Produced by Phil Drechsler
CINCINNATI-- Cincinnati's new Police Chief tells 9 News he is currently reviewing his department's policy on Taser use, calling it a weapon that should be taken seriously.
Channel 9's continuing I-Team investigation into Taser safety, following the death of 18-year-old Everette Howard after University of Cincinnati officers tased him in August, reveals use of the Taser has actually fallen dramatically by Cincinnati Police in recent years. There were 524 uses in 2005 and there were just a little more than half that many, 284 uses, last year.
It was in 2003, video of Cincinnati Police officers striking suspect Nathaniel Jones with batons thrust Cincinnati into the national spotlight. That incident, which led to Jones' death, played a role in changing the way Cincinnati Police use force.
In 2004, under then Police Chief Tom Streicher, the department put a Taser into the hands of every officer.
The Taser is a device that shoots barbs into a subject, sending electricity into the body to incapacitate. This enables police to take a subject into custody without a fight...and avoid scenarios like the Jones incident.
And the Taser delivered results.
Over the next four years, Cincinnati officer injuries declined by 56 percent, suspect injuries declined by 35 percent, and force complaints declined by 50 percent.
"If Tasers are used appropriately and there are policies in place, it can save lives, it can reduce injuries on suspects, it can reduce injuries to officers, so there are benefits," said Cincinnati Police Chief James Craig.
Craig introduced Tasers to Portland, Maine just 2 years ago as chief there. He says he is a proponent of them, but he believes Tasers should be taken more seriously than they have been.
For example, Craig did not permit officers in Portland to be Tased as part of training on the devices as Cincinnati officers have been encouraged to in the past.
"Because it's not a toy," said Craig. "It's a force device that's used to overcome resistance- aggressive resistance."
Note the chief uses the word "aggressive."
He says he's in the process of taking a close look at Cincinnati's policy which calls for the use of Tasers to control subjects that are "actively resisting arrest." "Active Resistance" is defined as "when the subject is making physically evasive movements to defeat the officer's attempt at control, including fleeing, bracing, tensing, pushing, or verbally signaling an intention to avoid or prevent being taken into...custody."
9 News reviewed Cincinnati Police Taser use of force records over the past 5 years and found the vast majority did comply with policy. In some cases where Tasers were used, though, subjects refused to comply with an officer's demands, but might not have necessarily behaved aggressively.
"If an officer is using a Taser, deploying a Taser... to say to use it because someone is mouthing off...contempt of cop is what we call it in the industry...that would not be appropriate. That could be viewed as an excessive use of force, but we're talking about someone who is not passively resisting, but someone who is aggressively resisting, who's posing a threat to the safety of the officer, to his partner or some community member," said Craig.
Cincinnati police policy also directs officers to avoid Tasing people repeatedly or for extended periods of time after research done by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a national agency that advises police, showed those uses of Tasers ..."appear to increase the risk of death or serious injury."
Still Taser International contends there's no definitive proof Tasers affect the heart.
"There's no evidence that supports that it affects the heart in humans. There is evidence that it has happened in pigs," said Taser CEO Rick Smith.
"We don't know," said Chief Craig. "I don't want my officers deploying Taser in a prolonged way because we don't know."
But Channel 9's research shows in Cincinnati, subjects have continued to get Tased in the chest, even since Taser International revised its target zone, warning in October of 2009 to avoid the chest when possible.
In 2005, of the 524 Taser shots in Cincinnati, officers hit the chest area roughly 21 percent of the time.
Shots to the chest declined in '06 and '07 to around 16 percent. In '08 the number rose up to 19 percent. In '09, of 323 shots, 15 percent hit the chest. In 2010, of the 284 shots, 19 percent hit the chest. And in 2011 through September of the 212 Taser shots, nearly 20 percent hit the chest.
Chief Craig points to the delicate balance between protecting subjects and police.
"I mean force, any force used that a police officer has to use is risky."
On the other hand, the chief doesn't want undue risk: After seeing our recent I-Team report, he's curious about testing that's been done on Tasers across Canada in which some weapons were found to be both over and under-powered-- some pulled from service after failing.
Independent testing by the CBC found some weapons were as much as 50 percent overpowered.
Taser International disputed those results.
It was the death of a Polish immigrant, Robert Dziekanski, following a Tasing in Vancouver's international airport, that led to mandatory testing of Tasers in Canada. Testing is not mandated in the U.S.
Chief Craig said he had not been aware of Tasers failing tests in Canada prior to our reports and is looking into the issue of testing Tasers.
"Every law enforcement executive wants to know that if this is what we're told the device is going to emit- 50,000 volts- I want to know that. I want to know that it's not going to be more...Or going to be less," said Craig.