As part of the Oregonian's coverage of the federal Justice Department's report ripping the Portland Police Bureau for excessive force, the paper published a story wondering about the bureau's dilly-dallying when it comes to tightening its Taser policy. It's something we've been all over—noting the various reports and court rulings over the years that have urged cops to avoid shocking people who aren't acting aggressively—and it's a vitally important discussion.
But insiders were shocked to see what came off like an unusually biting quote from the deputy city attorney who trains cops on use of force, making it seem like he was fingering Police Chief Mike Reese for the bureau's plodding path to change.
"I've generated drafts over the years. They haven't been adopted," [David] Woboril said. "You're going to have to ask the chief why he didn't move on it earlier."
Turns out, Woboril thinks he was misquoted. He wrote a letter to the paper. And he wrote a letter attempting to clarify those remarks. When the paper didn't publish it, the police bureau did, on its Facebook page.
To the Editor:
The Oregonian’s September 20, 2012, article: “Portland police officials were repeatedly warned about Taser use before federal inquiry” may have given the impression that I believe Chief Reese has been inattentive to the need for Taser policy development. Nothing could be further from the truth. In response to conversations that I have had with the Chief, I began developing a preliminary draft of a new policy, but it was not finalized and given to the Chief. In the meantime, over the past couple years, Chief Reese has adjusted the Police Bureau’s Taser practices in response to community input, changes in case law and an emerging consensus on best practices. This continuing effort will culminate in a comprehensive permanent policy shortly.
Deputy City Attorney
Two things are in play here. Did Woboril really mean to slag the chief? I don't think so. Having dealt with Woboril repeatedly over the years, on this issue and others, I'm inclined to take the letter at face value. He's way too careful to take shots at one of his clients, or even let on that he might even remotely like to do so. Woboril wouldn't comment, but he probably meant what he said in the quote literally: I'm not going to put words in Mike Reese's mouth, so go ask him.
But is Woboril correct in saying "nothing could be further from the truth" when it comes a claim that Reese has been inattentive? That's debatable.
Yes, Reese has been asking for community feedback for months and months on Tasers, but the issues brought up by the feds—our Taser policy is ripe for abuse, and is vague and excessive—have been well-known for years. But did we really have to wait for all that input and for the feds to tell us what we already knew to contemplate real changes?
Beyond both of those issues, though, is a sense that nationally we might be coming to a new and better understanding of Tasers, which have only been around for 10 years or so. And the tactics and policies governing their use might properly be argued to still be in their adolescence.
In Portland, years after our officers first got their hands on them, Tasers are being used less and less. There is a growing acceptance that the 50,000-volt weapons really can help kill someone and that they shouldn't be used to make someone shut up because it's easier than talking or putting on handcuffs.
But it's also a little bit true that when properly and judiciously used—not against passive resisters or back-talkers, and not used over and over and over again when someone's clearly been laid low by the excruciating pain—Tasers can also help keep cops from dog-piling someone and swinging sticks and fists.
(Although there are questions whether the stun guns have made a difference when it comes to cops' most serious use of force: shooting. The shooting count, after a brief dip, has ticked back up in recent years—including cases where Tasers were used but still didn't work.)
If Tasers remain a weapon in the cops' arsenal, let's hope that whatever comes out of the police bureau, better late than never, reflects that evolving balance.