San Antonio police arrived to find him paranoid, sweating profusely and “in dire need of medical treatment,” an officer wrote in a report. The officer also suspected Herring was on drugs.
Yet, the same officer shocked Herring 11 times with a Taser, a device that delivers an electrical charge of enough voltage to disrupt someone’s neuromuscular system with one jolt.
Since 2005, some experts in law enforcement have warned of a disturbing pattern: while conducted-energy devices can be effective in defusing violent encounters, it appears that a person is more likely to die or suffer serious injuries the more he is shocked, and more likely to die if shocked while on drugs.
At a summit that year in Houston, officers and experts from across the nation forged a set of guidelines that addressed these concerns.
However, when Police Chief William McManus first gave Tasers to his officers in December 2006, he approved a policy that set no parameters on how many times officers could shock someone and didn’t require training on the risks of shocking someone on drugs.
Through August, police have used Tasers on 142 adults, with most shocked just once, according to city records. Officers thought at least 27 were on drugs, and more than a dozen were jolted more than three times in the same encounter — a threshold that one expert cautioned should not be crossed.
A man high on cocaine last year died after an officer shocked him three times, although medical examiners were uncertain if the Taser played a role in his death. One jolt of a Taser typically lasts about five seconds.
“Two or three jolts (of a CED), I don’t think you should go over that,” said Geoffrey Alpert, an expert on less-lethal police technology who was the keynote speaker at the 2005 summit on CEDs. “The rule of thumb is, if it’s not working the way it should, why continue to use it? Because if you’re going to kill someone, it’s rarely one jolt. It’s multiple jolts.”
Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for Taser International Inc., disputed that multiple shocks increase a risk of injury or death, noting that no medical evidence supports that claim.
Acknowledging as much, the U.S. Justice Department this summer issued a report that cautiously endorsed the use of CEDs in law enforcement. The same report, however, warned “a significant number of individuals” have died after being exposed to a CED, and that many of those deaths “are associated with continuous or repeated discharge” of the weapon.
Less than one week later, on June 14, a San Antonio officer shocked a man 17 times, applying most of the jolts while the suspect, who’d broken into a house, already was handcuffed. Following recent inquiries by the San Antonio Express-News, McManus opened an internal investigation into the incident.
And in July, the same group of experts who helped develop the 2005 guidelines — the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum — released a review of the Police Department that McManus had requested.
Echoing its previous findings, it recommended in part that McManus set parameters on the number of times that officers shock people, and that officers be trained on the risks of using a Taser against someone on drugs.
McManus has agreed to limit the number of shocks and sent both recommendations to a committee for review.
In Herring’s case, Officer Adam Soto reported that he repeatedly shocked the frantic man on the interstate because he could have run into traffic and later resisted officers’ attempts to handcuff him. An internal police report said no procedures were violated.
Herring called it excessive.
“If my heart rate was already up because of the cocaine, and they’re going to come and charge me up like that 11 times,” he said, “I think I could’ve died.”
Alpert called the incident an apparent “training issue,” and noted that medical research on CEDs has been limited to studies conducted on healthy people, rather than agitated individuals on drugs. He called it poor policy not to reign in those aspects of how police use the weapons.
“Absolutely I’m concerned about the Tasers,” he said. “And I have concerns about it being used against the wrong kind of person by the wrong kind of officer.”
A new policy
Confusion and controversy have dogged CEDs for years.
Facing a rising tide of questions about the weapons and concerns that they could pose health risks, PERF in 2005 began a project meant to help agencies develop policies.
Members read academic studies, hosted international symposiums and spoke with doctors.
They also launched two national studies, the second focusing on 118 deaths that followed the use of CEDs between September 1999 and May 2005.
The results found such deaths in part seemed more likely to involve:
nMultiple CED cycles.
nMultiple officers using a CED on one person.
nA subject who appeared to be under the influence of drugs.
Meanwhile, Taser International issued a training bulletin in 2005 warning that repeated jolts of the Taser could “impair breathing and respiration” and contribute to “significant and potentially fatal health risks” in people in a state of excited delirium, according to an article by the St. Petersburg Times.
(Currently, the company’s Web site warns officers to “minimize repeated, continuous, and/or simultaneous exposures,” but it does not cite potential health consequences.)
Excited delirium is a state of “extreme mental and physiological excitement,” according to PERF. Medical examiners have cited it as a cause of death in people who were shocked with CEDs and later died, but the medical community remains divided over its validity as a diagnosis.
After its national study, PERF in October 2005 convened a summit in Houston of doctors, researchers and officers from more than 50 law enforcement agencies. Together, they forged a set of 52 guidelines that warned in part about multiple shocks and using CEDs against people on drugs.
Tuttle questioned the validity of those recommendations.
“That’s an old document,” he said. “There’s no scientific study that shows that multiple applications are going to cause more harm to somebody. We have not seen that in human studies.”
PERF has acknowledged its project was not a medical review but believes its findings are meaningful. Chuck Wexler, PERF’s executive director, said he stands by the recommendations.
“We really worked hard to define terms and define what we considered promising tactics,” he said. “Our experience is there is some danger as you increase to multiple applications. You need to maintain a sense that you cannot simply continue to use (a CED) without worrying about unintended consequences.”
He added that CEDs, when used under the proper circumstances, can be effective in defusing potentially deadly encounters.
One such encounter occurred in August, when a man armed with a baseball bat, a holstered handgun and a sheathed knife approached children at St. Matthew Catholic School. The children were ushered to safety, and police and a sheriff’s deputy were alerted.
As the man raised the bat and walked toward the deputy, Officer James Phelan drew his Taser. Upon seeing the handgun, he fired the Taser and shocked the man, who kept reaching for the gun, a total of six times until the deputy was able to remove the handgun from the holster.
The incident was the only time a San Antonio officer has used a Taser against a suspect armed with a gun, according to city records.
“At this point in time, we know that (the Taser has) made a big difference in the field,” Wexler said. “But we also recognize that we need continued research and to refine how it’s used.”
PERF’s 2005 guidelines also warned no more than one officer should use a CED against a person at a time.
About one year after PERF released the guidelines, McManus supervised the creation of a CED policy for the Police Department.
“I remember asking: was this bumped up against the PERF policy?” McManus said. “If I remember correctly, the answer was no, and I sent it back.”
The final draft reflected some of PERF’s recommendations, including prohibiting officers from using a Taser when someone might fall. Yet the policy did not limit the number of jolts, prohibit more than one officer from shocking a person at a time or require that officers receive training on the risks of using a Taser against someone on drugs.
About four months later, in March 2007, Sergio Galvan ran in a panic from his South Side home and encountered two officers. High on cocaine, he violently resisted officers’ attempts to calm him and eventually was subdued on his abdomen and handcuffed.
When officers rolled Galvan over, he was unresponsive and later died — a victim of excited delirium, medical examiners would rule. Police said the officer had shocked him three times.
On May 27, shortly after midnight, two officers in the Police Department’s Tactical Response Unit pulled over Patrick Smith. On deferred adjudication for a charge of possessing marijuana, Smith had been driving his sleekly restored Chevrolet Caprice to an all-night Auto Zone to repair a car part for his son, he said.
Officers Felipe Ramos and Alfred Gonzalez made the stop because Smith’s rear license plate wasn’t lit and he was playing music loudly, a police report said. The officers reported that Smith appeared nervous, had an expired driver’s license and refused to remove his hands from his pockets after they ordered him to step from the car.
Ramos and Gonzalez reached for their Tasers when Smith, who had a “very muscular build and wide stature,” removed his hands and took “an aggressive stance,” the report said.
Smith denied squaring off against the officers. “Tasers is the last thing I thought about,” he said. “To me, they were reaching for guns. I feared for my life.”
Smith ran — for Auto Zone.
An officer reported that he saw Smith reach into a pocket, so he fired his Taser. A probe struck Smith, who kept running until both officers tackled him in a vacant lot. An officer jolted Smith at least twice. He broke free and ran into the Auto Zone, where police tackled him again and used their Tasers, batons and fists to put him in handcuffs, the report said.
In the end, both officers had shocked Smith, who resisted with his hands and feet, a total of eight times for one minute and 24 seconds.
“I think I passed out for a minute,” Smith said. “It was so severe I thought I was dying.”
Ramos and Gonzalez searched Smith’s car but found no drugs. Smith was charged with resisting and evading arrest, allegations that have been dismissed. Smith, who is black and heavyset, says he now has trouble sleeping, the tops of his hands have gone numb and a previous heart condition has worsened.
He recently hired attorney Edgardo Baez in the matter. “I believe this is improper training and usage of the Taser,” Baez said, “and second of all it’s a violation of civil rights.”
City Attorney Michael Bernard did not return a phone call seeking comment.
For others, shocking a suspect repeatedly is a matter of necessity.
A few weeks after Smith’s arrest, around midnight June 14, a man smashed through a bedroom window and crawled into a family’s North Side home. The homeowner, who asked not to be identified because he feared retaliation from a relative of the suspect, found a man lying on the floor, cut and severely bleeding.
“He was coming out of the room and coming toward me,” he said.
His 11-year-old son was sleeping in a nearby bedroom. The homeowner struggled with the intruder, Juan Mendoza, who seemed indefatigable. His wife called police, and officers arrived.
“I’d say (police) hit him two or three times with the Taser before they realized he didn’t speak English,” he said.
Officers managed to handcuff Mendoza, but he continued to struggle and refused to calm down, a police report said.
“Several other applications of the Taser were applied to keep (Mendoza) from moving,” the report said. He “was able to momentarily break free from officers multiple times, which required further applications of the Taser.”
A Bexar County information report that charged Mendoza with resisting arrest says he used his hands and feet to strike Officer Bernard Costa.
Believing Mendoza was on drugs, Costa shocked him a total of 17 times — a level of force that a police supervisor wrote in an internal report violated no procedures, and that the homeowners deemed justifiable if not a model of restraint.
“They Tasered him a lot,” the homeowner’s wife said. “They should’ve just shot him.”
TWB Publisher: It seems that Police Chief William McManus needs to be fired. This police chief seems to have failed to provide proper guidance to his officers and has failed to protect the public.
The publisher of this blog is also the publisher of African American Political Pundit.com