Taser use under scrutiny

Baltimore County councilman wants review of police stun-gun policies after fatality

March 20, 2007|By Nick Shields and Josh Mitchell | Nick Shields and Josh Mitchell,Sun Reporters

The death of a mentally ill Baltimore County man as police attempted to subdue him with a Taser has revived a debate about the safety of the high-voltage stun guns and whether police might be too quick to use them.

Baltimore County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a former police officer, called yesterday for a review of procedures governing the use of Tasers, which are gaining popularity among law enforcement agencies seeking ways to stop suspects, short of killing them.

"My concern is officers may not be restraining themselves as necessary," Gardina said. "I'm not being critical of this incident. I was not there. I don't know the specifics. But I am concerned about the proliferation of these Taser weapons and inappropriate use" of them.

Meredith Curtis, spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said her organization was monitoring the Baltimore County incident. She said Tasers should be used only when deadly force would otherwise be authorized, or when there is "an imminent threat to human life."

"If there isn't proper appreciation for how lethal Tasers can be. They can be a very dangerous weapon," she said.

Police said yesterday that autopsy results were not yet complete on 40-year-old Ryan Lee Meyers, who died late Friday night after police were called to his family's Middle River home on a domestic violence complaint. Meyers, who was described as mentally ill, was shot with the Taser after he refused orders to drop a baseball bat, police said.

Family members have said that police used excessive force - and might have shocked the man more than once, a common factor in the majority of deaths involving Tasers in the past six years, according to Amnesty International USA.

The death, which appears to be the first in the Baltimore area involving police and a Taser, comes as police across the country and state are arming themselves with the weapon in increasing numbers. More than 80 Maryland police agencies are equipped with the device, according to the manufacturer, Taser International Inc.

The Harford County Sheriff's Office has been issuing stun guns to patrol deputies since 2005. Baltimore County police are nearing the end of a yearlong pilot program that placed a Taser in each of the agency's 10 precincts; the force plans to expand the program, a spokesman said yesterday.

Earlier this month, the Howard County Council voted to approve the use of Tasers by the police department there. Howard Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, who cast the only dissenting vote on the measure, said yesterday that the Baltimore County incident reinforced her concerns.

"It was just the kind of scenario I was afraid of," she said.

Baltimore County police said Tasers have been deployed about 40 times during the pilot project.

Under the pilot program, police drafted a preliminary policy for the use of Tasers. It states that the weapon's uses include stopping an attack from a violent person or disabling someone threatening harm to himself or others, and adds that it is not a substitute for the use of deadly force when circumstances call for it. Only the 125 officers certified in the weapon's use are to carry and deploy it.

Police said they had intended to review the policy at the end of the pilot program this month but were planning no additional review of the policy in response to Friday's incident.

The Taser works by firing probes from the gun onto a person, a company official and police said. The probes are connected to the Taser device, which sends an electrical jolt that causes a person to immediately lose neuromuscular control.

Although no use-of-force device is risk-free, Tasers enable police to temporarily incapacitate subjects - even those so intoxicated from drugs that they might not feel pain - from up to 35 feet, reducing injuries to both officers and the suspects, Taser officials said yesterday in a written statement.

"No other non-lethal law enforcement tool has undergone as extensive international scientific testing and scrutiny as Taser technology," the statement said.

Officials from Amnesty International said yesterday that there have been more than 230 Taser-related deaths in the United States since 2001, including one in Maryland, in which a man was stunned four times by police. The man, 45-year-old Eric Wolle, died in 2004 after Montgomery County police deployed a Taser against him, according to The Washington Post.

But such incidents often inspire debate about whether the device caused the deaths. The Police Executive Research Forum studied 96 stun gun-related deaths between 1999 and 2005. In four out of five cases, the person had taken some type of drug that might have contributed to the deaths.

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