Detroit police try out Tasers

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit police officers on the city’s southwest side have been using Tasers since November as part of a test run, with two instances of the electronic stun guns being fired, police officials said Tuesday.

Since the testing began, there have been several other incidents in which officers pulled out their Tasers on combative citizens, but didn’t have to use them because the subjects stopped resisting arrest, assistant chief James White said.

“That’s what a great deterrent these have been,” White said. “Just the acknowledgment that the officers were going to use the weapons was enough to get the citizens to stop resisting, and the officers didn’t have to use any force whatsoever. That’s tremendous.”

But some watchdog groups have expressed concerns, including the fear that if all Detroit cops are issued Tasers, they’ll deploy them too liberally.

After years of controversy about whether Detroit should equip its officers with the stun guns, the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners in May unanimously approved their use. The police department then put out requests for proposals to vendors. Only one company, Arizona-based Axon, responded, White said.

As part of the procurement process, Axon, formerly Taser International, allowed Detroit to test 25 of the units, White said, adding the test is being done in the 4th Precinct, which covers southwest Detroit. The weapons are rotated so some officers on all three shifts are equipped with them, he said.

White said both cases in which officers deployed their Tasers during the testing phase involved citizens who were resisting arrest. There were no injuries in either case, he said.

“One of the deployments was successful, and one was not, but we learned from both of those by way of example,” White said. “In the successful deployment, we learned just how we have to build policy around the removal of the prod.

“The first deployment was unsuccessful, because the person had on a thick coat, and it wasn’t effective,” White said.

The police department is negotiating a price with Axon to buy 2,500 of the devices for the entire department, White said. Some will be equipped with cameras, and others won’t, he said.

“If someone like a detective doesn’t have a body-cam, he or she will be assigned a device with a camera,” White said.

White said he hopes to have the entire department equipped with stun guns by the spring, depending on the price negotiations and City Council approval of a contract.

The use of the Tasers has long been a point of contention in Detroit and other communities since police in the United States began using them in the late 1990s.

The weapons fire 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.

One such high-profile case has resulted in second-degree murder charges against former Michigan State Police trooper Mark Bessner, who on Aug. 26 allegedly used his stun gun on 15-year-old ATV driver Damon Grimes while the teen was driving the vehicle on Detroit’s east side. After being shocked, Grimes crashed into a flatbed and died.

Kenneth Reed, spokesman of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, said he’s wary of equipping Detroit officers with Tasers.

“We’re against them for several reasons,” Reed said. “What if they encounter someone who has a medical condition and they use a Taser on them, and they die? That’s going to present a major liability issue.

“Also, it’s all about officers de-escalating situations,” Reed said. “If officers have Tasers, is that the first thing they’re going to do if a person is acting slightly belligerent?”

White said Tasers are only one step in the use of force continuum officers are trained to follow.

“Historically, I understand in times past there’s been some apprehension regarding this weapon, but the community has been supportive,” White said. “They know we’ve been transparent, and we will hold officers accountable if they violate policy.

“Our officers have shown responsibility with the weapon by virtue of the fact that they’ve had them since November and they’ve only deployed them twice, and we’ve had zero policy violations during that time,” White said.

Previous efforts to equip Detroit officers with the Tasers fizzled. 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.

However, the board last year decided differently.

“They’re another tool to reduce injuries to officers and citizens,” police commissioner Willie Burton said. “When an officer uses his baton, that can be harmful, and it looks bad if it’s captured on video.

“But with a Taser, if someone’s coming at an officer from a distance, and he sees the officer pull it out, they’ll say ‘let me chill down.’ It acts as a deterrent,” Burton said.

Burton stressed officers should be judicious in employing Tasers. “They have to be able to communicate with someone before using them,” he said. “I’ve been advocating for their use because I think they’ll result in fewer injuries to officers and the community.”

White said he and his staff worked with the police board to come up with a policy directing officers how and when to use the stun guns.

“We studied other agencies that have had controversial issues with electronic control weapons, because we wanted to learn from the mistakes of other departments,” White said. “One of the things we learned was to have a cross-draw, so there’s no confusion as to where the weapon sits on an officer’s belt.

“If training and muscle memory is that the electronic control weapon is in a cross-draw as opposed on the hip (where the officer’s pistol is located), we’ll all but eliminate an officer accidentally drawing his gun instead of the (Taser).”

White said another safeguard against officers accidentally using their pistols is to buy Tasers in vivid yellow, in contrast to the black Smith & Wesson M&P .40 caliber pistols issued to Detroit cops.

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN