Continuing department controversy over the use of Tasers has not dampened the Minneapolis police’s conviction that the electronic “stun guns” are the best way to subdue violent suspects.
Indeed, the department still hopes to find the money to implement a 2007 plan to equip most of its officers with the devices, which it says sharply reduce the number of injuries to police and suspects alike.
Department statistics show a sharp rise in Taser use in recent years, from 85 “deployments” in 2003 to more than 400 in 2007 and 2008. The number fell to 333 deployments last year, because the department has not had the funding to fix or replace broken Tasers, officials said.
Currently, the Minneapolis police have about 200 Tasers on the street. Eventually, the department would like to triple that number.
Critics fear increased potential for abuse
Critics, however, fear that as the number of devices in use rises, so will the potential for their abuse.
Last month, for example, the department fired a police officer who was caught on tape last spring Tasering a compliant vandalism suspect.
“I get a constant and steady stream of complaints from individuals who have been subjected to excessive force involving Tasers,” said Minneapolis attorney Frederick Goetz, who settled one such case earlier this week. “They may be doing this at their peril.”
Goetz’s isn’t the only local lawsuit alleging Taser abuse. Last fall, another Minneapolis lawyer representing 18-year-old Rolando Ruiz released a videotape in which Officer Todd Lappegaard appeared to hold a Taser to Ruiz’s neck for 15 seconds. Ruiz screams and falls out of view of the camera, which was mounted in Lappegaard’s patrol car.
According to court documents, Lappegaard saw Ruiz hurl a brick at an officer’s car outside the Second Precinct in Northeast Minneapolis. Ruiz had surrendered and was bent over the hood of Lappegaard’s car when the officer deployed the Taser.
An FBI review of the incident requested by Police Chief Tim Dolan is ongoing, according to Special Agent E.K. Wilson, and a federal civil suit filed by Ruiz is pending. In November, Ruiz pleaded guilty to a gross misdemeanor for damaging the car.
Devices considered good option for subduing dangerous suspects
Tasers and similar devices from other manufacturers deliver jolts of electricity to the body in two ways, either through direct contact or via two small barbs that are fired at someone and connected to the gun by up to 35 feet of conductive wire. Their use has skyrocketed in recent years because police have long sought non-lethal means of dealing with armed or dangerous suspects.
While bullets injure or kill, a Taser probe is meant to temporarily render its targets unable to control their muscles. So, police can momentarily disable someone charging them, for instance. The darts, which should be removed by medical personnel when they are located in sensitive areas, frequently don’t even leave a mark.
“I have taken a couple of hits from this thing, and it sucks,” said Sgt. William Palmer, a department Taser trainer. “This is five seconds, and it’s over. We’re still seeing officers and suspects injured a lot less as a result of this.”
Like many departments, Minneapolis trains officers to avoid aiming for the face, head, neck and genitals, said Palmer. However, “People don’t stand still when we’re doing this,” he noted.
When the devices are used in “drive stun” mode, they must be held against the body. In this mode, instead of rendering the target limp, they deliver a burst of pain. This type of use has the most potential for abuse, according to Amnesty International and other groups that have questioned increased law enforcement reliance on Tasers.
Nationwide, Taser use has been associated with more than 150 deaths in the last decade. Many of the victims had underlying medical issues or received multiple jolts.
In December, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth District ruled that a California police officer should have known he was acting unlawfully when he Tasered an unarmed, hysterical man from a distance of 25 feet after stopping him for not wearing his seat belt. People are frequently injured when they fall or hit something after being Tasered, the court noted. Like other uses of force, Taser use must be justified by circumstances, it said.
The judges were particularly concerned that the devices could be misused to subdue suspects who are difficult because they are mentally ill or emotionally disturbed but not necessarily dangerous.
Such incidents have occurred in Twin Cities area communities. Bloomington officers last year deployed a Taser against a man who was driving erratically and making “delusional” comments at the Mall of America parking ramp.
Golden Valley last year settled a lawsuit filed by a woman who was Tasered by an officer after failing to heed his order to hang up her cell phone.
Minneapolis trains officers that Taser deployment, like every other use of force, must be “reasonable,” given any particular set of circumstances.
City reviews every Taser deployment
In Minneapolis, every Taser deployment must be reviewed. Department statistics compiled from those reports show that in 2008, officers deployed Tasers in a wide range of instances, everything from such minor matters as loitering and having a loud stereo to violent offenses. Three-fourths of recipients were minorities; the youngest was 14 years old.
Department policy requires a supervisor to respond to the scene whenever a Taser is deployed. The Internal Affairs Unit is required to review the supervisor’s report. A 2007 department study found that fewer than 5 percent of cases examined by the Internal Affairs Unit involved Tasers.
2007 reports of MPD force by month
Minneapolis’s Civilian Police Review Authority, an outside city agency which is supposed to investigate complaints about police, also has received few complaints involving Tasers. The The review group does not distinguish between different kinds of complaints of excessive use of force, but administrators estimate they have taken seven Taser-related complaints since 2006.
Both the department and the review authority have come under fire in recent years for pursuing relatively few brutality claims overall, however. Local criminal attorneys say they hear plenty of stories suggesting more restraints on Taser use are warranted.
Goetz’s recent case involved a December 2008 incident in which his client, Nicholas Kastner, was Tasered twice while lying prone on the ground with his limbs outstretched. Sherry Appledorn, one of the officers named in the suit, has been the subject of two other lawsuits. The terms of Kastner’s settlement are sealed.
Here, too, MPD administrators believe investing in new Tasers would pay off. The newest Tasers capture audio and video during use, which can provide valuable evidence in court — or to anyone investigating a brutality allegation. A data port on the devices allows information on their use to be downloaded onto a computer.
About 80 of the MPD’s approximately 200 Tasers have cameras, said Palmer. The camera adds about $500 to the Taser’s $700 cost, he said. Because of budget constraints, the department struggles to fix the Tasers it already has — never mind buy new ones.
“When we do have examples of misuse,” he said, “we take that very seriously.” Palmer said he tells new recruits learning to use Tasers or any other type of force that the bottom line is always “Do your job as if you were on video.”
Beth Hawkins writes about education and other topics.