The new taser policy Portland Police Chief Derrick Foxworth is proposing would make some needed reforms, but it fails to significantly change the Police Bureau's largely unrestricted use of the high-tech stun gun.
The proposed policy changes are being made just as the bureau has purchased 100 new tasers to go with the 62 it already has. Even with only a small number of the devices, a WW investigation showed that Portland police tase people at an usually high rate--far higher than larger police departments that have many more of the weapons (see "Taser Crazy?" WW, Feb. 4, 2004).
Training Capt. Mike Crebs conducted the research underlying the new proposed policy and prepared a report for Foxworth and Mayor Vera Katz.
Crebs' report shows that the device has clearly saved lives, being deployed 44 times in situations that could have turned lethal. But tasers are far more often used where there is no threat of physical harm. Portland cops, for instance, are specifically trained to use tasers as cattle prods to shock handcuffed people into jumping into the back of police cars, even if those in custody do not appear violent.
Portland's proposed new policy would urge officers to avoid using the guns on elderly people, children and pregnant women. Police would be banned from using it to "harass" someone or for "horseplay," as well as from aiming it at someone's head and face or at someone who is not resisting arrest.
However, those guidelines fall well short of the restrictions in place in Phoenix, considered a model police taser program. That city requires officers to consider the magnitude of a crime and the suspect's propensity for violence before deploying a taser.
Questioned about his research by WW, Crebs conceded that he'd misread the Phoenix policy and that, as a result, his report on other cities' taser policies downplayed the contrast between Phoenix's approach and Portland's. He promised to correct the report and noted that the proposed changes haven't been finalized.
At a recent meeting of the Chief's Forum, a community advisory group, neighborhood activist Richard Brown expressed concern that Portland uses the devices so often, and he asked for rapid implementation of the new policy. "It may not go far enough," Brown said later, "but the discussion is still happening."