Taser Nation: Are Cops Using Tasers Too Often?

Continuum of Force

Heidi Gill, 38, said she feared for her life when Police Officer Rich Kovach Tasered her over and over again after a bar argument in Warren, Ohio.

"I didn't think I was going to make it out of there. I just wanted this pain to stop. This electrocuting and Tasering. ? I didn't know what Tasering even was," Gill said.

Kovach was placed on paid leave pending an investigation.

Each of these incidents demonstrates what police officers already know: Interactions between the police and suspects can be volatile and require the officer to quickly sum up a situation.

Police departments each develop their own "use of force continuums," a series of escalating steps that officers employ to determine when and how much force should be deployed against a suspect.

"Some departments put Tasers pretty high on their force continuum, some pretty low down at the level of pepper spray," said Mona Cadena, the deputy director of Amnesty International's western region.

"Cops, of course, will come into contact with violent individuals and have to respond, but they should always use the minimum … force for the threat that is posed. The question out there is: Is it appropriate to use a Taser on a student who is just being a nuisance, or on senior citizens or children or pregnant women."

Amnesty International has been tracking Taser use in the United States since 2001 and says it is difficult to know the medical risks involved because little independent research has been done. It is also difficult to know whether Tasers are being misused because there is no national standard for keeping track of their use.

Multiple Shocks

"Cops have to register firearms and record every time they discharge them. That information then goes into a national database, but there is nothing like that for Tasers. We're concerned with use and reporting and a lack of regulation," she said.

Taser International said it has created a weapon that when used properly can safely and effectively subdue suspects. Moreover, every weapon it produces, unlike, say, a billy club, electronically registers the time, date and duration of a shock.

Recent incidents, including the April 2006 death of a 56-year-old, wheelchair-bound Florida woman who was Tasered 10 times and later died, stirred controversy for the company. However, the manufacturer says it is the police who should be taking the heat.

"We don't teach use of force techniques. We train the trainers and give them as much information as possible to use it safely," said Steve Tuttle, spokesman for Taser International. "Every agency is going to use it differently, based on their own use-of-force guidelines. Sometimes it will be used against people passively resisting, other times against more active resistance," he said.

Tuttle said that in some cases multiple shocks are necessary and can be done safely.

"Multiple applications have good outcomes in arresting someone safely. We've shown that multiple applications are not dangerous. We don't limit the number of bullets in a gun," he said.

Tuttle said it was frustrating that every controversial use has reporters focusing on the company instead of the agencies using the weapon. Gun manufacturers are not called to comment every time cops misuse their firearms, he said.

"The media never reports on all the planes that land safely. But thousands of Tasers are used safely every day. Every Taser has a computer chip that records the time, date and length of duration."

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