In 2004, after a man's death from a controversial choke hold (the "lateral vascular neck restraint") prompted Police Chief David Kunkle to revisit the department's use-of-force guidelines, the Dallas Police Department bought its first batch batch of 400 Tasers. They were intended as an intermediate option, a relatively humane way to subdue uncooperative suspects without resorting to deadly force or a hand-to-hand struggle. Just over a year later, however, amidst controversy over four Taser-related deaths in Tarrant County, Kunkle dialed back Taser use. No longer could officers use Tasers against a suspect who was merely resisting arrest. Under the new policy, Tasers would be reserved for someone who was attacking, or attempting to attack, an officer or citizen.
Officers — or at least the leaders of police unions — felt that the new rules were too restrictive. Their grumbling continued until earlier this year; when I visited the Dallas Police Association in March to participate in a cop-shooting simulator, the point that was hammered on the most — aside, that is, from the need to give cops the authority to arrest camera-wielding cop watchers — was the absurdity, given a spate of high-profile police shootings, of Taser restrictions so onerous that the devices are relegated to deadly-force situations, when handguns are at once more reliable and more effective.
Two months ago, Police Chief David Brown acceded to the wishes of the police unions and to the intensifying sentiment post-Ferguson that perhaps it'd be better if cops weren't so quick to shoot people with guns and relaxed DPD's Taser policy. DPD also purchased a couple of thousand newer, ostensibly safer models of the device. A DPD spokesman declined to release a copy of the department's TASER policy this morning. To get one, he said, we'd need to file an open records request, which takes two weeks or more. But <em>The Dallas Morning News</em> in April described it thusly: "The new standards allow officers to stun someone who is physically resisting arrest without trying to hurt the officer. Running away without being in a fight doesn’t count."
But there was a reason Kunkle curtailed the use of Tasers a decade ago: they kill people. Hundreds and hundreds of people since 2001, according to Amnesty International. While considerably less lethal than, say, a bullet to the heart, the potentially lethal effects of jolting someone with 50,000 volts of electricity are well documented. A 2012 study concluded that Tasers are powerful enough in and of themselves to induce heart attacks. The dangers are particularly high for people who have underlying health conditions, those on drugs such as cocaine or methamphetamine, and those experiencing "excited delirium," which may or may not be a post-facto description of Taser-induced death.
Just in case anyone needed a reminder, a Dallas man died after being tased by police on Monday in Pleasant Grove. According to police, cops responded to numerous 911 calls of a man acting erratically in the 5400 block of North Jim Miller Road, specifically "running into the traffic lanes, approaching vehicles and banging on the windows of nearby businesses." They identified the man as Ross Anthony, a 25 year old with a handful of past convictions: marijuana possession, petty theft, cocaine possession and a pending charge from 2013 of home burglary. Paramedics attempted to help Anthony, but he banged his fists on the hood of the vehicle and entered a parked car as officers arrived on the scene. He made no move to get out of the car despite officers' orders but opened the door slightly after a back-and-forth with police, at which point officers were able to grab him.
"Mr. Anthony resisted as officers removed him from the car," according to DPD's writeup. "Officer Paul Kessenich used his TASER at this point. Mr. Anthony began to show signs of medical distress shortly after he was handcuffed. The paramedics at the scene then provided immediate medical attention to Mr. Anthony."
Kessnich and three of his colleagues who were involved in the arrest have been placed on paid administrative leave, as is department policy in death-in-custody investigation.
The medical examiner's office has performed an autopsy but has not yet determined a cause of death, so it's too early to know for sure whether the Taser was the precipitating cause of his death or whether it had more to do with whatever was causing Anthony to allegedly act so erratically or something else entirely. It's also hard to tell from DPD's description whether Anthony was attacking arresting officers (grounds for Taser use under the old policy) or whether he was merely resisting arrest (sufficient grounds under the new policy), though presumably the report would have mentioned an attack if one had happened.
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There is, however, more than enough detail to serve as a reminder that, while Tasers may indeed be preferable to guns in certain circumstances, they are by no means safe. The question is whether the benefits of less restrictive Taser rules (e.g. officer morale, gaining control over situations that would otherwise turn deadly; restoring a degree of trust in police, at least for the moment) outweigh the relatively small but still very real chance that some suspects will die. In other words, has the current backlash against police shootings pushed the pendulum too far back toward the Taser.
This is another detail that's not included in the police report, but it's also worth asking whether Officer Kessnich was using the Taser T26P, the new, supposedly safer version of device DPD just bought a couple thousand of. In a memo to the Dallas City Council at the time of their purchase, assistant city manager Ryan Evans touted various safety improvements that would reduce the likelihood of death.
While the Taser X26 has been an invaluable tool for officers, it has not been without controversy. Controversy arose around the country, including Dallas and Fort Worth, when citizens, who were in a state of excited delirium (some through mental illness and others through drugs used with a PCP combination) died after the Taser was used to control them. The officers' conduction of the Taser X26's electrical current for more than the recommended five seconds was cited as having contributed to the person's death. Negative media reports and civil litigation arose which caused the Dallas Police Department not to seek an increase of Taser purchases. Taser International responded to the criticism which resulted in its next generation ECW - Taser X26P - which is the model that the Department seeks to purchase. The Taser X26P is considered to be a "smart Taser". It has several features that make its use not only effective, but it allows the Department to manage and hold officers much more accountable when it is used.
For instance, the Taser X26P is designed to discharge its electrical current at a certain level for muscle control. If the Taser detects resistance to achieving that electrical current, which comes from the offender's resistance, it will increase the current needed for muscle control. On the other hand, if the Taser detects less resistance, it will reduce the current to the level needed for control. As part of the Taser X26P, The Department will also purchase the Extended Auto Shut-Down Performance Power Magazine (XAPPM) which is a Taser battery that shuts down after one cycle of five (5) seconds. The five second automatic shut-down battery was recommended as part of the study completed by the Police Executive Research Forum. The purpose of the automatic shut-down is to keep officers from using the Taser for longer than 5 seconds in a single trigger pull; instead, it requires a manual, conscientious pull of the trigger for each cycle of up to five seconds.
At the very least, it will be interesting to see what role all this new data plays in the subsequent investigation.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.