CINCINNATI - The top law enforcement officers of Hamilton County are taking seriously a study released this week, which took a comprehensive look at police Taser policies in the county, revealing "serious" problems, according to a prominent local civil rights attorney leading a charge for Taser reform.
The Hamilton County Police Chiefs Association met this week and formed a committee to address the issues brought up by the study and Taser concerns in general, according to Montgomery Police Chief Don Simpson, who is president of the association.
A survey of more than 30 law enforcement agencies in the county was compiled by the Law Firm of Gerhardstein & Branch LPA based on public records requests to all law enforcement agencies in Hamilton County, Ohio.
An 18-page report, including a detailed spreadsheet, was released at a community meeting at New Prospect Baptist Church.
Attorney Al Gerhardstein, the study's author, says serious problems include:
94 percent of agencies' materials do not adequately warn that Tasers can capture the heart rhythm of the subject, possibly leading to death.
67 percent of policies permit upper chest shots despite the manufacturer's warning moving the preferred target zone away from the upper chest.
70 percent of policies do not instruct officers to consider the seriousness of the crime before deciding whether or not to use the Taser.
33 percent of policies do not specifically instruct officers to consider the risk of secondary impact of falling from an elevated surface subsequent to Taser use.
27 percent of policies do not restrict Taser use on vulnerable populations such as juveniles, elderly individuals, or the visibly pregnant.
100 percent of policies fail to require that Tasers' output be tested to ensure that the actual performance of the device is within manufacturer's specifications.
73 percent of policies do not require an investigation that includes a data download from the Taser's memory chip after use to independently verify the number and duration of shocks delivered to the subject.
15 percent of policies explicitly authorize officers to use their Taser on a fleeing subject, regardless of the crime or the threat to the public.
"We have had four Taser-related deaths in four years in Hamilton County and we need to reform these policies now in order to protect our residents," Gerhardstein said.
9 News' I-Team first revealed a year ago that local Taser policies did not reflect more recent warnings from the manufacturer, Taser International. The I-Team also revealed that, unlike radar guns, breathalyzers and Automatic Electronic Defibrillators, Tasers are not regulated or required to be tested for their electrical output.
"Agencies' policies vary greatly in their treatment of the Taser use; a predictable, but perilous result," Gerhardstein said. "The consequence is a community full of officers who may or may not have been properly trained to use this dangerous and unique weapon. To confound the problem, the policies of the agencies that employ those officers may authorize them to use the Taser in a more risky manner than current standards allow."
Tasers shoot barbs into subjects to incapacitate them so that officers can arrest them without using hands-on techniques. The Taser has been credited with reducing injuries to both subjects and police, but rising concerns that Tasers are causing cardiac arrest and death have brought criticism that agencies are over or misusing the weapons.
ACLU Scott Greenwood, acknowledged as a premier use of force/Taser policy expert, commends the study as helpful in assessing policies and says it does a great service identifying the need for officers to consider the seriousness of crimes before deciding whether or not to use the Taser, but Greenwood says the study misses one component. "In order to understand and assess an agency's Taser policy, you also have to understand and assess its overall use of force policy." Greenwood added, "It would be a mistake to ask law enforcement agencies to standardize Taser policies without addressing their larger use of force and force reporting policies."
Gerhardstein's study also calls for the testing of Tasers.
"One shocking finding of this review is that not one single agency tests the electrical output of its Tasers despite the fact that at least 48 percent of agencies in Hamilton County use Tasers that are beyond their 5-year useful life," Gerhardstein said. His study cites research that..."Older weapons and those not daily spark tested appear to be more likely to operate outside of the manufacturer's specifications."
"If we are allowing our officers to use Tasers to course electricity through the bodies of our community members, then we should demand that the agencies at least know how much electricity their weapons are delivering," Gerhardstein said.
Chief Don Simpson pulled his Tasers from the street two weeks ago, saying he felt they should be tested for their electrical output to make sure they're within manufacturer's specifications before returning them to service.
Simpson says the committee will look at Taser research as well as policies around the country and report back to the association on its findings.
"We need to constantly be aware of the new information that comes out and make our decisions based upon good sound judgment and reason," said Simpson. "I think that's what the public expects us to do and that's what we're committed to do."
Gerhardstein called on local law enforcement agencies to "confer and form a task force charged with bringing Taser use in Hamilton County up to the safest possible standards."
Gerhardstein says the task force should "create a model Taser policy that reflects current research" and "review training materials used by all agencies and establish a model curriculum..."
Simpson says the association has not decided whether a model Taser policy is necessary, but will wait for the input of the committee.