The rationale for Taser International’s stuns guns is that they are non-lethal and help cops subdue dangerous suspects with minimal force. But reports show plenty of suspects have died almost immediately after being stunned. Not the least of these deaths was twenty-one year old Andrew Washington from Vallejo, California who on September 15, 2004 after trying to flee from the police, was shot repeatedly with 50,000 volts while his was body lying in a trickle of water.
In Northern California over the last seven months, there have been seven deaths linked to Taser International’s product, but police continue to parrot the Scottsdale, Arizona company’s promotional material that the weapon is safe and that illegal drugs are the problem. Washington’s death and the subsequent stonewalling of the investigation into the true cause is typical of what appears to be increased aggression on the part of police who see the weapon as “a new baton,” as Andrea Pritchett of CopWatch put it.
Vallejo police claim Washington was an auto-theft suspect. The trouble is that he had not stolen a car, had not been armed, nor hostile. He was drunk when he hit two parked cars and foolish enough to run, but there were six officers involved in pursuing the five feet, nine inch, 149 lbs. man who wasn’t hostile nor armed. He was stunned first on the fence for five seconds when it only takes a quarter of a second to incapacitate someone. He could hardly crawl. But he got shocked three or four more times anyway.
You might think cops would just jump the fence and cuff him. But no. You might think such an incident would make the police in Vallejo reevaluate their use of Tasers. Afterall, there are de-escalation techniques and capture nets. But you’d be wrong again. Three weeks later, Vallejo cops showed up at the high school where some girls were fighting and “tased” a mother who had come to pick up her child. It’s enough to make you wonder about whether Tasers are legitimate crime control tools.
But Tasers aren’t just for cops any more. Taser has a handy consumer model available which may make their whole product line look as safe as soft serve ice-cream. As Andrea Prichett of CopWatch said, “The stroke of genius is to legalize it for the public. How can you fault the police if it is okay for the public?”
To answer that, you might ask Washington’s mother, Lori Robinson what she knows about the night when the cops killed her son. You might ask her attorney and you might look at the police report. The trouble is that no one has access to that report, even though the incident took place eight months ago. According to the police, they wouldn’t have a report until they heard from the coroner, be even then they didn’t release the police account.
Part of the delay seems to be from what is in the coroner’s report. For one thing, unlike many coroners’ reports from similar incidents, the one for Washington actually lists “Tasering” as one of the components leading to cardiac arrest. The coroner’s report also shows Washington had a normal heart and that he had cocaine levels below effective levels. Three separate rounds of drug tests were ordered, each with more drugs targeted, but no other drugs were found. Were the police just fishing? It would be consistent with Taser’s briefing recommendations that police link deaths to drug use. Recently, the SF Gate caught Salinas Police Chief Daniel Ortega repeating those briefing papers almost word for word in statement designed to give drugs the blame. But in the Washington case, Gilpin said, “The cops aren’t harping on it.” In fact, they aren’t saying anything.
All Robinson has heard is that she owes twenty-three hundred dollars for the storage of the body, a lot of money for a woman who recently lost her daycare center where Washington used to help out, playing with the kids and reading to them. Together they knew a lot of people in Vallejo, many who attended the “Stop The Violence” march that took place after Washington’s death. Robinson carried such a big sign with Washington’s boyish face that it embarrassed her.
When asked why she thinks they used so much force on her son, she was upset. He was not the hostile type. Gilpin added, “It’s for the same reason they grab you’re head and slam it down when they put you in a cop car. They say it’s to protect you though they know damn well you’ve been getting into cars all your life and you haven’t hit your head yet.” Robinson’s bottom line is “Cars can be replaced. My son cannot be replaced.” She thinks the weapon is “very, very faulty.”
Taser International naturally disagrees. They insist the guns don’t cause cardiac arrest, the most often cited cause of death in stun gun incidents. Even the ACLU, Amnesty International, and CopWatch aren’t against stun guns outright. As Prichett insists, “It isn’t the weapon. It’s the approach.”
But it could be the weapon. Tasers have not been tested independently. No peer-reviewed journals have vouched for their safety. Even company testing shows they have only been studies on pigs and dogs. Recently police around the country have reported moderate to severe injuries after they were shocked during training session. And training is under conditions completely unlike those on the street where drugs are a fact of life and suspects are often excited from the chase. Although 80 percent of agencies in California are equipped with stun guns, detailed figures on their use are virtually nil.
For that reason, in late February, Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, introduced a bill that would ban the possession of Tasers by civilians and require law enforcement to track such details as the number of shocks and the length of each shock.
The reports would be filed monthly and might very well help establish any patterns of use. But they wouldn’t have gotten the police report out sooner for Lori Robinson. They wouldn’t have gotten her closure any sooner or prevented her from being given a bill for her dead son.
Standard Schaefer is a writer living in San Francisco. His latest book Water and Power is forthcoming from Agincourt Books. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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