in which tasers were deployed in Portland.

Portland police reports indicate that at least 11 percent of the people tased are mentally ill.

A Clackamas County Corrections deputy was indicted three years ago for abusing an inmate with a taser. Last year, a Houston policewoman was indicted for assault after tasing a woman.

Tasers are approved for use by civilians in 43 states, including Oregon. Only two states, Massachusetts and New Jersey, ban the use of tasers by anybody, including police.

Last November, a Portland police-policy review committee, CPORT, was told that only 11 people had died after being tased. That figure is outdated, according to Taser Inter-national's Steve Tuttle, and has climbed to 37.

In Virginia, the state prison system banned stun guns after two doctors implicated the device in a diabetic inmate's death, leading to $1.45 million in damages being paid to his family.

WW interns Mark Baylis, Mari Brookshire, Jacob Fenton, Adina Lepp, Alisa Richter and Alex Valdivieso contributed research for this article.

 
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