Citing Deaths in Police Custody, ACLU of Colorado Calls For Limits on Use of Electroshock Weapons

Affiliate: ACLU of Colorado
February 26, 2004 12:00 am

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DENVER–Citing an increasing number of in-custody deaths associated with law enforcement use of electroshock weapons, the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado today called on Denver Police Chief Gerry Whitman to tighten the department’s use-of-force policy and restrict officers’ use of the taser to situations that present a true threat to human life or safety.

“Tasers are often promoted to the public on the ground that they can save lives in situations where police would otherwise use deadly force,” said Mark Silverstein, Legal Director of the ACLU of Colorado. “There is no question that tasers are less lethal than revolvers, but the public is much less aware that police departments around the country, including Denver, are authorizing officers to use tasers in situations where no one would claim that lethal force is even arguably justified.”

In a letter sent to Chief Whitman, the ACLU noted that more and more people are dying in custody in situations where law enforcement officers have subdued them with tasers or stun guns. The ACLU cited three deaths nationwide in 2001, 10 in 2002, 16 in 2003, and four thus far this year. Two of the deaths occurred in Colorado. In more than 90 percent of these in-custody deaths, the ACLU letter said, “the deceased was not brandishing any weapon, nor were law enforcement officers using the taser as an alternative to firearms.”

“These in-custody deaths raise serious questions about whether tasers, contrary to their proponents’ claims, may be lethal in certain situations,” the ACLU letter said. “They also raise questions about the propriety of policies that authorize officers to use tasers when there is no serious threat of substantial physical harm.”

The ACLU letter also said that advocates of tasers overstate the claims for their safety and inappropriately understate or dismiss the role that tasers may have played in in-custody deaths.

“The proponents of tasers have repeatedly said that tasers have never caused a death,” Silverstein said. “What they mean, apparently, is that so far no medical examiner has listed the taser as the sole cause of death. But several medical examiners have said that an electroshock weapon contributed to a fatality. That could easily be enough for legal liability, and that is certainly enough reason to reexamine and redraft the current policy.”

Silverstein said that the ACLU had also asked the Public Safety Review Commission and the Mayor’s Task Force on Police to consider whether the use of tasers should be restricted “to situations where they truly serve as an alternative to the use of firearms.”

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