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February 18th, 2004 Nick Budnick | News Stories
 

Shocking Differences

Portland to study how other cities prevent their cops from abusing tasers.

     
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Chief Derrick Foxworth
IMAGE: STEPHEN VOSS
The Portland Police Bureau will submit a report within the next two weeks to Mayor Vera Katz comparing its policy on tasers--stun guns that fire darts with a 21-foot range--with rules used in other cities.

A WW investigation earlier this month found that Portland cops, with only 62 tasers among them, use the devices on more people each month than do police in other cities that have more tasers, such as Phoenix (with 1,250 tasers), Sacramento (650), Los Angeles (500) and Denver (100).

The report to Katz comes as Chief Derrick Foxworth makes his push to quadruple the number of tasers in Portland, hoping to put the high-powered stun-gun in the hands of every on-duty officer.

Using tasers in place of lethal force remains unquestioned, but some Portland cops and community-policing advocates fear the new device, which can cause intense pain, is being used as a substitute for basic police tools, such as manhandling or simple verbal communication ("Is the Portland Police Bureau Going Taser Crazy?" Feb. 4, 2004).

WW's investigation found that Portland's taser policy allows officers to use the weapons in ways that other cities actively discourage or explicitly forbid.

In Portland, tasers may be used when "a person displays the intent to engage in violent aggressive actions," is suicidal, or "displays the intent to engage in physical resistance to a lawful police action." And Portland cops using tasers are trained to perceive "resistance" at a very low level--such as when handcuffed people stiffen their legs as they are being pushed into a patrol car's back seat.

Records reviewed by WW revealed that least 25 people have been shocked while in handcuffs in Portland, many of those for merely stiffening their legs. This is usually done when the taser is used in its "touch-stun" mode (like a stun gun or cattle prod), rather than as a pistol, when it shoots darts.

In Los Angeles, officers are prohibited from using the taser on handcuffed individuals in order to get them into a car. Denver also bans cops from using tasers as prods when old-fashioned wrist-locks and low-level uses of force would work. "I don't think society is ready for that," says Denver's taser-trainer, Corporal Steve Palka, when asked why the devices are not used routinely. "We're always worried about the potential for abuse." In Phoenix, officers are prohibited from tasing people in handcuffs.

Another difference is that Portland officers are taught that the groin is one of two primary target areas, along with the back and outside of the thigh, when using the taser at close range. Taser trainer Tom Forsyth says that's because "nerve bundles" in the pelvic region make the device more effective there. Portland cops have used the taser on a person's groin at least eight times, reports show. In Phoenix, officers are specifically instructed not to target the pelvic area.

Besides the potential for disfiguring scars, there remain questions whether the powerful devices have played a contributing role in any of the 37 reported post-tasering deaths nationwide. This may explain why other cities seem to have an overarching philosophy about tasers that is more restrictive than Portland's. For example, in Phoenix, considered a model program by taser advocates, officers are taught to factor in the magnitude of the suspected crime and the suspect's propensity toward violence.

In Portland, in contrast, cops have tased people after stopping them for nonviolent offenses, such as littering and jaywalking, selling plastic flowers without a license, and failing to go away when told to.

In Seattle, police trainer Chris Myers says that tasers, because their darts can take out an eye, cannot be fired at a distance unless someone is in jeopardy. The policy was initially considered conservative, but there have been no calls to change it, says Myers: "We're pretty happy with it."

Foxworth defends the city's policy but admits that some supervisors have expressed concerns of unnecessary usage, or "over-reliance" on tasers. One big reason for the bureau's embrace of tasers, he admits, boils down to money.

"We've got probably 60 or 70 officers on [medical] leave," he says. "That directly impacts our staffing." By using tasers to cut down on officer injuries, says Foxworth, "we're going to reduce the number of people getting paid who unfortunately are sitting at home waiting to heal."

According to Katz spokesman Scott Farris, the review will compare Portland's policy with that of other cities, after which the mayor and Foxworth will make a decision on whether Portland's policy should be modified.

While the current review was not initiated by the WW cover story, it will be influenced by it. "After reading the story, we have to look at some things," conceded training Capt. Mike Crebs. "I think our taser program is sound, but we would be remiss if we didn't continually look at improving our policies."


Chief Derrick Foxworth says that, having witnessed several voluntary taser demonstrations on his officers (see Mailbox), he has absolutely no desire to try it for himself. "I've seen other people tased, and I'm convinced that it's effective," he says with a laugh. "I don't have to personally experience it to be a believer in it."
 
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