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Policing force: Tasers potent and controversial

Washington Columbian | Jan 24 2005

Ronald Ray Cross claims putting on his T-shirt was all it took to provoke a Woodland police officer to shock him with a Taser at least 10 times during a traffic stop.

Officer Blayden Wall "pulled his Taser gun, pointed the Taser in Cross' face and said, 'Do you know what this is? Do you want me to shoot you with it?'" according to Cross' claim against the city of Woodland. His attorney filed a $1.1 million lawsuit in federal court this month.

Wall declined The Columbian's request for an interview about what happened. His report on the arrest states that he fired his Taser after Cross, whom he believed to be prone to violence, refused to drop a wadded-up T-shirt.

Police have turned to Tasers ---- weapons that fire an electric current instead of bullets ---- as an alternative to the lethal force of firearms. Officers use Tasers not only in situations that otherwise would have them drawing their guns, but to gain compliance from those they apprehend.

More than 6,000 law-enforcement agencies use the devices, according to manufacturer Taser International. Nearly all of the departments in Clark County have Tasers or plan to obtain them as a tool to defuse potentially deadly confrontations.

"They have saved our officers from shooting people," says Mitch Barker, assistant Vancouver police chief.

But as Tasers become more commonly used, there is evidence officers underestimate their potency. A report by the human rights group Amnesty International found that "many U.S. police agencies are deploying Tasers as a routine force option to subdue unarmed, non-compliant individuals who do not pose a serious danger to themselves or others."

Amnesty International's November 2004 report found that 74 people have died in the United States and Canada since 2001 after being shocked by Tasers. Concern about deaths related to Taser shootings prompted the Securities and Exchange Commission earlier this month to look into claims by Taser International, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., about the safety of its weapons.

Tasers use compressed nitrogen gas to shoot two barbs that puncture the skin or clothing to deliver a 50,000-volt, five-second shock. The Taser also can be applied directly to a person's body. The shock inflicts pain and immobilizes the recipient, allowing police to gain control of the situation.

It's not just the impact of the jolt that worries Amnesty International, but also the judgment of the officers carrying these weapons.

"The term 'less than lethal' doesn't mean an item of equipment couldn't lend itself to abuse," says Mona Cadena, an Amnesty International organizer in San Francisco.

Local controversy

The Amnesty report cites the 2003 incident in which a Washougal police officer repeatedly zapped a Russian immigrant with his Taser in a dispute over a dog citation.

After The Columbian published a story about the incident, the Washougal Police Department launched an internal investigation that found that Sgt. Robert E. Ritchie fired his Taser 12 times in 91 seconds at Olga Rybak, a 5-foot-2-inch tall woman who speaks little English.

The Washougal Police Department demoted Ritchie for using "poor judgment" and "failing to take available alternative courses of action, which could have avoided this confrontation."

Though the department demoted Ritchie from sergeant to patrol officer, it never specifically criticized how many times he used the Taser. Ritchie, already certified as an "advanced Taser instructor," was recertified by Taser International one month after he zapped Rybak.

When Washougal obtained Tasers in 2002, it was the first law enforcement agency in Clark County to do so. The Washington State Patrol is seeking money to buy Tasers for each shift. Ridgefield wants to obtain Tasers as well. The Vancouver Police Department, which already uses Tasers, plans to buy enough to make one available to each officer on a shift by 2007.

The Clark County Sheriff's Office now has 18 Tasers and expects to bring that number up to 200 this year.

"We were not big fans of Tasers initially," Chief Criminal Deputy Mike Evans says. He remembered that when pepper spray first became available, it was used frequently. He feared the same would happen with Tasers.

But Evans says the sheriff's office changed its opinion after consulting with the local chapter of National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, which endorsed the department's acquisition of Tasers.

"The community's expectation of our use of force is that we will explore all viable options that are available short of using deadly force," Evans says.

Amnesty International wants police to discontinue use of Tasers entirely. At the very least, the group argues, police departments should have policies limiting Taser use to cases in which officers would otherwise resort to deadly force.

Taser policies among Clark County law enforcement agencies vary.

Washougal's use-of-force policy doesn't address Tasers specifically.

Woodland puts Tasers in the same weapons category as pepper spray, and requires any officer who carries a Taser to submit to being shocked by the device in training.

Cross' allegations challenge the effectiveness of Woodland's policy.

Contacted through his attorney, Cross, a 33-year-old Yacolt resident who was convicted of vehicular assault in 1992, declined to be interviewed for this story. His claim filed against the city of Woodland outlines his version of events.

Officer Wall followed Cross into the parking lot of an AM/PM market because he was driving with expired tabs and then arrested him for driving with a suspended license.

Cross asked to borrow a cell phone to call his parents to pick up $7,000 worth of tools he feared could be stolen from the flatbed of his truck. Wall pulled his Taser and threatened to shoot it.

As Cross followed an order to get out of the truck, he started to put his shirt on and Wall fired his Taser. Only one prong hit Cross, failing to make the connection required to shock him. So Wall put the Taser to Cross' neck and shocked him repeatedly, causing "multiple electrical burns," the claim alleges.

According to Wall's report of the arrest, his record check on Cross turned up a "violent offender hit," and Cross refused to get out of the truck.

"I told him to get out of the car or he would be tased," Wall reported. Cross started to open his T-shirt instead of dropping it as commanded, according to the report. Wall described firing the Taser, which failed to make a connection.

"It appeared to me like he was getting ready to lunge," Wall wrote. He described a struggle during which he shocked Cross multiple times and himself twice. He wrote that the Taser "seemed not to be working properly."

Woodland Chief Rob Stephenson declined to discuss the details of the May 2003 incident other than to say the department found Wall acted properly.

However, then-Chief Grover Laseke, who responded to Wall's call for assistance that day, wrote in a report that "most of the witnesses mentioned concern over the use of the Taser to bring Cross under control and into handcuffs."

One bystander attempted to intervene, yelling, "He'll do what you say if you quit shocking him," according to Wall's report.

Laseke later cited the bystander for obstructing an officer, a charge that was dismissed in Woodland Municipal Court.

The court also dismissed a resisting-arrest charge against Cross, although it did find him guilty of driving with a suspended license.

Given the low level of the offense and the fact that Wall's report doesn't explicitly say that he felt Cross was a threat, there was no justification for force, says Beau Harlan, Cross' Vancouver attorney.

Police departments should have policies reserving Tasers as a next-to-last resort, Amnesty International says, because even when the jolts aren't fatal, the shock from a Taser leaves lasting effects. Photos show that Rybak, the Washougal woman, was covered with Taser-induced welts after her tangle with Ritchie. Rybak, 35, went to visit her dentist the day after the incident. Her injuries alarmed Dr. Mark S. Austin, according to Rybak's medical records.

Austin found swollen wounds on Rybak's chest, stomach and back and documented them with photographs.

"Injuries appear to be consistent with trauma and electrical burns," Austin reported. Rybak "was visibly disturbed, anxious and in pain."

Health risks

Amnesty International argues that Tasers can inflict far worse injuries than those Rybak suffered.

The group maintains that "Taser shocks may exacerbate a risk of heart failure in cases where people are agitated or under the influence of drugs, or have underlying health problems." According to Amnesty's report, coroners have found the Taser directly contributed to five deaths, along with other factors such as drug abuse and heart disease.

In a statement responding to Amnesty's report, Taser Chief Executive Officer Rick Smith says, "The Taser technology, while not risk-free, is among the safest use-of-force options our law enforcement officers have."

The company also points to a study published this month in a supplement to the peer-reviewed medical journal Pacing and Clinical Electrophysiology that found the device does not cause cardiac arrest. Two Taser executives were among the study's authors.

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