NYCLU: Cops turning to Tasers far too often

The Saratoga Springs, Albany, Guilderland and Glens Falls police departments are among the departmen

The Saratoga Springs, Albany, Guilderland and Glens Falls police departments are among the departments in New York state that have consistently misused their Tasers, according to a report by the New York Civil Liberties Union.

The report analyzed 851 incidents in New York state where Tasers were used and examined 10 department policies on how the weapons are used. The NYCLU said there was a general absence of appropriate policies and training, which they said contributed to a pattern of use that put New Yorkers at risk.

Corey Stoughton, NYCLU senior staff attorney and co-author of the report, said a main goal of the report was to “shatter the myth” that stun guns are being used as a substitute for more lethal alternatives. She said the electroshock weapons are designed to be used on a limited basis and the report showed that 60 percent of incidents did not meet the necessary threshold. “This report shows in a majority of the time … it’s nothing like that,” she said. “They’re being used as a compliance tool.”

Noting that 7 percent of Taser incidents in the state involved people who were handcuffed, Stoughton referred to an incident in August 2008 when a man was shot three times with a stun gun. “That that is happening at all is pretty surprising,” she said.

Stoughton said the sample size from Saratoga Springs was particularly small — 12 reports — but it did reveal some “disturbing” incidents.

The report also faults Saratoga Springs for cautioning officers that the “drive-stun mode” on the electroshock weapons is less effective. Instead, the NYCLU said, the department should have highlighted the dangers of using this method too much. “Drive-stun mode” allows an officer to hold the Taser against a suspect’s body, causing pain with the electric shock without firing a cartridge.

The “firing” or “probe” mode shoots two wires into a person, causing the person to freeze. “Firing” mode is safer for the officer and the person being fired at, but “drive-stun mode” is more convenient for officers.

“What we saw, and Saratoga Springs was no exception, [was that] training and policy didn’t recommend firing mode,” Stoughton said.

In response, Saratoga Springs Police Chief Chris Cole said officers are taught about the positives and negatives of each mode, even though the warnings aren’t all codified in policy. He said there is a difference between what officers are trained on and what is policy.

Cole also took issue with the sample size used by NYCLU and faulted the study for not taking into account instances where officers were able to restrain a person by merely displaying or threatening to use a Taser. “We are a small department and I don’t think that report was necessarily reflective of what we do,” he said. “They’re weapons and we take them seriously.”

Cole added that his department follows most of the Police Executive Research Forum guidelines. The NYCLU compared these guidelines, as well as Department of Justice guidelines, to the existing policies at the 10 police departments.

Of the departments reviewed, the Saratoga Springs department was one of two that required officers to explain why they had to use the Taser. It was one of four that did not require a warning and was one of five that required unspecified “periodic retraining.”

Cole said he would review his department’s policies, but stressed that the department continually reviews all police policies. In the case of stun guns, he said, earlier this year the department changed the parts of the body where police aim.

“[I’m] not going to say we’re going to change anything,” Cole said.

The report also cited examples and policies — good and bad — from the Albany and Guilderland police departments.

The Albany Police Department was unique in this review because the NYCLU feels its policy encourages officers to use the Taser recklessly and without consideration for the person being shocked. Albany also fell into the trend of minorities being stunned at the highest rate. The city has a 28 percent black population, but 68 percent of those people shocked were black, according to the report.

Guilderland Police Department was recognized for having the right policy regarding “drive-stun mode.” Guilderland and the NYPD were the only two forces that recommended this mode be used only as a last resort.

But the report also accused the Guilderland department of improper use of the device on children, citing an instance where it was used on a 13-year-old.

The Glens Falls Police Department was faulted for too often using prolonged applications of the Tasers, at a rate of 20 percent of the incidents involving the weapons. The report also said that in 15 instances where three or more applications of the Taser were used, the department never justified the “dangerous” use.

The NYCLU is also engaged in a dispute with the city of Saratoga Springs over attorney fees that the NYCLU incurred going to court to obtain the Taser incident reports in 2009. The appellate court recently said the NYCLU is owed fees and the two sides are now haggling over how much is appropriate.

Categories: Schenectady County

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