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December 23, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, December 23, 2005

Chief defends use of Tasers Chief defends use of Tasers (December 23, 2005)

Will seek 100 more electric stun guns for city next year

By Jon Wiener

On the afternoon of Oct. 29, 2004, Mountain View police officers responded to a reported fight on Nilda Avenue and found Wayne Morris lying in the street, drunk and unable to stand under his own power.

Morris was complaining of neck pain, and officers noticed an inch-long laceration under his right eye and another on the other side of his face. They determined he had been struggling with his girlfriend's son, in violation of a restraining order, and placed him under arrest, according to a police report.

One of the officers on the scene that day was among the select few in the department to carry the city's newest weapon, an X-26 Taser gun that can immobilize a person by sending 50,000 volts of electricity through their bodies. (The department had purchased 10 Tasers that summer as part of its "less lethal" program, aiming to give officers another option besides shooting a suspect with a bullet.) Until that moment, no Mountain View police officer had ever fired one at a member of the public.

Morris resisted, cursing at the officers. He eventually stood up and tried to walk away, but Officer Dan Garcia grabbed him. Morris pulled free but fell down in the process. Garcia placed him in a control hold, and Morris clenched his left hand into a fist.

At that point, Officer Michael Canfield removed his Taser and held the weapon to Morris' upper right shoulder blade, yelled "Taser! Taser!" and pulled the trigger - a technique known as "drive-stunning" for use at close range. The blast lasted for five seconds, during which a bewildered Morris fell to the ground, mumbling, "F*** man, what are you guys doing to me?" the police report said.

Though Morris was unarmed and falling-down drunk, Canfield's decision to use the Taser was entirely in keeping with department guidelines, according to police chief Scott Vermeer. The department's policy on the use of force counts Tasers as "moderate force," the same category as batons, pepper spray and even hand-fighting. The lethal force category includes only firearms and a chokehold.

"It got his attention [and] enabled them to guide him to the ground and put him in handcuffs," said Vermeer of the Taser. "That would have been, if not the best, one of the best options available to them."

Over the course of the next 13 months, Mountain View police would fire their Tasers at suspects on eight more occasions. Each time, the suspect was unarmed. Those at the receiving end of the Taser blasts were usually drunk or high on drugs, and more often than not did not attack or threaten police but instead were shocked for their failure to obey commands.

Hospital personnel would later clear the health of each suspect. But as reports mount of Taser-related deaths in other jurisdictions - the ACLU documented 15 in Northern California between September 2004 and September 2005 - calls for tighter restrictions on the weapon's use are growing.

Vermeer's department is planning to ask the city council for the money to buy 100 more Tasers, outfitting every officer on the force. But first he will have to defend their use at a human relations commission (HRC) meeting Jan. 5.

"I want to demonstrate to them that this is an important tool for us to resolve dangerous encounters as safely as possible," said Vermeer.
Just doing their job?

A month after a bloodied and beaten Wayne Morris earned the distinction of being the first suspect Mountain View police had shot with a Taser, Miguel Barajas and his friend Jose Nava were leaving Alberto's Night Club on Dana Street when Nava punched and spit on Sergeant Bryan Albarillo's patrol car. As Albarillo and another officer placed Nava under arrest, Barajas became belligerent.

Albarillo reported taking out his Taser and pointing it at Barajas, who reeked of alcohol and was slurring his speech. A female companion led Barajas away from the officers, but after a few steps he broke her grasp and walked back towards the officers. When they tried to arrest him, Barajas reached his right hand towards his rear waistband underneath his untucked shirttail. Albarillo, assuming Barajas was reaching for a weapon, fired the Taser into his chest. When the five-second burst ended, Barajas was lying prone on the sidewalk.

The police report quoted him as saying, "Okay, no problem, you guys are just doing your job." As officers handcuffed him, Barajas's female companion walked up and said, "See, I told you, you should've listened." He answered, "I know, I know."

City Council member Greg Perry, who was the first official to call for a Taser hearing, said the Barajas incident proves the weapons have their place.

"If you don't have a Taser there, it makes national headlines, but the guy is still dead," said Perry.
Taser risks debated

Mountain View Police have had the option of carrying a hand-held stun gun for nearly 20 years, according to Vermeer. But newer models equipped with cables that can be fired up to 20 feet have made the guns more useful, leading more departments to arm their officers with them and more skeptics to question their safety.

The ACLU report, which did not include Mountain View, said that most times when police officers use Tasers on suspects, firearms would not be appropriate or even legal. According to Sanjeev Berry, ACLU San Jose director, because anecdotal evidence suggests the guns pose a heightened risk of injury or death, they should be used only as an alternative to lethal force.

Vice Mayor Nick Galiotto, a former police captain, will likely be in the Mayor's seat next year when the police department makes its request for 100 more Tasers. He said it is important that any policy on the use of force give officers plenty of leeway. In some instances that might not call for lethal force, he said, a Taser could be safer than striking a suspect with a baton and causing broken bones or worse.

He pointed to a case in which an officer tried to intervene in an argument between a 6 ft. 8 in., 365-pound man and his girlfriend at a Shoreline Amphitheatre concert. The officer was unable to subdue the man, getting swung around in a circle twice, until another fired his Taser.

Despite the ACLU's assertions, Vermeer said he believes the risk to a suspect from a Taser is not necessarily greater than from other forms of what the department terms "moderate force" - batons, pepper-spray, hand-fighting. But while the guns are growing in popularity, some departments do take a different position on the weapons.

Locally, Palo Alto has put plans to outfit its entire department with Tasers on hold for the last year. Newark's chief has publicly argued against them. Even the Police Executive Research Forum, a group that has studied the devices and published guidelines on their use, says police should avoid using Tasers on non-violent subjects or certain vulnerable populations.

With all the negative attention, manufacturer Taser International has taken a beating in the press and in the stock market, with its share price falling from a high of $33.45 a year ago to $6.28 earlier this week. The company did not return several calls for this story, but recently received an invitation to testify before the human relations commission Jan. 5, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. in the Community Center at 201 S. Rengstorff Ave.
Too drunk to stand

Michael Curran finished work at 5:30 p.m. on February 2, pounded two beers and a bottle of malt liquor, then set out walking for his girlfriend's apartment. When police found him an hour later, he was passed out drunk on the front lawn of a house several blocks away.

They eventually succeeded in waking him up and offered to drive him to his girlfriend's house, but he was so drunk he had difficulty answering their questions. He asked the officers to call him "Dan-O. Police officers searched Curran and found he had no weapons or contraband. They also watched as he fell down on the curb trying to enter the squad car.

Officer Evan Evans told Curran she would take him to jail if nobody answered the door at his girlfriend's apartment. When nobody did, Curran took off running. Evans chased him into the driveway of the next building and called after him, "Stop Dan-O, or it's going to be worse for you! Stop!"

She drew her gun and Curran raised his hands up to his head and began apologizing. Seconds later, Officer Tim Minor appeared on scene, Taser already in hand. He ordered "Dan-O"to get down on the ground, and Curran stood there silently. Minor yelled for Curran to get on the ground two more times, and when he got no response, he fired the Taser into Curran's chest.

City council member Greg Perry, who was the first to call for the human relations commission to investigate the issue of Taser use, said this case raised several questions.

"The suspect was guilty of being too drunk to stand, which is not something that is life-threatening for the officer," said Perry. "I'm not convinced in this case it was necessary, more importantly I'm not convinced that we have a policy that draws the line clearly."

The department does take some precautions to guard against unnecessary use, forcing officers who carry the Tasers to undergo a 4.5-hour internal training session. More than half of the officers in the department, including Chief Vermeer, have had the weapons tested on them, though not always for the full-five second cycle.

"We believe it's another tool for officers to resolve conflict in difficult situations," said Vermeer. "It's not always the most appropriate tool, but sometimes it can be."

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