On Wednesday, the Sacramento Bee had an interview with Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness about their department’s policies on the use of Tasers. The Vanguard has asked similar questions of Davis Police Chief Landy Black. Chief Black also directed us to the Davis Police Department’s policies on the use of Tasers and the use of deadly force.
Chief Black: I do. I still see this tool as a practical alternative to some other, also justifiable, uses of force that at times raise a greater risk of injury to officers, recipients of force applications, and innocent civilians. And I don’t see that this latest appellate court decision changes that. It merely requires that police agencies and their agents tighten up their policies and training with regard to standards of reasonableness.
Vanguard: The court said that to justify the use of a Taser, “the objective facts must indicate that the suspect poses an immediate threat to the officer or a member of the public.” Disobeying orders or acting out are not sufficient. Your thoughts?
Chief Black: I was pleased and encouraged to see that this specific language used by the Justices in the published opinion, and other language in their ruling, supports and bolsters Davis PD’s existing policies and training guidance. I see the opinion as essentially an endorsement of our existing policy. In fact, our existing policy prescribes additional factors for officers to consider before they reach a decision to employ force, whether a Taser or some other form.
Vanguard: Do you think Tasers are being overused in situations where officers may have other options, including talking?
Chief Black: I cannot speak for peace officers universally, but here in Davis, based on our review of Davis PD uses of force involving Tasers, that is not the case. Each and every case since I arrived here nearly three years ago in which we have employed a Taser has met or exceeded the reasonableness standards that 1) we train our officers understand and be able to articulate before Taser use, and 2) require them to comply with through our Department policies.
However, we do not stop here. While we train our officers to use force reasonably and appropriately, we also have been training to improve DPD officers’ capabilities to employ other tactics. Virtually every day, our officers are confronted with a wide variety of circumstances that challenge them to find resolution in the least intrusive and most reasonable manner they are capable of. Many of those are dynamic and potentially violent confrontations. Davis PD officers routinely resolve many of these without force–using dialogue and reason.
And to provide Davis PD officers with another tool in their repertoire along this line, we have been active in working with mental health providers/practitioners (MHP) and other experts in the realm of police responses to street-level mental health incidents. Together we have begun fashioning new protocols for police handling of such incidents and have been providing what is referred to in the MHP/Police culture as Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) to our officers. The decision-making and options-providing skills that come from this training is not only beneficial to our officers when they are confronted by potentially violent persons with mental health issues, but also when they find themselves confronted by other potentially violent persons without such issues.
Vanguard: In your view, are Tasers more dangerous than sometimes advertised? Official statistics have placed the number of fatalities from Taser shootings at 9 in the Sacramento area over the last decade.
Chief Black: I first have to take exception to the second part of the question and the accuracy of the phrase, “fatalities from Taser shootings.” I do not believe there have been any medical/pathology findings of death caused by Taser in any of the cases you mention (or any other cases nationally, as far as I know). The statement you quote is what is seen in many headlines published by those uninformed as to the true nature of cause of death. All of the cases I am familiar with have been determined to have causes of death not associated with a Taser; only that Taser use was an incidental element of the circumstances occurring at or around the time of death. While I’ll take your word that there may have been nine deaths “in the Sacramento area over the last decade” (and more, of course, when you look more broadly) in which, among other things, Taser use was present, to my knowledge, none of those deaths was attributed to (through the conclusions of the medical examiner/coroner process) the Taser or from the effect of the electrical impulse on the person’s cardiovascular or neurological systems. Each death has been ruled caused by some other factor.
However, to the first part of your question: Tasers are not more dangerous than advertised. The manufacturer has been explicit that they expect that their product will be used reasonably and responsibly. They advertise that when employed so, the Taser does not present a measurable risk of injury through its use. As far as I am aware, the outcomes of Taser use that go beyond what one might expect have always been attributed to factors other than the direct result of the application of the Taser electrical impulse.
Injuries of the sort considered in this latest 9th Circuit case are less a result of Taser use than a failure of the officer to anticipate unintended consequences. Peace officers employ many other forms of minimal force (come-alongs, leveraged force to limbs, tripping, and even body strikes, etc.) to overcome force thrust upon them. When precautions against unrestrained falling are either unavailable or not employed, injury beyond what was anticipated might be expected, yet that doesn’t condemn the tactic. It just requires better training to anticipate and avoid the unintended.
Vanguard: In what types of situations is the use of Tasers appropriate or inappropriate?
Chief Black: I want to be clear from the outset that my perspective on how I consider and respond to this question is couched upon the fact that each and every circumstance that an officer might be confronted with is unique; unable to be defined in advance; and dynamic/constantly evolving, which further frustrates pre-classification. To make a general assumption, in advance of a particular circumstance, that any particular solution or remedy is either appropriate or inappropriate is flawed from the outset. Operational policies should not be based on specific circumstances. Policy guidance must be broad enough to allow an officer to make a reasonable decision based on, literally, an infinite number and evolving set of possibilities with which they may be confronted. It would be impossible to established policy for every conceivable circumstance.
Davis PD policy regarding the use of force properly assumes that no policy can realistically or accurately predict every possible situation an officer might encounter. Therefore, our officers must be entrusted with well-reasoned discretion to determine the appropriate use of force in each incident. To ensure the greatest likelihood of success in that endeavor, our officers are trained so they have the greatest ability and capacity to develop and employ that well-reasoned discretion. Due in the largest part to our belief in the value of the public’s trust–and this is a large component of from which the public’s trust is based–Davis PD training with regard to the proper and reasonable use of force is one of the most important and emphasized areas of our ongoing training.
However, our policies do recognize and anticipate that the public has some notions about the application of force upon certain types of people and in certain types of circumstances and that applications in certain situations create an elevated risk of unintended consequential injuries. For those reasons we admonish and forewarn our officers to understand they may be held to a higher level of scrutiny under such circumstances. Here is the list of those types of people and circumstances that our policy informs officers to anticipate will require a higher level of justification if a Taser is employed:
- Handcuffed or restrained subjects
- Passive or passively resisting subject
- Presence of flammable liquids/fumes or explosive environments
- Target person is in an elevated position
- Target person is operating a moving vehicle or machinery
- Target person is running or fleeing (fall potential)
- Pregnant female
- Target person in swimming pool or other body of water
- Intentional Taser application to sensitive body areas (face, neck, groin, or a female’s breast)
- Frail or infirm individual
I’m sure you can fathom as well as I that even though children, seniors, pregnant woman, etc. are on this list, it is not at all inconceivable that any of them could themselves direct a level of force or resistance toward an officer that might justify using force or Taser to avoid officer or civilian injury or even prevent unnecessary and otherwise more serious injury to the target person. For that reason there is not an outright prohibition on the use of force or Taser in these circumstances, but additional precautions and forethought are expected/required.
Vanguard: A number of Taser shootings have occurred with individuals who turned out to be mentally ill or emotionally disturbed–is this an appropriate use? How can law enforcement better deal with such individuals?
Chief Black: The decision to use force is based on the nature of the conduct/force and the threat the officer is confronted with. The knowledge that a person threatening or using force upon an officer has mental health issues is generally immaterial to the decision to use force and what force will be used. The Police Department, the City, and our citizens do not expect that Davis police officers should sustain injury in the performance of their duties, whether or not they are dealing with a person possessing all of their mental faculties or not. We train and expect our officers to analyze all of the factors they are confronted with and use that force which is reasonable to overcome the force and/or threat of force, restore order, and survive the encounter uninjured.
That being said, the Davis PD, along with a growing number of police departments locally and around the nation, recognizes that individuals with mental health issues are likely to come into contact with our officers, often under crisis-like circumstances. We know our citizens are sensitive to how these fragile individuals are handled and treated. We can’t ignore that public mandate. At the risk of repeating myself, I want to emphasize, once again, that we have been working actively with the mental health providers/practitioners (MHP) and other experts in the realm of police responses to street-level mental health incidents to develop protocols for the police handling of such incidents and have been providing what is referred to in the MHP/Police culture as Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) to our officers. New decision-making and options-providing skills spring from this training–skills that create a greater likelihood for more peaceful resolutions to confrontations involving those with mental health issues.
Vanguard: How many times on average in a given year does the Davis Police Department use the Taser?
Chief Black: The range over recent years is between four and ten Taser applications a year. The average number, going back to 2001, or so, would be about 8 a year.
Vanguard: Will the ruling change how your officers do their jobs?
Chief Black: I don’t think this decision will have much effect on the way we think or do things regarding Use of Force or Taser use here at Davis PD. The 9th Circuit’s Justice’s decision mirrors what our Use of Force and Taser policies already require and instruct. In fact, our policies are even a bit more constraining than what is explicit in the language of the court’s ruling.
When I read this ruling, I was pleased and encouraged to see that the language used by the Justices in the published opinion supports and bolsters Davis PD policy and training guidance. I see the opinion as essentially an endorsement of Davis PD’s existing policy. There are several pertinent statements the Justices made in their ruling that are the basis for my belief:
- “[A]ll force…must be justified by the need for the specific level of force employed.”
- “[W]e must evaluate the nature of the specific force employed in a specific factual situation.”
- An officer intending to employ force must evaluate “…the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.”
Each of those postulates exist in our current Use of Force policies–almost verbatim in some cases.
However, and again, as I said in my earlier communication with you, this is a fresh ruling and we will definitely take the time to review it, and think and talk about its implications. We make a practice of listening to what the courts have to say and then holding our policies and training guidelines up to the standards the courts establish to ensure that we are staying within reasonable and Constitutional bounds with our policy guidance. It certainly is possible that we may find some nugget previously overlooked that we might like to incorporate into our policy guidance. But for now, I am comfortable that our policies and the way we do business as peace officers are in line with both this latest ruling, as well as with U.S. Supreme Court rulings along the same line.
—David M. Greenwald reporting