Court Ruling Forces Police In Southern States To Reconsider Use Of Tasers

Feb 5, 2016
Originally published on February 7, 2016 10:30 pm
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Police in some states in the South are having to rethink how they use Tasers. This after a federal court decision that affects the Southeast of the country. The court said police can't Tase someone just for being uncooperative. But as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, police say that severely restricts their options.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: This case comes out of an incident in Pinehurst, N.C., back in 2011. A mentally ill man was refusing to go to the hospital, and he was clinging to a signpost. To try to make him let go, the police Tased him five times. He died a few minutes later.

JONATHAN PUCKETT: By any reasonable standard, the force used in Pinehurst was unreasonable.

KASTE: That's Sgt. Jonathan Puckett. He's the use-of-force trainer for the police department in Norfolk, Va. He says his officers are not allowed to Tase a passive resistor like this. But what troubles him is that this ruling goes further. He says it seems to be raising the threshold for when cops can use a Taser.

PUCKETT: This court decision says unless you're in imminent danger, you can't use that Taser.

KASTE: The way Puckett understands the ruling, it means cops are no longer allowed to use Tasers in low-threat situations. For instance, a non-violent person who's already under arrest - if he tries to escape, he can't be Tased. The Norfolk Police Department is still trying to figure out the practical applications of this ruling, and to play it safe, for now, it's suspended the use of all Tasers.

PUCKETT: Unfortunately, that means we are taking a less lethal option off of the street. Certainly, in the modern times that we're in now with the use of firearms being so highly scrutinized, that's a problem for us.

KASTE: The practical question for the police departments affected by this ruling is this - can they still use Tasers as a pain compliance tool? In other words, can they use a Taser to force you to cooperate?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICEMAN: Do it now or you're going to get Tased.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Officer.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICEMAN: Do it now or you're going to get Tased.

KASTE: Take this scene in Kansas City captured by a dash cam. An officer points his Taser at a man who doesn't want to be arrested. The man is refusing to put his hands behind his back, but he keeps them in plain view and he doesn't seem to be threatening the officer in any way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICEMAN: You're going to get Tased. Do it now. Do it now.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Yelling).

KASTE: Nick Berardini made a documentary about the marketing of Tasers, called, "Killing Them Safely."

NICK BERARDINI: The great lie about Tasers is that they are alternatives to deadly force.

KASTE: He says Tasers are hard to use in dynamic circumstances. You're supposed to aim for certain parts of the body, and it's tricky getting both probes to make contact the right way on a person who's running. So in practice he says the Taser has become more useful in static situations.

BERARDINI: What you actually find, now that we have 15 years' worth of data to back this up, is that it's more likely to be used as these compliance tools.

KASTE: Defenders of the Taser don't deny that it's a useful compliance tool, but they point out that pain compliance is a normal part of police work. If it's not done with a Taser, they say it'll have to be done some other way.

Mike Brave is a lawyer for TASER International, an expert in the use of force and a former cop, and he says the court seems to ignore the practical realities faced by police.

MIKE BRAVE: What if I have somebody - I don't even care what size. I don't care if it's a 90-pound female, I don't care if it's a 400-pound male - and I have them in handcuffs. They're intoxicated, but other than that, they're now resisting me a lot. And they refuse to get in the back of the squad car. It's just me and them, and I've got 30 minutes before backup can arrive. Under this ruling, what can I do? Tell me what I can do.

KASTE: Police chiefs in the southern states that are affected by this ruling say using a Taser as a compliance tool is often safer than wrestling with a suspect or using a baton. Many of them would like to see the new restrictions reversed, and they may. Because of the wide-ranging effects of the ruling, defense lawyers are asking for an urgent new hearing by all the judges of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.