ACLU of Wisconsin Says Taser Death Demonstrates Need to Restrict Police Use of Potentially Lethal Weapons

Affiliate: ACLU of Wisconsin
July 17, 2006 12:00 am

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MILWAUKEE, WI – The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin today demanded that the Town of Mukwonago police and other Wisconsin police agencies adhere to professional standards when deploying and using stun guns

“The ACLU demands that Mukwonago and others that may have deficient policies and training suspend use of stun guns, such as the Taser, until appropriate changes are made to prevent another tragedy from happening,” said ACLU of Wisconsin Executive Director Chris Ahmuty.

The ACLU is also concerned that the Mukwonago incident may be another example of the tendency of police to “try out” a new technology in the first few weeks after its deployment or training. Other Wisconsin departments have seen a marked drop-off in the rate of use of the devices after their novelty has worn off. According to news reports, dozens of deaths have occurred around the country after police have used these devices, including many situations that raise doubts about the stun guns’ safety and usefulness.

“Training in stun gun use must emphasize that these weapons can be lethal. The training should be comparable in duration and scope to firearms training. The four hours of training which Mukwonago provided is woefully inadequate,” Ahmuty said.

Nickolos Cyrus, a mentally ill man found in his bathrobe on a construction site, died after being shot multiple times by Mukwonago police with a stun gun on Sunday. According to press reports, police shot the man while he was walking or running away and administered a “drive stun” directly to his body when he was already on the ground but failing to put his hands in a position in which they could be cuffed.

“If the press accounts are accurate, the use of a stun gun was completely unwarranted in this situation and again raises grave concerns about the adequacy of police policies and officer training regarding use of these potentially lethal weapons,” said Laurence Dupuis, the ACLU of Wisconsin’s Legal Director. “There is an emerging consensus that Tasers should not be used on fleeing suspects or against those only offering passive resistance, as appears to be the case here. It is also critical for officers to distinguish between the “non-compliance” of a mentally ill individual and the dangerous behavior of a criminal. Had the emerging standards of Taser use been applied in this case, it is possible that Mr. Cyrus would still be alive today.”

The Wisconsin Law Enforcement Standards Board and its Tactical Skills Advisory
Committee agrees. According to its June 2005 recommendations, Tasers should only be used to overcome “active resistance” that “creates risk of bodily harm to the officer, subject and/or other person.” The policy prohibits use against “people who are running away” and recognizes the importance of differentiating between “purely criminal behavior” and “behavioral illness.”

While the ACLU of Wisconsin, which provided comment to the WLESB on the use of stun guns, believes that the stun guns may have a place in police arsenals, the organization also told the Standards Board that police policies often permit inappropriate and unnecessarily harmful uses. The Taser should be considered potentially lethal, and generally used only as an alternative to deadly force.

Indeed, recent research by University of Wisconsin biomedical engineering professor John Webster, demonstrates that Tasers can cause cardiac ventricular fibrillation – a precursor of cardiac arrest – in pigs. Particularly in susceptible populations, such as the young, the elderly or those with obvious medical conditions, Tasers must be presumed capable of causing cardiac arrest in humans as well. Moreover, the Taser causes excruciating pain to which people should not be exposed without a high degree of law-enforcement justification. The ACLU of Wisconsin believes stun guns should never be used against fleeing, unarmed suspects; against obviously pregnant women; against individuals incapable of inflicting injury; for crowd control; or to obtain compliance from passively resisting subjects.

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