Chained to a 55-gallon drum to protest the proposed development of a vacant lot, Jonathan Crowell wasn’t threatening anyone. But he refused police orders to unshackle himself and leave, so they zapped him with a Taser, then charged him with trespassing.
“It wasn’t just a short burst,” said Crowell, 32, of Dummerston, recalling the July 24 incident. “Five seconds is a long time to be electrocuted. My whole body was contorting and flapping around. You can’t think of anything else but that pain. It’s really scary. I felt like I was being tortured.”
Increasingly, police facing stubborn lawbreakers, belligerent drunks or violent suspects are reaching for stun guns to shock them into submission. In one recent incident, a hospital security guard in Houston used a Taser on a defiant father trying to take his newborn home, sending father and daughter to the floor.
Police say Tasers are valuable tools for avoiding hand-to-hand struggles that can injure officers and citizens. Small, portable and often effective even when merely brandished, Tasers — which fire tiny, tethered cartridges that transmit electrical currents — have become common in law enforcement in recent years, with some 11,500 police agencies using them.
Weapon of first resort
But critics say Tasers are being used as a weapon of first resort, sometimes on frail or mentally ill people.
“What’s at issue is whether the level of force being used is appropriate for arresting somebody,” said Allen Gilbert, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Vermont. “The Fourth Amendment protects you from unreasonable seizures, which means police can’t use excessive force when they’re taking you into custody.”
Supporters of Tasers say they reduce workers’ compensation and lost time claims by police by preventing physical confrontations.
“We went over an entire year without a single lost hour of employee time or officer injury relating to wrestling or struggling to get a prisoner into custody, which is virtually unheard of,” said Deputy Chief Walt Decker of the Burlington, Vt., Police Department.
His department, which got Tasers last year, spent more than $150,000 on lost time the year before for officers sidelined by on-the-job injuries suffered subduing suspects, he said.
To many, the issue isn’t whether Tasers should be used, it’s how.
In the Houston incident, which occurred April 13, William Lewis, 30, was trying to take his newborn home from Woman’s Hospital of Texas because he and his wife felt mistreated by staff.
He was told not to take the baby, and was trying to leave when David Boling, an off-duty police officer working security, shot Lewis with the stun gun as he held the child.
“It’s very easy to blame police officers for the inappropriate use of a Taser, but we need to take another step back and look at how it’s been introduced to them,” said Dalia Hashad, a human rights violations specialist with Amnesty International.
“They’re under the impression that it’s a bit of a magic tool, that you’ll shoot someone with 50,000 volts and they’ll be rendered incapable and no harm will be done.”
Amnesty International USA has counted 250 cases in the last six years in which people died after being stunned with a Taser, but doesn’t track whether the shock caused the deaths, according to Hashad. According to the manufacturer, Taser International Inc., the devices have been listed as a contributing factor in about 12 deaths.
Hashad says police should exercise more restraint in using Tasers on the mentally ill, and those with medical conditions who can die from the shock.
“Whether it’s coincidence or circumstance, we have several incidents of use of a Taser gun involving a person with a serious mental problem or presumed serious mental health problem,” said Ken Libertoff, executive director of the Vermont Association for Mental Health. “The use of a Taser intervention is not a minor situation, and it is not state-of-the-art mental health care.”
Police counter that they can’t always tell whether a person has mental health issues or pre-existing medical conditions that would make Taser use dangerous to them.
Two recent Taser incidents in Vermont involved psychiatric patients.
On July 3, police used a Taser to subdue an unruly juvenile patient at Brattleboro Retreat, a psychiatric facility.
Neither the hospital nor police would give more detail about the incident, which prompted Gov. Jim Douglas to ask the state attorney general to review the police’s actions and later to ask for a review of police agencies’ protocol for Taser use, with an eye toward setting a statewide policy.
In the second case, a Taser was used to subdue a psychiatric patient from Vermont State Hospital who was spotted jumping in front of cars on Interstate 89.
“It probably saved his life,” said Sgt. Craig Gardner, a Vermont State Police trooper who was there.
The use of the Taser also prevented the patient from fighting officers or pulling anyone else into traffic, Gardner said.