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December 15th, 2004 Nick Budnick | News Stories
 

On the Taser Trail

Portland cops are getting more of the shock-inducing weapons as national concerns grow.

     
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Police tased Freddie Lee Stephens at least 13 times.
At a time when other law-enforcement agencies, including the federal Department of Justice, are having second thoughts about tasers, the Portland Police Bureau plans to distribute 300 of the latest-model electric stun guns to officers in the next six months.

In February, a WW review of police taser usage found that Portland cops were using the devices far more frequently than officers in other large cities that had more of the weapons (see "Taser Crazy?," WW, Feb. 2, 2004).

Tasers fire wire-bearing darts up to 21 feet and can also be used at close range, delivering 50,000 volts and causing loss of body control. The WW investigation found that although tasers have helped avert many potentially deadly situations, critics, including some within the bureau, feel that some officers enjoy using the new pain-inducing devices a little too much.

The latest bureau records show that Portland officers have in the past year cut their rate of taser use by more than half. Between April and October of this year, Portland cops tased only 15 people per month on average, compared to 36 people per month in the same period last year.

What's happening? "Word of mouth," says Tom Forsyth, the Portland officer in charge of tasers. The public is much more aware of the weapons and their agonizing effect, he says, and therefore less likely to disobey police orders.

Other cops agree but say another factor is that the new-toy thrill of carrying a taser is gone. And although the taser was initially touted as appropriate for just about any situation, officers are learning they have limits. For instance, a taser was present at each of the last four officer-involved shootings and some cops feel that in certain instances they may have hurt the outcome, not helped. On Dec. 2, for example, Portland cops used a taser to subdue a fleeing car thief only to have him turn around and shoot two officers.

The bureau recently began a program to train every officer in their use. The goal is to distribute enough tasers to equip every officer on duty who wants one.

Portland's expansion of taser deployment comes as concern about their safety is growing. A year ago, a Police Bureau citizens committee was told that only 11 people in North America had died after being tased. That tally now stands at more than 70.

The company that makes tasers maintains that deaths attributed to the device have been coincidental, but autopsies in eight deaths showed at least a potential link. The Department of Justice is now conducting the first full-blown safety studies of the weapon, and it appears that internally the agency has concerns. Last week, the police chief of Fort Wayne, Ind., told The New York Times that a DOJ taser researcher recently called him, urging against purchases of the device until more research is complete.

In Las Vegas, where two people died after being tased, the police department recently banned its officers from using the device on handcuffed suspects, a practice allowed in Portland.

Unlucky Thirteen

In April, the Portland City Council agreed to pay $145,000 in damages to a 71-year-old blind woman who'd sued the city after being tased and pepper-sprayed. Now the city faces another potential lawsuit over tasers.

On the evening of April 13, Officer Chad Wilcott pulled over a car in North Portland. Freddie Lee Stephens, a paroled rapist who was sitting in the passenger seat, fled the scene on foot. Wilcott, a 5-foot-8-inch, 150-pound ultra-marathon runner, gave chase, eventually dropping the 6-foot, 160-pound Stephens with his taser.

But Stephens kept thrashing about on the ground, tried to get away and at one point grabbed at Wilcott's weapon, the officer testified at Stephens' subsequent trial. "This has been, out of the six and a half years as a police officer, the most scared I've been," said Wilcott, who said he activated the taser for at least 12 more five-second cycles, most of them while Stephens was lying on his stomach.

Dr. Ole Ersson, a jail physician who examined Stephens three days after the incident, testified that he found 33 "distinct" two-pronged taser marks on Stephens' back, buttocks and hind part of his thighs. That did not include the several times Stephens was tased on the front of his body.

Wilcott said that in writing his report, he listed the number of total cycles as "'13-plus' because I figured there were more than that." Asked to clear up the uncertainty, a bureau spokesman said Wilcott's supervisor had failed to check the weapon to see how many times it had been fired. But Portland taser trainer Tom Forsyth says it is not uncommon for one taser cycle to leave multiple marks if a suspect is struggling. --NB


Average monthly taser use in Portland

2003: 36

2004: 15

Figures based on reported uses from April to October 2003 (the first six-month period during which the Portland Police Bureau had all 62 tasers currently on hand) and April to October 2004.

 
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