LAST WEEK, the city auditor released a new report looking into how and when Portland police officers whip out their Tasers—50,000-volt stun guns given to every cop in hopes of keeping them from pulling out their more deadly sidearms.
And while the audit gives police a pass, calling Taser use a "mostly effective" way to reduce shootings, it did include one particularly significant recommendation: The police bureau should stop zapping people just because it seems like they might resist an officer's commands.
Instead, the report suggests, the bureau should hew to "model" rules laid out by a national consortium of law enforcement experts—Tasering someone only if they are actively resisting a cop.
Right now, current policy "does give them quite a bit of latitude," Martha Prinz, a city management auditor, said in the Oregonian last week.
But if that sounds like an important change, don't hold your breath. Ask criminal justice advocates about the suggestions, and they are far less sanguine. Those so-called "model" policies cited in the report are anything but, they say. And their concerns raise fundamental questions about whether the auditor's recommendations, if adopted by the police bureau, would truly lead to reform.
"That's a minimum of what the bureau should do," says David Fidanque, executive director of the ACLU of Oregon.
While the national standards are better than Portland's, they are also "broader than what good policy should be." For instance, Fidanque notes, even the definition of "active resist-ance" used by the national consortium, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), remains troublingly vague.
Still acceptable as a Taser target under PERF standards? Someone merely mouthing off to an officer. Or refusing to leave a car, clinging to a steering wheel in fright. Hardly the picture of someone actively attacking or trying to harm an officer.
"The auditor chose that as the yardstick," Fidanque says, "but we think that's the wrong yardstick to be choosing." Across the country, "too many officers are using Tasers as a way to force compliance, not as a way to avoid the use of deadly force."
Tasers are euphemistically described as less-lethal weapons—but that doesn't mean they don't kill people. Advocates estimate that over the past decade, hundreds of people have been killed in incidents involving Tasers, including one man, Timothy Grant, in Portland in 2006.
It is believed that the risk of injury increases the more times someone is Tasered. That's one reason why the report urges the bureau to formally ask officers to limit the number of times someone is zapped. The bureau currently requires extra oversight only when four "cycles" are used.
Earlier this month, a 25-year-old Portland man, Gallagher Smith, was taken to Providence hospital and checked out after he was Tasered three times, then pepper sprayed, by officers outside the nightclub Aura on West Burnside. Bouncers called police after Smith demanded his money back when he wasn't allowed back into an oversold show.
The case, while raising other concerns about police use of force, highlights the issue of how many Taser cycles is too many.
According to witnesses watching the scuffle on November 13, Smith ripped out the probes the first time he was Tasered, but was no longer resisting by the third time he was zapped. Smith and witnesses also told the Mercury that he was punched and kicked by officers.
"Tasers hurt," Smith says. "It's not a good time."
Police spokeswoman Kelli Sheffer confirms that Smith was Tasered three times, but said he smelled of alcohol and began fighting violently with a pair of officers who tried to escort him away from the club before he was Tasered. Smith, who wasn't arrested but was cited, denies that he was intoxicated.
The number of incidents requiring force in Portland has dropped by half since the bureau fully deployed Tasers in 2005. But the proportion of those incidents involving Tasers has fallen somewhat less dramatically. Taser use overall has remained steady—not counting reports from a since-discontinued practice in which officers were also asked to log every time they activated a Taser's laser sight, whether or not they actually fired it.
Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch said he was disappointed the report didn't ask a more fundamental question after more than a year of preparation: Whether Taser use was "appropriate," not just "effective."
Handelman has posted a lengthy critique of the audit on his website, portlandcopwatch.org. Another of his complaints? The report's insistence on calling Tasers "tools."
"We're talking here about a weapon that jolts someone with 50,000 volts of electricity," he wrote. "This is not a 'tool.'"