Tasers Are Unsafe for Both Inmates and Correction Officers

Letter to the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors

Editor's Note:

In the ongoing effort to ban tasers from Santa Clara County Jails, a new report by Reuters further demonstrates that the Taser is a deadly weapon and cities and loved ones are left paying the costs of unintended deaths. The Coalition for Justice and Accountability wrote a letter to the Board of Supervisors with the new information and repeats that tasers have no place in our jails.

To update the community on our ongoing campaign to persuade members of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to resist Sheriff Laurie Smith’s call to bring deadly Tasers into our jails, we report the following:
During the time frame of May 2017 through November 2017, we have thus far met with Supervisors Cindy Chavez and Joe Simitian, Supervisor Dave Cortese’s staff, Supervisor Ken Yeager’s staff, Sheriff Laurie Smith, County Counsel James Williams, District Attorney Jeff Rosen, Public Defender Molly O’Neal, and former Undersheriff John Hirokawa. In addition to these meetings, a successful protest/press conference was held on August 24, 2017 to draw attention to the Taser issue.

Since these meetings, there has been important new information regarding the risks surrounding the use of Tasers as well as the increased litigation costs mostly absorbed by the cities. See the Reuters' five part series on Tasers.  

Taser Related Deaths  

Critically important to this conversation is Reuters' finding that the death toll is substantially more than previously reported by mainstream civil rights organizations like Amnesty International. Using rigorous journalistic standards, Reuters documented 1,005 deaths related to Taser use by law enforcement.

Taser Related Litigation  

In addition, Reuters completed a thorough examination of the monies paid out by cities across the country in Taser related litigation. Reuters identified and reviewed 442 wrongful death lawsuits in which Tasers were a factor that may have caused death. “In 120 of the 442 cases or 27%, the Taser was the only force alleged in the claim; in the remaining 322 cases, the stun guns were alleged to have been part of a broader array of police force…

More than three-fifths of the 366 concluded lawsuits against governments, or 232, resulted in judgments or settlements for the plaintiffs: 220 settlements and 12 judgments. Reuters was able to determine payouts in 193 cases, totaling $172 million paid by cities and their insurers. That dollar figure does not include three dozen cases in which settlements remained confidential or were unavailable.”

These findings regarding the cost of litigation should trouble any law enforcement agency, city or county contemplating the purchase of Tasers.

Taser Warnings 

Historically the manufacturer had very few warnings regarding the safety of its weapon.  Increasingly and in order to shift liability to cities and police departments, Taser now has a 4,500-word eight-page warning. The warning advises users not to deploy the Taser in the area of the face, eyes, neck, chest, heart and the genitals. And not to Taser a variety of populations including the frail, mentally ill, pregnant women and those with heart problems. By warning police departments regarding the risk of death and serious injury when a Taser is improperly used, the manufacturer has effectively shifted liability from itself to police departments and municipalities.

Reuters also explored in detail the progression of Taser Warnings that includes a comprehensive interactive guide. The progression of increasingly restrictive warnings issued by Taser has led some police agencies to either shelve Tasers all together or not to purchase them at all after having reviewed the extensive warnings. Ed Davis, former Boston Police Chief from 2006-2013, in ultimately declining to purchase Tasers for his department said the following: The warnings “made the weapon impractical to use, and it gave a lot of us the impression that we weren’t getting the full story. I didn’t want to take the risk. The potential litigation costs absolutely were a factor.”

The tragic death of Everette Howard, a young African American student, is a case examined in the Reuters' series. One Taser blast by University of Cincinnati police officer Richard Haas, a certified Taser instructor, resulted in Everette Howard’s death.   “Haas fired his stun gun. One electrified dart hit below Howard’s lower left chest, the other near his waist. The 18-year-old collapsed, unconscious, and was pronounced dead at the hospital...” Haas subsequently said, “I did not in my wildest dreams expect this kid to die...”

As part of his role as a certified Taser trainer, Haas acknowledged that he had studied the Taser safety warnings over a ten-year period and noted that they had become more complex over the years. Ironically, the Taser blast that killed Everette Howard was the first time Haas had deployed a Taser in the field. He ultimately concluded, “it seemed like it was getting harder and harder to use the Taser.” The University of Cincinnati ultimately settled the Howard’s family wrongful death lawsuit for $2 million. Taser was not sued in the matter.   

In another case explored by Reuters, Linwood Lambert was Tasered some 20 times by South Boston, Virginia, police officers. He died. There was substantial evidence that the three officers involved ignored the manufacturer’s warning regarding the risk of repeatedly Tasering victims. In addition, the officers ignored other warnings issued by the manufacturer. Under oath at a deposition, one of three officers involved, Corporal Tiffany Bratton, acknowledged that she was aware of the manufacturer’s warnings. In a chilling statement, she said the following, "If I read and abided by every single warning... I would not Taser anyone.”

Practical Implications of Safety Warnings and Litigation Costs

More and more attention is being paid by commentators to the fact that the use of Tasers is a Catch 22. Failure by police departments to follow closely the ever growing restrictions on the use of Tasers issued by the manufacturer has resulted in unnecessary deaths and a huge increase in the costs of litigation borne by municipalities. On the other hand, where police departments are closely complying with the manufacturer’s complex warnings, they are finding it increasingly impractical to use Tasers. The Oakland Police Department (OPD) has over 700 police officers on their force, all are armed with Tasers. The Bar Association of San Francisco (BASF) Criminal Justice Task Force, Committee on Tasers contacted the Oakland Police Department to determine how frequently Tasers were deployed.

“To help answer some of the questions, the BASF also reached out to the Oakland Police Department to determine how often Tasers are used, and how often they are effective. It is well known that LAPD reports 47% efficacy, but LAPD far exceeds the size of SFPD. The OPD which is closer in size to the SFPD, reported that in 2015 Tasers were deployed on just 37 occasions and 32 times in 2016. Oakland reported for each year, the efficacy was 50%.” Other studies have confirmed that where warnings are complied with the use of Tasers drops dramatically. Similarly, numerous studies have confirmed that Tasers have an unacceptably high failure rate putting both the officers and intended victim at risk.  

Are Tasers Worth the Cost? 

In June 2017, Taser expert Michael Leonesio, a retired Oakland, California peace officer, was called as an expert witness before the San Francisco Police Commission on the potential costs of outfitting all members of the SFPD with Tasers. “During his testimony, he estimated the first year in costs to San Francisco at $8,000 to $10,000 per officer which included the purchase price, maintenance, training and oversight. Assuming a department size of 2,200 officers, the cost is between $17.6 million and $22 million.” Leonesio's cost analysis for Taser deployment in San Francisco is outlined in detail as an attachment to the Bar Association of San Francisco memorandum to the San Francisco Police Commission. Clearly, the Sheriff and the Board of Supervisors needs to consider the cost factors raised above before expending millions of tax payer dollars on a weapon that is increasingly seen as impractical to use.  
 

Conclusion 

Tasers kill on the average of one person per week in the United States. According to the Reuters series, 9 out of 10 who die are unarmed. We believe that Tasers are unsafe to use in our jails, unsafe because of the substantial risk of injury or death to both inmates and correction officers. The strongest single piece of evidence of this lack of safety is the 1,005 Taser related deaths reported in the Reuters five-part series on Tasers. Equally powerful evidence of why Tasers should be banned is the ever growing list of restrictions/warnings issued by the manufacturer themselves regarding the serious risks of injury and death related to the use of Tasers.

We believe that the millions that would be spent in arming the correctional officers in the jails with Tasers would be better spent on hiring more and better trained correctional officers. Finally, given the recommendations of the Santa Clara County Blue Ribbon Commission on Improving Custody Operations, the purchase and use of Tasers in the jails runs counter to the community’s loud and repeated calls for a more humane approach to incarceration.

We call on members of our coalition, the broader civil rights community, progressive members of law enforcement and our political allies to contact the Board of Supervisors and say no to Tasers in our jails.


Board of Supervisors:
(408) 299-5001
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From a letter sent to the President of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors sent by the Coalition for Justice and Accountability 

Related Media:
Prisoners United Issue Statement Against Tasers in Santa Clara County Jails
Sister of Michael Tyree To Board of Supervisors: Tasers Should Not Be Used In Jails
Stop Tasers from Being Introduced To Our Jails



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