published Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

Taser ruling won't change local policies


by Jacqueline Koch

WHAT THE APPEALS COURT SAID

"We recognize the important role controlled electric devices like the TaserX26 can play in law enforcement. The ability to defuse a dangerous situation from a distance can obviate the need for more severe, or even deadly, force and thus can help protect police officers, bystanders and suspects alike. We hold only that the X26 and similar devices constitute an intermediate, significant level of force that must be justified by 'a strong government interest (that) compels the employment of such force.'"

Source: Bryan v. McPherson

Stringent policies on Taser use here are why area law enforcement agencies don't plan to change their training methods in the wake of a recent federal appeals court ruling.

That court ruled unanimously in San Francisco on Dec. 28 that police need a reason to believe suspects are dangerous before stunning them with a Taser.

Chattanooga police already follow a use-of-force continuum that spells out what force an officer can deploy that must match a suspect's actions, officials have said.

"We already take into account that a Taser is not a cure-all," said Sgt. Mark Smeltzer, who oversees training for the Chattanooga Police Department.

He said the continuum is not a ladder, and steps don't necessarily have to be followed if a suspect is exhibiting threatening behavior. The officer's use of force must match the suspect's, he said.

"It's not the kind of thing that we train officers to pull out (a Taser) and this is the first thing that they use. ... (But) sometimes it is the appropriate action that (officers) have to go straight to," Sgt. Smeltzer said.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also said officers can't use a Taser simply because a person is disobeying orders or acting erratically.

In Catoosa County, Ga., Sheriff Phil Summers said he has no plans to change policy, as the ruling occurred in a different judicial district.

The main issue with the ruling was that the officer in California did not give verbal warnings before he used the Taser, the sheriff said.

"You always warn the individual and give verbal commands warning them to stop, warning them to not resist arrest, before you utilize alternative defense weapons," Sheriff Summers said. "... defense weapons are to protect an officer against a suspect."

Taser use came under fire locally after a man being discharged from Erlanger hospital was shot by a hospital security guard and later died in November. Chattanooga police also used a Taser on a man in December at the Parkridge Medical Center emergency room after he became combative, police said.

The December federal appeals court ruling came after a San Diego-area man was shot with a Taser by an officer who stopped him for not wearing a seat belt.

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