Zack Soto

OFF THE TOP of his head, David Woboril probably can't count exactly how many groups he's addressed after fiddling with the same old police Taser PowerPoint presentation on his laptop.

And yet, every so often, the deputy city attorney finds himself carrying out a mission assigned directly by Police Chief Mike Reese: Reassuring a potentially skeptical public on how our cops use Tasers—50,000-volt weapons meant to keep cops from shooting people but sometimes used to zap Portlanders who just have a hard time following orders.

"I'll keep going," Woboril told me earlier this month after giving me my own personal viewing of his presentation, "to as many groups as he wants me to go to."

The timing of the outreach is no accident. A city auditor's report in November urged a tightening of the city's Taser policy ["Shocking Questions," News, Nov 25, 2010]. Lawsuits earlier this year, reported by the Oregonian, revealed two alarming cases when cops zapped people who were on their knees. And, just this month, the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform asked Mayor Sam Adams and the police bureau to hold off on buying new Taser shotguns until the policy on Taser use is changed.

Woboril's pitch is honed. What could be a stat-filled, legalese-choked affair instead clearly lays out the fault lines beneath the police bureau's Taser policy and how it intersects with the city's rules on when cops are allowed to use force.

But for a careful audience, two striking headlines should emerge: The first is that the city's Taser policy—which allows cops to zap someone who they believe might resist them—is technically out of step with current federal court rulings governing the use of Tasers.

Until the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals says differently, Oregon and other Western states are bound by ruling in a case out of San Diego, Bryan v. MacPherson. In that case, judges ruled Tasers may only be used when someone is actively resisting an officer.

The second headline is this: Given the blessing of the courts—and despite what advocates are demanding—police officials are quietly hoping to loosen Portland's current Taser policy.

When might that blessing come? "Any day," Woboril says. The Ninth Circuit is currently weighing whether to set aside the MacPherson ruling in favor of a case from Seattle that sanctioned the Tasering of a pregnant woman who refused to sign a traffic ticket and get out of her car.

If that became the standard, then cops could keep zapping people who only might resist—a standard that also puts Portland afoul of guidelines pushed by the Police Executive Research Forum, a national consortium of police experts.

Portland officials defend their approach because they say it keeps encounters from mushrooming into something more serious.

"Yes, you'll have fewer Taserings," if officers wait until someone becomes dangerously agitated, says police spokeswoman Lieutenant Kelli Sheffer. "But for us, at that point, it's too late. You've lost the opportunity to stop what will probably be a lethal incident."

But some experts say that's exactly the opposite of what would happen.

"Using Tasers early really undermines other means to subdue people or talk them down," says Barbara Attard, a national expert on Taser and force policies and a consultant for cities' police accountability agencies, noting that Tasers have been connected to deaths and injuries. "It's almost carte blanche. How do you define the 'intent to resist?'"

The city also hopes to better define other cases when Tasering would be deemed appropriate. In Woboril's presentation, he asks participants to consider a scenario in which someone bolting from a stolen car dashes toward the backyards of a row of homes. It's a gray area, he says, between resisting and possibly resisting.

"The public says, 'Please Taser that person,'" he answers when I ask him how his scenario is received.

Woboril also disputes claims that Tasers alone contribute to death, at least more than any other police weapon or tactic. Curiously, though, when this reporter asked to be Tasered—with the city's new shotgun (a 20-second cycle vs. the usual five seconds)— he demurred even though police officials said they liked the idea.

Dr. T. Allen Bethel of the Albina Ministerial Alliance didn't return a message asking whether his group had heard from the mayor's office about its letter, sent Friday, April 8. The mayor's office last week told me it was planning to discuss Tasers and other concerns with the alliance during a regular check-in.

Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch complains the city's outreach on Tasers has been too one-sided.

"They're going around with this dog-and-pony show," he says. "The city attorney's office is always there to circle the wagons and defend [the police bureau's] actions regardless of how inhumane they are."