Crime

Survey: South Mississippi law enforcement officers used Tasers at least 253 times in past 20 months

By ROBIN FITZGERALD

rfitzgerald@sunherald.com

D'Iberville police officers including Sgt. Rasheeda Crawford carry a Taser that is supplemented by a body camera, a tool police have found to be helpful in all public encounters.
D'Iberville police officers including Sgt. Rasheeda Crawford carry a Taser that is supplemented by a body camera, a tool police have found to be helpful in all public encounters. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

A Sun Herald review of stun-gun use in South Mississippi shows police officers and deputies, on average, use them on more than four people a week.

Collectively, local officers used their stun guns on at least 253 people in the past 20 months, according to a survey of the Coast counties. Fourteen of 15 law enforcement agencies provided the Sun Herald with numbers requested for this report.

Gulfport police, who serve the state's second most-populated city, reported 108 stun-gun discharges in that time, South Mississippi's highest number.

Local agencies own a total of 636 Taser-brand stun guns. It's their brand of choice for a stun gun. It's also the most popular brand among enforcement officers nationwide, a U.S. Department of Justice report shows.

Some Coast agencies were ahead of the national curve when they bought Tasers 10 or more years ago. All others soon followed. Biloxi police Major Jim Adamo and other officials have said it shows a progressive approach in law enforcement and public safety throughout Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties.

New tool for police

Before the stun gun became a police tool, an officer's enforcement options were his hands, a baton, pepper spray or a gun.

A nationwide study shows a sharp increase in police agencies buying stun guns as officials consider their options, use-of-force policies and ways to reduce injuries.

Stun gun use by police nationwide increased from 60 percent in 2007 to 81 percent in 2013, according to the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics. That puts Coast agencies ahead of or part of the growing trend. The Jackson County Sheriff's Office owns the most Tasers, 127.

Tasers, considered "less lethal" weapons, discharge 50,000 low-amperage volts of electricity to subdue a person. Its cartridges shoot barb-like probes that penetrate skin and deliver a shock, temporarily immobilizing a person who refuses to obey orders. Gulfport police said they always call an ambulance and have medical personnel remove the Taser's barbs.

The Taser can also deliver a shock when the weapon is placed on a person's body, a technique recommended in close contact or confined areas.

The effect allows an officer to cuff a suspect before the Taser's disruption to their nerves and muscles wears off.

'Take a ride'

Area officials said they require their officers in training to be tased, or "take a ride," before they can tase anyone else.

Adamo vividly remembers the time he was tased. He took his turn after a female reserve officer.

"I could feel the electricity pulsating from my waistline to my ankle. I was able to think. And I could only think, 'Don't scream. Do not scream.' I didn't want to stand up in front of my guys and cry like a baby. Especially not after a female reservist took it like a champ. Not a peep out of her."

He agreed with other officials who maintain Tasers reduce injuries and can help protect bystanders.

Police may draw a gun but are less likely to use it, Adamo said. He's noticed people tend to believe officers who pull out a Taser will fire it. People faced with a stun gun usually respond with a "Don't tase me, Bro," attitude, he said.

Adamo said Biloxi officers pulled out their Tasers 50 times last year, but discharged them only 25 times.

"Most people who know about Tasers don't want anything to do with it," Adamo said. "Just (pulling it out) tends to make most comply."

What they use

Some agencies use older-model Tasers that have fewer features. Some have Tasers with built-in cameras. Newer models even sync with body cameras, providing clearer, more reliable pictures that can protect police legally -- or show if an officer was out of line.

D'Iberville bought upgraded body cams earlier this year and is slowly replacing its older Tasers, Deputy Police Chief Clay Jones said.

D'Iberville, like several other agencies, has a contract that includes secure data storage. It's the same process the U.S. military uses, he said. It allows administrators and officers to view their videos on a computer or smartphone, but doesn't allow the videos to be altered.

"It is costly, but our citizens deserve the latest technology we can afford," Jones said.

Some agencies said their investigators and supervisors also have Tasers.

Pass Christian Police Chief Tim Hendricks said it's hard for a small department to afford the best technology. He wants to upgrade his Tasers but said he's received a quote of $10,000 to $12,000 for the first year's cost.

"The Tasers are only guaranteed for three or four years," he said.

"Being a smaller city with a smaller budget, we have to do the best we can," he said. "People are willing to fight with police for no reason at all, even over an expired driver's license. The Taser is a valuable tool, but it's not the only tool."

Bay St. Louis police used forfeiture money to buy Tasers in 2010. Chief Mike DeNardo said he hopes to upgrade them soon.

DeNardo said a Taser has saved two lives in his city.

"We've had a couple of suicidal people who were aggressive toward medical staff and officers," he said. "We had no choice but to act fast. We subdued them and they got the help they needed."

Use-of-force policies

Officials said their policies are patterned after those recommended by state, national and international law enforcement associations.

A Taser is not the first choice in what police call their "use-of-force continuum." The first level is repeated voice commands. If those fail, the next step is reasonable hands-on techniques. If needed, the next step is pepper spray, a stun gun or a baton.

But when faced with an armed subject who refuses to drop a weapon, police tend to move to lethal force. They pull out a gun.

Standard policies acknowledge officers must be able to use their discretion in perceived threats. But the policies also require accountability, through reports and reviews, to make sure officers are not abusing their authority.

Adamo said every time a Taser is pulled out or discharged, a report is filed and reviewed by a sergeant, a lieutenant and a captain before the report lands on his desk.

Gulfport Police Chief Leonard Papania said his officers pulled out Tasers 135 times in the past year, and discharged them 108 times. Of 6,518 arrests, he said, 1.7 percent involved Taser use.

"Our officers were hit, kicked, shot at and spit on," he said. "Those 135 were resistive, some being assaultive, and 89 fled.

"The Taser is a force option for compliance that tends to reduce injuries to police and tends to reduce the amount of force used on a person."

Papania said batons can require multiple strikes and pepper spray can contaminate officers and subjects alike -- all who get sprayed can feel the effects the next day. But a Taser's effects end quickly.

"With the Taser, our officers are required to engage less in physical, hand-to-hand combat and fights and it generally causes much less injury to the person who's resisting."

Hancock County Chief Deputy Don Bass said Taser use could increase everywhere because of national media reports of officers being targeted and killed.

A Justice Department study in 2011 showed Taser use by police had decreased injuries by 50 percent or more.

Waveland lawsuits

Police and the public nationwide took notice in 2008 after the Sun Herald questioned Taser use by Waveland police. Officers had used them at least 87 times in one year, nearly twice as often as the much-larger Harrison County Sheriff's Office had.

One officer later testified he had tased as many as 50 people in 23 months.

Then-Mayor David Garcia forbade the city's police to use Tasers because of complaints he received after he took office in December 2010. The police chief was fired and at least three officers left the force.

Complaints led to 10 Taser-related lawsuits filed in federal court from 2008 through 2012. Several plaintiffs alleged they were tased multiple times while handcuffed. One man said police stripped him and tased body parts including his buttocks.

A judge ruled in favor of the city and police in three cases and two ex-police officers settled out of court in one case. The city settled for undisclosed amounts in six cases.

One of the lawsuits was settled after a judge ruled a jury should decide if the plaintiff was trying to escape or resist, and if the officer misued his Taser.

One of the dismissed lawsuits involved a woman tased while pregnant.

Taser's manufacturer recommends it not be used on pregnant women, the elderly or people with health problems.

But the judge ruled the woman was barred from making a claim because she had admitted resisting arrest in a lower-court proceeding.

However, officials said case law in Taser use is constantly changing; they keep an eye on what's considered acceptable and what's not.

Better days ahead

Since taking over the Waveland Police Department, Chief Dave Allen said he has focused on training, relations with the public and building a cyber-crime unit that assists a state task force and investigates regional child-pornography cases.

"I don't see the future of Waveland as getting (back) in the shape it was in," Allen said. "I focus on what it can be and where we're going. I believe in using technology to move us forward, and I have faith in my people."

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