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Put down your Tasers 

City Council should act

I made a mistake in last week's column ("A death of convenience"), which was critical of a local policeman's role in the death by Taser of 17-year-old Darryl Turner. Ironically, my error made the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department's Taser policies seem more reasonable than they really are.

In the column, I wrote that "Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers are supposed to use Tasers only in instances in which the only other recourse would be firing a gun."

Capt. Mike Campagna, training director at the Police Training Academy, corrected me by sending a copy of part of the department's Taser protocol, which states that Tasers "may be used when other less lethal options have been ineffective, or when it reasonably appears that such options will be ineffective in subduing the subject. [Tasers] will only be used in situations where the subject poses an immediate or imminent threat to the safety of himself/herself, a citizen, or an officer." In other words, if an officer thinks a suspect is an immediate threat, and believes it "reasonably appears" that physically subduing him or her won't do the trick, it's OK to use a Taser.

Is it just me, or does that policy sound a wee bit vague? I mean "vague" in the sense that many corporate policies are vague, supposedly setting limits but leaving enough leeway for "interpretation" -- what many corporate employees call "CYA policy," with CYA standing for "cover your ass." As opposed to what I mistakenly wrote last week, the police department's actual Taser policy bodes ill for real accountability.

My misstep happened when I inadvertently mixed up local police policies with information I got from Taser International. When TI first introduced Tasers, the company promoted them as an alternative to using firearms in "last resort" situations. Unfortunately, in my efforts to meet my deadline, I conflated Taser International's policy "suggestions" with local police policy. Campagna was right to object to my statement. I did, after all, make local police Taser policy seem reasonable. For that, I apologize to readers for giving the impression that CMPD officers are trained to regard Tasers as "last resort" weapons.

It is not unreasonable to think police officers should be trained well enough, and be in good enough shape, to subdue unarmed suspects without shooting them -- or, it logically follows, without zapping 50,000 volts of electricity into them.

Most people have no idea what being Tasered is like. Being on the receiving end of a Taser isn't like sticking your finger in a light socket, as terrible as that is. Having 50,000 volts of direct current run through your body for five seconds delivers a jolt so powerful it scrambles the neuro-body connections and shuts down your brain's ability to control your body. That's why you drop like a lead weight when you're struck. People who have been Tasered talk of indescribable, numbing pain.

Research on the effects of Tasers by a variety of groups has produced results that are all over the map, from several police studies that said Tasers are completely safe to a U.S. Department of Defense study that found Tasers can cause heart damage.

Doubts about Tasers' safety led the International Association of Chiefs of Police to urge police everywhere to review their use of tasers. Several American cities' police have either abandoned or are reconsidering their use. Police officers in five states have filed lawsuits against TI claiming they suffered serious injuries after being tasered during training classes, and an increasing number of cities are being sued by people who claim being Tasered caused a variety of medical problems.

Documented evidence makes it pretty clear that too many police officers in the United States are relying on Tasers as a way to subdue uncooperative suspects, including the more than 140 deaths detailed by the Arizona Republic a couple of years ago. Remember the 75-year-old grandmother who was Tasered by a Rock Hill officer in 2005? Or the Lancaster, S.C., inmate who died after being hit with six consecutive shocks from a Taser? But have you heard about the 9-year-old girl in handcuffs in Tucson? How about the pregnant Illinois woman who was Tasered in her abdomen?

To say the least, tasers are controversial weapons and are becoming more controversial all the time as injuries, deaths, misuse and lawsuits pile up. Considering all that, as well as the inconclusive nature of available research, the city should direct CMPD to quit using Tasers until more definitive research has been conducted. At the very least, CMPD needs to tighten its guidelines for using Tasers.

All I'm saying is that for a weapon touted so often as a "non-lethal alternative," Tasers sure seem to be killing a lot of people. Two years ago when I suggested in this column that the city should suspend police use of Tasers, I speculated that at some point in the future, Charlotte could become known as "the place where a teenage tantrum can lead to a scene out of The Bride of Frankenstein." On the heels of Daryl Turner's death, we are now that place.

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