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Tasers: NYC Tragedy Waiting to Happen?

Amsterdam News, News Report, Nayaba Arinde Posted: Jun 22, 2008

From whips and chains, to badges, nightsticks, bullets and tasers, youth activist Divine Allah spoke with trepidation regarding the news that NYPD sergeants will now be carrying the controversial Taser gun on their belts.

Now youll have 50 cops tasing one person at the same time. They are saying that it is some sort of safer alternative to a gun, but this is no such thing. The Taser is still a deadly weapon.

The Sean Bell 50-shot case polarized the issue of police-Black community relations in the city. This week, the NYPD said that in a response to a study brought about by vocalized community concern regarding the use of guns and alleged police brutality, they are initiating the removal of the Taser from a sergeants vehicle to his person, for easy accessand a non-deadly alternative to his firearm.

But, the civil rights organization 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement is quick to point out that sergeants have had use of Tasers for a while, and this is by no means any type of reform.

People are being conned into believing that the NYPD is responding to the community call for reform, said the groups spokesman, Marquez Claxton. This is another distraction. This does nothing to address the issue of police brutality in our community, nor the unaccountability of police officers who abuse their power.

The acquittal a few weeks ago of detectives Michael Oliver, Gescard Isnora and Michael Cooper in the November 2006 police shooting of an unarmed Sean Bell on his wedding day has fueled the demand for real reform and consequences for unprovoked use of deadly force by members of the NYPD.

Since cops in the Bell case claimed that they thought that one of Bells group had a gun, and yelled out that inaccurate assumption, the NYPD-hired RAND Corporation determined Monday that the phrase hes got a gun be included in NYPD training. It was also this organization that proposed the Taser pilot program for certain precincts.

Although RAND did not investigate the Bell shooting, hired for $350,000 almost two months after that deadly police encounter, the RAND Corporation looked into the NYPDs response to almost 500 shootings. RAND praised the departments procedures and collecting of the facts in their reports. RAND concurred that the use of a Taser could adequately deescalate a confrontational situation.
Bernard Rostker of the RAND Corporation proclaimed, Its not an alternative to guns. If anything, its an alternative to your fists. You dont want to use a Taser if its appropriate to use a gun.

A published report cites Police Commissioner Ray Kelly stating that the Taser may be a little cumbersome, but we believe that its necessary at this time.
According to Claxton, Tasers fire about 50,000-watt bolts of electricity at a target along two metal wires with curves like fishhooks that embed themselves into the flesh of the victim. They have to be removed by medical personnel at a hospital, he told the AmNews.

Kelly announced that by weeks end, 3,500 sergeants on patrol will have access to 520 Tasers.

In response to AmNews questions, Assistant Chief Michael Collins said that how a Taser works is when an electric current temporarily disables a person. Asked how long sergeants have had them and if they have specific training, Collins replied, All supervisors have been trained upon their promotion, and they have been available to supervisors since 1984.

The AmNews asked, how often have they been used?

Last year, approximately 350 times, said Collins. With a number of deaths and subsequent protests and lawsuits being reported around the country, the paper asked Collins, what is the number of Taser-related deaths nationally?
We have never had one. But I do not know the national statistics, said Collins.

According to Taser International, in a published report, up until April, 68 wrongful-death or injury lawsuits have been dismissed or lost.

When The Amsterdam News asked, does the department have any concerns regarding the use of Tasers? Collins answered, We restrict their use to supervisors only and to specific situations and review each and every use to see that they are not misused.

Claxton said, Sergeants have had them already in their cars, now the only difference is that they have them in their holsters. This is not a reform idea; they are trying to divert attention from the issue that needs reform, which is the manner with which officers use deadly physical force.

The idea of this as a reform is largely irrelevant in the RAND scheme of things because real reform is needed regarding the use of deadly physical force against innocent, unarmed people. What the NYPD should be focusing on are other non-lethal weapons which are available, because all they are doing now is adding extra equipment to the uniform belt. They are not addressing the mindset which allows for the institutionalized pattern and practice of deadly racial profiling.

Amnesty International told the AmNews that it has tracked more than 300 cases in which individuals in the United States died after being shocked by a Taser. Nine of the deaths were in New York State, and two of them in New York City. Amnesty International has found that Tasers are often used in situations in which police use of gunsor even batonswould never be justified.

The retired detective, added, One Hundred Blacks in Law Enforcement can guarantee that there will be more Tasering, because now the sergeants have them on their belts. So now if someone is a little bit belligerent, they are going to get Tasered. If an officer decides that someone is not cooperating fast enoughthey are going to get Tasered.

In an official statement from Taser International, Peter T. Holran, vice president for public relations and government affairs, told the AmNews, Amnesty International has conducted no medical studies and has done no direct evaluation of Taser devices. They simply clip headlines from the media and published their finding. And yet, they continue to promote a number for Taser-related deaths that is not only misleading and inaccurate, but also unsupported by medical science. Interestingly, under direct questioning, Amnesty International admits that their number of Taser-related deaths is inflated and not accurate, but still they continue to promote this larger number.

The statement continued, When one removes the emotion from these tragic incidents and examines the medical examiners or coroners scientific analysis, the fact is that in only less than 30 incidents a Taser device has been listed by a medical examiner or coroner as a contributing factor or couldnt be ruled out in an in-custody death, and in only a couple disputed cases has a Taser device been listed as the cause of death.

Holran said that in many of these cases, numerous causesdrug overdoses, pre-existing medical conditions, blunt trauma and other factorshave also been listed.

Taser International stands behind the safety of its products and believes that good police and good training go hand in hand for any successful Taser program.

Tony Bradway, 26, died this week after being Tasered in the Hamptons, as he allegedly swallowed cocaine in an effort to hide the drug from Southampton police officers.

RAND is a paid-to-play for-profit organization.

Calling the Amsterdam News out of his Boston office, Joshua Rubenstein, Northeast regional director for Amnesty International USA, said that with the 300 Taser-related deaths, we are still not convinced that there has been adequate, independent comprehensive medical testing.

The effects of being hit with 50,000 volts can have varying affects on someone who has a previously undiagnosed medical issue or a person whose health may be compromised, said Rubenstein. Apparently unaware until informed by the AmNews, that the New York City Police Department has had Tasers for almost 25 years, Rubenstein continued, We were told when Tasers came into greater use in the last decade that they were an alternative to lethal force, and we welcome alternatives to shooting someone. But clearly, police departments are using the Tasers to gain peoples compliance and obedience: raise your hands, get out the car, give a urine sample.

Amnesty International had several reports of such cases he said. If you hesitate, if your car door is stuck, do you get Tasered?

Rubenstein explained that the Taser can be used with the 12-15 feet of wire with hooks digging into clothes or flesh; or it be pressed up against the body and the 50,000 volt shock delivered repeatedly.

Defibrillators had to get FDA approval. Their use is supervised and monitored, as are pacemakers and electroshock therapyTasers are not, said Rubenstein.
In response to Taser Internationals comment that Amnesty International has not done medical research into the effects of being Tasered, Rubenstein said, We dont claim to. But we are saying that independent medical research should be done, and not by Taser International. When 300 people die after being hit with a Taser, that is worrisome. And police have a use of force continuum: first, it is verbal, then they draw andpoint their gun. The question is, where do you put the Taser on the use of force continuum? Do you put it high up or low down? Because that will determine how often it is used. When are officers being trained to use the Taser in a serious situation and not just trying to make [people] comply with a legal demand?

Amnesty International joins a chorus of concerned voices questioning whether or not the Taser will be used in New York City as the first resort rather than the last.

The real key is training, Rev. Al Sharpton told the AmNews. Sen. Eric Adams is trying to have cameras put on guns and Tasers, then we will know how and when they are being used and what actually happened. Clearly, they are reacting to the unrelenting pressure of the anti-police-brutality movement, but the Tasers can still be misused if we dont have these safeguards in place.

Claxton told the paper, What concerns 100 Blacks is that emotionally disturbed people will possibly bear the brunt of this so-called pilot program, as will people on prescription drugs or illicit drugs, as well as those with pre-existing medical conditions.

Civil rights attorney Norman Siegel told the AmNews, Generally, we encourage the use of non-lethal weapons by law enforcement including the NYPD, but the use of Tasers creates serious questions: one is the potential abuse of Tasers, and two, there are reports from other jurisdictions across the country like California and even New York statelike [Monday]where an individual can die from use of a Taser. So we have to be very careful and closely monitor the use of Tasers.

To this end, Adams told the AmNews that this week he drafted legislation to accompany his bill for cameras to be put on guns now to include having cameras put on Tasers.

I have identified a company that allows you to put cameras on Tasers, said the retired police captain, adding that he looked into the option as soon as he heard that the NYPD is allowing sergeants and lieutenants to get Tasers. The bottom line is, there is no reason for us not to be seeing what the cop is seeing. The police department cant have it both ways. After shootings or Taserings, the police go to all the stores to check the video cameras, this way they dont have to hope to get a tape.

Adams said that he is encouraging the NYPD to look into utilizing other non-lethal weapons: guns that shoot little bean bags, nets used to contain a person or Velcro straps to subdue a person and restrain their arms and legs.
There must be accountability, said Siegel, and there are other mechanisms that the police department should be looking at. All RAND said was they should use Tasers. That is a disappointment because there is a lot of other technology that the NYPD should be looking at, and if they are only looking at Tasers, thats not good enough.

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