Detroit police revisit arming officers with Tasers

George Hunter
The Detroit News
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The years-long debate over whether to equip Detroit officers with Tasers is resurfacing amid a national discussion about the use of force by police.

Detroit Police Chief James Craig has long advocated for his officers to get Tasers. “We’re still in the test phase for body cams, so we wanted to get through that before making a decision on Tasers. But I’m fully supportive of their use.”

Advocates say the devices give police an option in situations that otherwise would require officers to use deadly force. Critics say Tasers can be deadly and point to situations where police used stun guns, killing citizens.

“We’re at the point now where there’s discussion of implementing Tasers, but we want to get the public’s input first,” said Ricardo Moore, a former Detroit cop and a member of the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners. “It’s a necessary step; we need to see how the people feel.”

Previous efforts to equip Detroit officers with the electronic stun guns were unsuccessful. When Jerry Oliver was police chief in the early 2000s, members of the police board agreed to be shot with Tasers before rejecting the proposal.

Commissioners have scheduled a public forum Thursday titled “Less than Lethal Weapons” to allow citizens to weigh in on the issue.

The use of Tasers by police has been controversial since law enforcement agencies began using them in the late 1990s. The weapon fires two wire-guided probes that puncture a person’s clothing and skin, shooting him with 50,000 volts of electricity, temporarily incapacitating him.

Craig said that when he was police chief in Portland, Maine, from 2009-11 people initially didn’t want cops to use Tasers, but added they were successfully deployed. He said he also was comfortable using them during his 28 years on the Los Angeles police force.

“Tasers work. It’s another tool an officer can use to stop a threat without having to use deadly force,” Craig said.

The 11-member commission has to approve the department’s use of Tasers with a majority vote. Craig said his department needs to figure out how much it would cost to equip his force with Tasers and train them.

Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality spokesman Kenneth Reed said his organization “absolutely opposes them.”

“The Miami area police in less than eight years used Tasers over 3,000 times, and 11 men have died, including five in the past 16 months,” Reed said.

“When you talk about shooting 50k volts into someone’s body without knowing if they have a medical condition, that’s a dangerous and potentially deadly situation. They could die from heart failure, or fall and hit their head.”

Detroit police Sgt. Mark Young, president of the Lieutenants and Sergeants Association union, insists Tasers provide officers a safe alternative.

“I know of no law enforcement officer who wants to take someone’s life, but we deal with violent circumstances,” he said. “Any time we can use less than lethal force, or no force, that’s good.”

Young is scheduled to appear on the forum’s panel along with Mark Fancher, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union; former Detroit Police Chief and Deputy Mayor Isaiah McKinnon; Christopher White of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality; and Dr. Robert Dunne, vice chief of emergency medicine at St. John Hospital.

“There was a poll at (a police commission meeting) about a month ago, and there seemed to be support for them,” said Commissioner Reginald Crawford, a longtime Detroit cop who works as a Wayne County sheriff’s deputy.

“I said we should do more research. I’m neither for or against them, but there are concerns.”

The Department of Justice last month found “unnecessary and unreasonable” use of Tasers by Baltimore police. The report found officers used the stun guns on people who posed little or no threat, or who were already detained, and that police also used Tasers as retaliation.

“If there’s a perfect way to police, I’m all for it,” Young said. “Unfortunately, there is no perfect way. It’s a matter of whether Tasers would make the situation better, which I say they would. They’re safer for both the citizens and officers.”

Taser advocates point out police departments that use them often report fewer instances of deadly force. In 2003, the year Seattle police adopted Tasers, there wasn’t a single officer-involved shooting for the first time in 15 years. Also in 2003, when Phoenix police began using Tasers, officer-involved shootings dropped 54 percent from the previous year.

Moore said he polled his constituents in the city’s 7th District. “It was about half and half ... ,” he said. “The board needs to hear from citizens about this, so we can make sure we’re acting in their interest.”

Ron Szostec, a resident of the city’s southwest side, said he thinks officers would be better off with Tasers.

“I remember when they shot the deaf man with the rake,” said Szostec, 72. “If the cops had Tasers, maybe they could have just Tased him instead of shooting him.” Errol Shaw, 39, was killed by police in August 2000 after he reportedly lunged at a police officer with the yard tool.

Warren decided in 2012 to stop using Tasers because of myriad issues. Among them: A lawsuit stemming from the 2009 death of 16-year-old Robert Mitchell. He was shot by an officer after reportedly resisting arrest, had a heart attack and died.

Mitchell’s mother sued the city and settled the case out of court before suing Taser International. She lost that case and on appeal the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled last year that, despite studies showing the possibility of someone having a heart attack after being shot with a Taser, there wasn’t enough evidence to prove there is a definitive danger for which the company should have warned its customers.

Warren Mayor Jim Fouts said he and other city and police officials decided to stop using Tasers in part because most of them had outlived their 5-year warranty, and because of the potential for bad outcomes.

“The police commissioner (Jere Green) and myself decided the liability outweighed the benefits,” he said. “There’s the potential for misuse. There are compelling arguments to be made for their use, but we decided we didn’t want to risk the taxpayers’ money and the possibility of a tragic death.”

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN

Taser forum

What: Board of Police Commissioners “Less than Lethal Force” forum.

Where: Detroit Boy Scouts headquarters, 1776 Warren (Woodbridge neighborhood).

When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday

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