Abigail Eagye

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August 4, 2006
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Police looking at Taser policy

In the aftermath of a Taser incident that resulted an Aspen police officer's losing her job, the police department is examining possible new regulations. But re-examining the department's policy is an undertaking Chief Loren Ryerson said the department was getting ready to tackle anyway."It's a constant process," Ryerson said of the department's efforts to keep regulations current. The same day former Aspen officer Melinda Calvano used her Taser on an elderly homeless woman, the police department coincidentally received a model of a potential Taser policy from its insurance pool, Ryerson said.The department's current use-of-force policy doesn't address Tasers specifically, and that's a problem, according to Mark Silverstein, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado."If the Aspen Police Department is going to authorize the use of Tasers," he said, "it needs to have a written policy that explains when they can be used and when they cannot be used."Silverstein wrote a letter to the Denver police chief in 2004 encouraging him to revise his department's policy to "forbid officers from using the [T]aser in situations that do not present a true threat to human life or a threat of serious bodily injury."Although Silverstein acknowledges that Tasers are preferable to revolvers, he wrote in the letter that "police departments around the country ... are authorizing and encouraging officers to use [T]asers in situations where no one would claim that lethal force is even arguably justified."Both city and state policy allow for an officer to employ his or her discretion in using a Taser on a subject who is attempting to escape or who is otherwise resisting arrest. Both local and state regulations regularly reference "reasonable" and "appropriate" physical force in such situations - but leave it up to the officer to determine what is reasonable and appropriate in a given situation.Silverstein said Tasers should never be used against a passively resisting person, although situations in which a suspect actively resists cloud the picture. Even if officers wouldn't use a revolver on a subject who is actively resisting (including physically fighting), a Taser might be acceptable in some cases."Those are the ones that ... police can point to with the most credibility as places where ... revolvers wouldn't be used, but the use of some kind of force is justified," he said.Silverstein notes that Tasers are primarily promoted by the manufacturers, who argue that Tasers can save lives if used in lieu of deadly force. That's how Aspen officer Walter Chi sees it."To me, it's a worthwhile tool that can be a great asset for us," he said.Silverstein cautions that while that may be true, "the reality is that Tasers are used in situations that people would not even dream of pulling out a revolver."Furthermore, he said, the potential health risks of Tasers are unclear, although proponents often claim Tasers are safe."The proponents of [T]asers, some of whom have a strong financial interest in persuading police departments to buy as many of the devices as possible, discount the possibility that electroshock weapons are potentially lethal," Silverstein wrote in his letter to the Denver Police Department.In the same letter, Silverstein references an Amnesty International assertion that "the claims for the [T]aser's safety have not been subjected to rigorous and independent evaluation, nor have the physiological effects of electroshock weapons been sufficiently explored by independent medical experts.""I think Tasers are still of unproven safety," Silverstein said.Silverstein wrote in the 2004 letter that the ACLU was aware of almost 30 deaths associated with Tasers in the three previous years. He also stated that "in at least two-thirds of the recent in-custody deaths associated with electroshock weapons," the suspect who died was "extremely agitated, psychotic, [had] ingested large quantities of drugs, or [had] a pre-existing heart condition."Silverstein cites a 1992 journal report in which a doctor stated that people in those conditions may be at a "substantially" increased risk of fatality. The doctor goes on to point out that, "Persons being Tasered are usually agitated and hyperactive.""Those are often the people who wind up dead after the Taser is applied," Silverstein said.A department's use-of-force policy should speak to Tasers specifically, he said, and should directly address situations in which the suspect appears agitated, psychotic or under the influence of drugs, as well as whether an officer should use a Taser repeatedly on a subject."That's one of the recommendations we're looking at" for a Taser policy in Aspen, Ryerson said.Assistant Chief Glenn Shaffer is evaluating the model policy currently under consideration for the Aspen Police Department. Although Ryerson didn't know the details of that model, he did say that "part of their policy recommendation is not to have [a Taser] used against the elderly or children."A new policy might give more clear direction to the department, but that doesn't mean officers won't find themselves in Calvano's shoes if faced with the choice to use a Taser."The situation can be improved with tighter regulations, because the regulations are the police department's way of providing officers information on how to reasonably exercise discretion," Silverstein said. But that "couldn't eliminate the need for all judgment on the part of the officer."Abigail Eagye's e-mail address is abby@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Aug 5, 2006 09:43AM Published Aug 4, 2006 12:00AM Copyright 2006 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.