By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
"Almost as soon as we went to Taser, we started to find that, duh, people just don't like the idea of being shocked," Lieutenant Kelly says, "and that many were giving up without a fight. It was fairly dramatic."
One instance occurred in March 2005, when Officer Bobby Madeira, a transplanted East Coast native on patrol in south Phoenix, came upon a young man who fit the description of a suspect in the brutal robbery-murder of a Tempe bartender ("The Case of the Fatal Femme," March 9, 2006).
Then 17, Richard Enos fled when Madeira ordered him to stop. Enos was about to scale a wall and escape into the neighborhood, when Madeira yelled, "Stop right now or you're gonna get Tased!"
Enos surrendered on the spot.
At the downtown police station a few hours later, Officer Madeira watched on closed-circuit television as Enos confessed to having a role in the grisly crime.
The cop marveled at what Enos had told him after surrendering. "He said, 'No way I'm gonna get Tased, man.' I told him he'd done the right thing."
Certainly, though, as Officer Sakalas has suggested, neither the stun gun nor its users are infallible. The Taser holds serious potential for abuse, and cops in Phoenix and elsewhere have made bad decisions about when, why, and how they've used the weapon.
(In part two of this series, "Death by Electrocutioner," New Times examines one regrettable example, the death of 24-year-old Keith Graff, shocked nonstop by a Phoenix cop for 84 seconds in May 2005.)
Taser horror stories include a 71-year-old legally blind, mentally ill woman shocked five times by police in Portland, Oregon. Things had gone awry when she declined to clean her messy yard. (She later settled a lawsuit against the city for $145,000).
There have been cases of elementary-age schoolchildren getting Tased for causing trouble in class. A woman eight months pregnant was Tased in Seattle after she refused to sign a traffic ticket and walked away from a cop, supposedly to use a restroom. A 56-year-old wheelchair-bound woman died in Florida after a Tasing. A combative inmate in a South Carolina jail died in July 2005 after he was shocked for almost three minutes.
Defining the parameters of Taser use is still a work in progress inside most police agencies. In the early days of Tasers (all of about five years ago in Phoenix), it seemed as if anybody could look at a Phoenix cop sideways and get zapped. Those days seem to be over as the department has tightened its policies on the use of the weapons.
For example, the previous Phoenix policy allowed officers to Tase just about anyone who wasn't "immediately" complying with an officer's commands. That included people engaging in what law enforcement calls "defensive resistance," which is when a suspect tries to prevent a cop from gaining control by pulling away or running away without trying to hurt the officer.
Now, according to the new policy, "The Taser can only be used in situations where the subject involved is aggressive toward the officer or a third party" to the point where the cop or the third party feels that he or she is about to get hurt or if the subject is trying to hurt himself.
The amended Phoenix policy also reiterated something that had been common practice (and common sense) for Phoenix officers since Tasers fully came on board in 2003. Officers are not allowed to use the Taser on pregnant women, the elderly, and the very young, or on handcuffed prisoners, "unless [police] can articulate that other reasonable force options [were] tried and were unlikely to succeed."
But even before the new policy became effective a few weeks ago, Phoenix officers were using Tasers less, down from 449 uses in 2004 to 367 last year.
Lieutenant Kelly says the reasons for the reduction are many. He says cops, like anyone else, tend to fall in love with new gadgets, and the heavy early Taser use by Phoenix's officers may have been a reflection of that.
The Phoenix department has disciplined only a handful of officers for misusing the Taser, and none has gotten more than a written reprimand, a step below suspension.
One Phoenix officer pointed his Taser at a fellow cop in 2005 during a morning briefing at the Cactus Park precinct, which the second officer didn't appreciate. Another cop drive-stunned a suspect in the passenger seat of a stolen car, which was against regulations. Yet another officer was written up for Tasing bicycle rider who wouldn't stop for questioning.
Those incidents seem benign when contrasted with the fatal, 84-second shocking of Keith Graff. But the Phoenix department determined that Officer Charles Anderson's Tasing of Graff was "in policy" partly because the department did not (and still doesn't) specify how many times and for how long a subject may be shocked.
But Phoenix's new policy does say that officers are to deploy the Taser for one five-second cycle, then "evaluate the subject's response and, when feasible, allow the arrest team to control the subject. Subsequent application can be made if control over the subject is not achieved."
In other words, Phoenix officers apparently aren't allowed to Tase someone for 84 seconds straight anymore.
It appears the only reason a variety of "civil-rights groups" don't like the Taser is it takes money out of their pockets by minimizing "wrongful death" lawsuits.
Congratulations on a really great job on this story. As the brother of a police officer, I know what goes on out there and how many times that guns would be the right call over anything else. Tasers aren't perfect by any means as the story says, but they sure as hell are better than getting a bullet in the chest, or even better than getting the crap beat out of you because you won't stop. Everyone who trashes Taser should read this. You can use this as a letter or not, I just wanted to thank you.