Detroit moves toward Tasers for police officers

George Hunter
The Detroit News

After years of debate, the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners has approved the use of Tasers by the city’s police officers.

The commission voted unanimously Thursday to approve a proposal by Detroit Police Chief James Craig to equip officers with Tasers, after previous proposals by other chiefs had been rejected by the board.

“I’m very pleased,” Craig said Friday. “We already have a policy (governing Taser use) in place. The next step is to get City Council approval to purchase them.

“This will give our officers another option,” Craig said “It’s going to reduce injuries on subjects as well as police officers.”

The use of the electronic stun guns has long been a point of controversy in Detroit, and in other communities, since police in the United States began using them in the late 1990s.

The weapon fires two wire-guided probes that puncture a person’s clothing and skin, shooting the subject with 50,000 volts of electricity, temporarily incapacitating him or her.

While advocates say the devices give police an option in situations that otherwise would require officers to use deadly force, some caution Tasers themselves can be deadly, and point to situations where police killed citizens with stun guns.

“We are still against Tasers,” said Sandra Hines of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality. “It’s just another weapon for police to misuse. They’re pushing the theory that this will save lives, but I don’t think there are any statistics to bear that out.”

The coalition in the past has cited problems in Miami, where police used Tasers more than 3,000 times in eight years, resulting in 11 deaths.

Locally, Warren decided in 2012 to stop using Tasers because of myriad issues, including a lawsuit stemming from the 2009 death of a 16-year-old boy who died from a heart attack after shot by an officer while reportedly resisting arrest. The boy’s mother sued the city and settled the case out of court.

The mother then sued Taser International, but lost that case. 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 be held responsible.

Warren Police Commissioner Jere Green has told The News the decision to stop using Tasers was mostly driven by financial considerations.

Previous efforts to equip Detroit officers with the Tasers 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.

Detroit police Commissioner Reggie Crawford said Friday he understands citizens’ concerns about Tasers, because he once was strongly against Detroit police using them. He has since changed his mind.

“Twelve years ago I was opposed to them, because I’d been reading about the deaths associated with them,” said Crawford, a former Detroit cop and current Wayne County Sheriff’s deputy who is assigned to the county jail, where supervisors are equipped with Tasers.

“However, this time around, I supported them, due to the fact that when you do the research, you’ll find most of the deaths associated with the use of Tasers is because officers violated policy. If they follow policy, there shouldn’t be too many issues.”

Crawford said Detroit’s policy is strong because it bans officers from Tasering subjects multiple times, using them on elderly people, and “drive Tasering,” which is when the device is held against someone and deployed without firing the projectiles.

“Detroit has a good policy, so the most important thing after that is transparency,” Crawford said. “If someone violates the policy, they should be reprimanded.”

Crawford said jail supervisors don’t usually have to use their Tasers.

“Once people see that red light on their body, they usually comply,” he said. “Two years ago we had an incident where we had to Taser a guy, but there probably have been close to 100 other times where a supervisor had to come up, and an individual wants to fight; we’re all crowded around — and once the supervisor drew his Taser, the inmates complied. They don’t want to get Tased.”

Police Commissioner Willie Burton said Tasers likely will prevent injuries to police officers, particularly women.

“Some of these officers, both male and female, are 150 pounds, and you might have a guy who outweighs them by 100 pounds wanting to fight. I think we’ll see officer injuries start spiraling down after they get put into use,” he said.

A police board subcommittee studying Tasers in February made policy recommendations to the police department, including prohibiting the use of non-approved devices; banning off-duty officers from carrying them; and requiring regular audits of their use.

Also, the subcommittee wanted the policy to read: “Fleeing alone is not justification for using (Tasers).”

The board’s recommendations were adopted and put into the policy.

Craig said if the City Council approves Tasers, deployment will be handled in the same manner as body cameras: “We’ll start in certain precincts and deploy them in a methodical way.”

The chief said he was unsure how much the devices will cost. “It depends on which models we go with,” he said.

“We’re a constitutional police agency,” Craig said. “A Taser is no different than any other tool, whether it’s a baton or the use of a firearm or chemical spray It’s about accountability, training and setting appropriate standards If it saves lives and reduces injuries, it’ll be money well-spent.”

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN