If you think you've been hearing a lot about Tasers over the past year—you're right. The Mercury has run more stories about Tasers than any other type of force used by the Portland Police Bureau. However, is Taser usage actually on the rise?
Last Tuesday, November 18, the City of Portland's Independent Police Review Director Mary-Beth Baptista reconvened its "Use-of-Force Task Force" to begin looking at the police bureau's use-of-force data from January 2007 to the present. The Mercury asked if the press would be allowed into the meeting, but was told by Baptista the get-together was private.
Baptista's group is likely to present its force findings to the public in spring 2009. But prompted by the rash of Taser stories printed this year—suggesting Portland Police may have been turning more to Tasers in certain situations than in years prior—the Mercury decided to get an early start and take a hard look into this aspect of the bureau's use of force.
First, the Good News
Perhaps surprisingly, it appears Portland Police are actually deploying Tasers less than they used to. When the Mercury filed a public records request to find out the number of cases where Tasers were deployed by Portland Police, the early numbers—which are yet to be formally audited by Baptista's task force—show a steady drop: From 541 cases in 2006, to 476 in 2007, and in 2008, we're on course for a total of 392 cases, if you extrapolate November and December averages from the first 10 months' total of 327 cases. That's a likely 27.5 percent drop in Taser use within three years.
Great news? Don't celebrate yet: Remember, this is only the number of cases where Tasers were used—it's possible Tasers may have been deployed more than once during the course of each case, so these numbers are only one indication of the way Tasers were utilized. But the bureau couldn't supply those broken-down deployment numbers for 2008 without charging big bucks to have an analyst extract them from all the use-of-force reports for each case—a task that will ultimately be fulfilled by the Use-of-Force Task Force in the spring. In the meantime, we took what we could get.
A couple of explanations could account for the lower Taser numbers: Police Chief Rosie Sizer has made some significant changes to the bureau's use-of-force policies over the last two years, issuing new use-of-force regulations in March 2008, directing officers, "when practical," to use "less force than the maximum allowed by law" to resolve confrontations with suspects. She also expanded the bureau's Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) program in early 2007, which teaches de-escalation techniques to officers when dealing with those in mental health crisis.
At the same time, the number of officers injured in the line of duty has decreased, too—from 216 for the 2005-2006 fiscal year, to 196 for the 2006-2007 fiscal year, to 192 for the 2007-2008 fiscal year, according to the city's Fire and Police Disability and Retirement Bureau. That's a drop of 11 percent over a broadly similar three-year period, suggesting officers aren't getting injured more in exchange for using their Tasers less, and police oversight activists are pleased.
"Any reduction in use of weapons is a good sign that community policing is occurring," says Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland. "But we can't say that this reduction in Taser use comes from crisis intervention training or anything else, because the police bureau hasn't released any information on the outcomes associated with that training."
Now, the Bad News
Renaud touches on an important point, because while the Portland Police Bureau's Taser stats appear to be dropping—perhaps as a result of crisis intervention training and changes to its use-of-force policies—it is difficult, without more information from the bureau, to pinpoint exactly why. Meanwhile, there appears to be a separate trend emerging both here and across the country: Tasers are being used more often by officers to gain compliance from uncooperative subjects, and less often as a "less-lethal" alternative to deadly force in situations where a gun might otherwise have been used.
Perhaps the best example of this shift in the Taser's place in America is the infamous "Don't Tase Me, Bro!" incident, captured on video at the University of Florida on September 17, 2007. Toward the end of a contentious question-and-answer session with Senator John Kerry, police removed student Andrew Meyer from the audience microphone, restraining him and Tasering him in apparent retaliation for asking unusual questions and refusing to sit down. Senator Kerry can be heard in the background urging everybody to "calm down," shortly before Meyer screams in agony on application of the weapon. The incident is quite funny to a casual observer—until you stop to think about what it might mean.
While Portland Police may be using their Tasers less often, there is alarming anecdotal evidence to suggest that—like the cops in Florida—they may well be using the weapons in a different manner than in previous years.
Tasers were first given to Portland Police officers in June 2002, following the officer-involved shooting in 2001 of José Santos Victor Mejía Poot (a man suffering from epilepsy), and subsequent recommendations made by the Police Assessment Resource Center to buy "less-lethal" weapons.
Former Police Chief Mark Kroeker bought just 12 Tasers back then, but as early as August 2002, Portland Copwatch activist Dan Handelman was warning readers in the organization's People's Police Report that "the new devices, once readily available, will be misused as compliance, crowd control, or torture devices."
Were the Tasers initially used simply as a new way to hurt people? In September 2004, 71-year-old Eunice Crowder received $145,000 in a legal settlement from the city after her glass eye fell out as she was struck on the head, and Tasered twice in the back and once in the breast by overzealous officers. (The incident escalated after Crowder challenged a city employee who was forcibly cleaning her yard based on a search warrant.) In October 2006, Portland cops used a Taser on an 11-year-old student "wielding a compass" at Buckman Elementary School, and in March 2006, Tim Grant, 46, actually died after being Tasered twice on NE 24th and Sandy (the cause of death was listed as a cocaine overdose by the state medical examiner, Karen Gunson). Later that year, a 15-year-old boy with severe autism, Sir Millage, was Tasered at least 13 times by officers at the Pearl District end of the Broadway Bridge after failing to comply with their commands. Perhaps the most controversial deployment of the Taser happened in September 2006 when officers Tasered 42-year-old James Chasse Jr. on the sidewalk opposite the Bluehour restaurant at NW 13th and Everett. Chasse, in the midst of an apparent mental health crisis, later died in police custody.
While cops are now less likely to injure people in such a manner, judging from the numbers, it appears the Taser is being used on a different kind of victim: Young men, mostly, who don't like doing what they're told.
No Time to Comply
In October 2007, Frank Waterhouse filed a $30,000 lawsuit against the cops for shooting him with a beanbag gun and Tasering him without a verbal warning—apparently in retaliation for videotaping their activities ["Crowded Courthouse," News, Oct 18, 2007]. At the deposition, "Some of the officers said they needed to escalate the situation because they were afraid that [Waterhouse] would run off to his right," says Benjamin Haile, Waterhouse's attorney. "But other deposition testimony revealed that there was an officer standing to his right with a gun drawn, which suggests there was no danger of him running away.
"In a way it's a classic example of how the availability of these so-called 'less-lethal' weapons cause things to escalate quickly," Haile continues. "There was clearly no need for lethal force in this case. Instead of taking the time to talk to or physically restrain Mr. Waterhouse, the officers quickly escalated to less-lethal weapons as a compliance tool. It's a massive escalation of force that doesn't need to happen."
In June 2008, Phil Sano was Tasered on SE 7th and Alder, allegedly without warning after he failed to stop for an officer who noticed he didn't have a bike light ["Night Light Fight," News, June 19]. Also in June this year, Dan Halsted was walking home from a bar along NE 26th when he was allegedly jumped and Tasered by police officers, again, without a verbal warning ["Jumped," News, July 3]. On June 7, Clifton Brooks was Tasered by police officers on SE Belmont after calling them to assist him at the scene of his earlier assault by two strangers. "I approached them, but within seconds they were arresting me, and I didn't have a chance to tell them anything," Brooks later told the Mercury ["The Wrong Guy," News, Oct 9].
There is also disturbing evidence to suggest that while Portland's cops now recognize the dangers of repeated Taser application, they may be finding new ways to cover for having accidentally Tasered someone more than once—like allegedly perjuring themselves on the witness stand ["Taser Eraser," News, Sept 4] or omitting a second Taser cycle in their arrest reports ["Conflicting Reports," News, Oct 30].
"Tasers were initially introduced to provide police with an alternative to using lethal force in extremely high-risk incidents," says a 114-page report on global Taser use issued this month by the ombudsman's office for the state of New South Wales, Australia. "However, in many jurisdictions, Tasers are increasingly being used by police in situations where high levels of risk are not present, and police could likely manage the situation effectively without resorting to force."
The New South Wales report calls this phenomenon "mission creep."
"For example," the report continues, "On some occasions Tasers are being used in the first instance on people who are being uncooperative or non-compliant, but who are not acting in an aggressive or threatening manner."
For some, like Dalia Hashad, director of the USA program for Amnesty International, this is the change that's perhaps most worrying about Taser use over recent years.
"I think the entire discussion on how policing takes place is changing, and Taser is a huge part of that," she says. "If you look at the way police officers are using the weapon across the country, it's not in situations that require use of lethal or deadly force. I think instead we're seeing police use it as a tool of compliance—as a weapon of first resort, not of last resort."
Along with mission creep, it seems the public is becoming increasingly tolerant of Tasers as a part of everyday life. At the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, for example, Taser introduced a personal "Taser C2," which can hold one gigabyte of music in its holster. The weapons are available in "red hot," "fashion pink," and leopard print, according to the Associated Press. In Arizona, Taser parties are being held at which women take turns firing the weapon over "light conversation and snacks."
Respect My Authority
"If you have a uniformed police officer pointing a weapon at you, that is not the time to explain something," says head of the Portland Police Association, Scott Westerman. "The officer has clearly drawn their own conclusions based on what they've perceived, and they're very likely to be different from what the suspect has perceived in that situation."
In other words, when an officer is pointing a weapon at you, that's not the time to explain yourself, Westerman thinks. That's the time to comply with an officer's commands.
"As more and more people mistakenly believe it's socially acceptable to publicly challenge the police, it creates an environment where people think that it is okay to ignore a uniformed police officer giving them commands," Westerman continues. "The environment in Portland allows this more frequently than in other cities."
"Citizens have the right not to give their names if they're not suspected of any criminal activity," counters Handelman, from Portland Copwatch. "And if they are suspected of criminal activity, they don't have to say anything else. It's a question of how we balance our rights as citizens to be free from unwanted police contact with the officers' efforts to do their jobs. If they're not giving a legal command and then they escalate by introducing a level of force like the Taser to try to control a suspect, that's highly inappropriate and very dangerous."
Chief Sizer declined comment for this story.
"Without good governance, policies, and training, you are not going to have a good Taser program," says Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for Taser International. "We're no stranger to controversy, but you can't forget about the planes landing safely. The media tends to focus on the planes that crash.
"The Taser is such a misunderstood device right now because of the headlines out there that are really hard to combat," Tuttle continues.
Tasers were initially introduced in Portland following a high-profile officer-involved shooting—suggesting the intention they would be used instead of drawing a gun. However, another major city's experience does beg the question: Are Tasers necessary at all?
"We don't have Tasers," says Sergeant Lyn Tomioka, public information officer for the San Francisco Police Department, when I call to compare Portland's statistics with theirs. "The idea has been presented to us, but I guess the statistical research has not been worth spending that much money on them."
Asked how many officer-involved shootings there have been in San Francisco over the past year, Tomioka says "two."
The exact same number as Portland.