An independent report that examined Taser use by Montgomery County police officers found that the use of the electronic weapons is low in the county, but improvements can be made to the training program and the policy surrounding their use.
The report written by Geoffrey Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina, recommended that county police refer to Tasers as a weapon rather than a device and training should include more scenario-based exercises. It also suggested the department update its policy to include more information after a court ruling in January established new guidelines for using the electrical weapons.
The court ruling, known as the Armstrong decision, was issued by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond. It said that officers may only deploy Tasers when they are confronted with an urgent situation that creates “an immediate safety risk” that the Taser can resolve. The ruling notes that a person physically resisting an officer’s attempts to move his or her body or a person who is acting erratically or suffering from a mental illness does not “necessarily” create a safety risk.
The report was commissioned by County Executive Ike Leggett earlier this year after a high profile Baltimore Sun report detailed instances in which individuals died shortly after being Tasered in the state. The report was released at a press conference in Rockville Wednesday.
County Police Chief Tom Manger said the decision narrows the circumstances in which officers can deploy Tasers. He said the guidelines were distributed in a training bulletin days after the court issued the decision. He also said referring to Tasers as devices rather than weapons was a matter of “semantics” and that it would only be a problem if the department had officers using them too often, which is not the case.
?Tasers shoot two prongs at individuals and deliver an electric shock, often incapacitating them.
The police department has significantly reduced its use of Tasers since 2013, when they were used by officers 148 times. In 2014 they were used 63 times and 59 times in 2015, according to police statistics. Manger said police officials didn’t specifically order officers to limit the use of Tasers after 2013, but that the department was guided by court decisions and changes in the law.
The report only examined the department’s use of Tasers in 2014 and 2015 and did not include an examination of any deaths that occurred shortly after an officer used a Taser on a suspect. Alpert said Wednesday that he made the decision to only study Taser use in 2014 and 2015 because policies, training and laws have changed significantly since 2014.
“I didn’t really want to go back into the history of what happened in the department, that wasn’t really the purpose,” Alpert said. “The purpose was to look at contemporary issues, contemporary concerns.”
Therefore the report didn’t examine the deaths of Anthony Howard, Kareem Ali or Delric East, three men who died shortly after being shocked by Tasers used by county police officers in 2013, 2012 and 2011.
Leggett said Wednesday the county attorney is reviewing Howard’s case from a civil standpoint. Howard died after a 2013 incident detailed by the Baltimore Sun, in which county officers tasered him nine times for a total of 37 seconds while attempting to take him into custody in Gaithersburg. Howard, who was acting erratically and high on cocaine at the time, died shortly afterwards. A video obtained by the newspaper showed Howard standing still, holding a children’s scooter before being tasered.
The report also didn’t delve into the use of a Taser on Dajuan Graham, a 40-year-old Burtonsville man, who died two days after being Tasered by a Montgomery County police officer in May 2015. The department initially cleared the officers involved after an investigation found Graham refused to comply with officers’ orders, was acting erratically, allegedly assaulted a woman before police arrived and may have been high on PCP.
County Council member Marc Elrich, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said Wednesday he wasn’t concerned that the report did not examine the deaths because the department drastically changed its policies after the deaths.
“I’m happy with the evaluation and where we are,” Elrich said. “I’m particularly glad the department took it upon itself to reduce the use of Tasers.”
The report did note that white officers deployed Tasers the most—78 percent of deployments in 2014 and 79.3 percent in 2015. It also found that men were far more likely than women to deploy the weapons—with male officers making up 98.3 percent of deployments in 2014 and 89.7 percent in 2015.
The report found the demographics of officers who deployed the Tasers were similar to the demographics of the police department.
People who were Tasered by officers were overwhelmingly male—96.6 percent in 2014 and 98.3 percent in 2015—and a majority of them were black—62.7 percent in 2014 and 65.5 percent in 2015.
Officers who were interviewed as part of Alpert’s research said they didn’t fully understand what the guidelines set forth in the Armstrong ruling required of them and as a result didn’t feel comfortable using the weapons. The officers feared facing criminal convictions or civil liability after using Tasers.
“One officer went so far as to say that the ambiguity means that he is more comfortable using a firearm than a Taser, because at least he is confident about when and when not to use it,” the report says. One of the report’s recommendations calls for additional scenario-based training on decision–making to help officers understand the guidelines.
Overall though, the report said the department was doing an “excellent” job to de-escalate confrontations or make arrests using means other than a Taser. It says that in many U.S. police departments Tasers are used by officers to gain compliance from a person they’re attempting to arrest.
“That action, while seen too often in other agencies, is not the normative response in the Montgomery County Police Department,” the report says. “To the contrary, officers consistently use verbal skills and hands-on techniques prior to the majority of Taser deployments.”