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Did police Taser a fleeing suspect too many times?

Taser International X26

Taser: Weapon of mass discussion leads to legal battle for Federal Way Police

Rickey Beaver was high on cocaine and marijuana. Drunk, too.

He was rifling through belongings in Chad Martinez’s house on the 2500 block of S.W. 334th Street when Martinez returned home to see Beaver’s shopping cart in the driveway. Realizing an intruder was in his place, Martinez started banging on the outside windows and walls.

Martinez’s noisemaking scared Beaver out of the house empty-handed. Beaver crawled out of the same window he had busted in order to get inside. Martinez yelled. Beaver took off, making it over the backyard fence after three tries.

Three years later in court, Beaver didn’t deny any of this. It had been a daylight burglary, just after 12 p.m. At least seven witnesses saw him flee the scene. He had even dropped his wallet in the home he was burglarizing, complete with identification.

His point of contention stems from what happened next.

Federal Way Police Officer Doug Laird arrived to see Beaver running away on 21st Avenue S.W. As one witness said of Beaver in a police statement, “He looked like more than I could handle.” Laird, though, recognized Beaver from previous encounters.

He pulled his squad car into Beaver’s path, got out and ordered him to stop. Beaver kept on running, oblivious to the officer’s commands.

Laird fired his Taser, a non-lethal weapon with a range of 35 feet, and hit Beaver. Beaver dropped to the ground while the first electric current jolted through him. But he still failed to follow Laird’s directions.

Laird recalled in his police report that he applied the Taser’s charge eight times. Beaver alleges he got the Taser treatment at least nine, maybe 12 times. A possibly inaccurate data upload from the Taser’s onboard computer recorded five uses on Beaver. No matter the number — a judge would later find Beaver had been tased at least two times too many.

Making of the Taser

We use them more because we don’t have to go hands on. We don’t have as many officers hurt — or suspects, either. – Det. Bill Skinner

Like most stun guns in the hands of law enforcement officers, Taser International was the manufacturer of the weapon Laird used against Beaver during the burglary Aug. 27, 2004. The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company has had a near-monopoly on the market since it re-engineered the weapon to fire with nitrogen propellant rather than gunpowder.

The Taser wasn’t widely embraced until after a redesign in 2000. Orders exploded especially after Sept. 11, 2001, when Homeland Security funding gave many departments the extra money needed to invest in new weaponry. Now Tasers are used by 375 law enforcement agencies in Washington state alone, according to Taser International spokesman Steve Tuttle. More than 176,000 civilian versions have been sold to citizens since 1994.

Tasers came to the Federal Way Police Department (FWPD) in 2002, said Detective Bill Skinner, who has been FWPD’s Taser instructor since they were introduced to the department. Skinner said most officers now carry them, although it is only mandatory to carry two of three options: An extendable baton, pepper spray or a Taser. The Taser is now the most common weapon deployed by the department in incidents when force is used, according to statistics provided by the FWPD.

“We use them more because we don’t have to go hands on,” said Skinner. “We don’t have as many officers hurt — or suspects, either.”

In 2007, of the 102 incidents where the department’s officers used force, 70 involved a Taser. So far this year, Tasers were used in 43 of 60 incidents in which use of force was deemed necessary.

Weapons such as extendable batons and pepper spray use pain as their motivator. But the Taser’s effectiveness, Skinner said, is in how it actually debilitates a suspect.

The weapon fires two darts attached to insulated wires. Once both darts hit a target, a circuit is completed. The weapon then rapidly pulses up to 50,000 volts through a suspect for five seconds, disrupting their neuromuscular system and taking away control over movements.

As long as the darts are imbedded in the skin, the five-second shocks can be applied multiple times, as they were with Rickey Beaver (see accompanying article), with no lasting after-effects. Low amperage makes the high voltage charge non-lethal, although not pain-free. (Read Mirror reporter Jacinda Howard’s firsthand account of how it feels to be tased, or watch it online at www.fedwaymirror.com.)

Taser International training documents instruct officers to use a Taser only to stop a suspect — not to physically coerce them.

Taser’s aftershock

Increased use of Tasers at agencies around the world has led to claims of excessive use of force — and even wrongful death. Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union regularly decry the use of the weapons.

The blog called “Truth…Not Tasers” keeps a list of people it says have died in Canada and the U.S. since 2001 after being tased. Its count stands at more than 375, including William Jobe, a Federal Way man who died Nov. 9, 2006, after being tased by a FWPD officer. Jobe’s mother called police when he began having violent hallucinations after consuming alcohol and medication not prescribed for him. Jobe received severe lacerations on his arms after breaking a window. He was tased and then physically restrained by officers. Jobe died two days later.

While no lawsuit was filed in Jobe’s death, Taser International itself has faced 75 product liability cases in recent years. Up until summer 2008, the company had either won all of the cases in court, earned dismissals or settled with the plaintiffs.

But a jury in California attributed 15 percent of Robert Heston’s death to repeated Taser applications in a decision announced June 6. Heston’s wife was awarded more than $6 million in damages, marking the first time Taser International had lost in court.

Taser International’s in-house legal team has since filed several post-trial motions against the Heston decision. But the case isn’t the only one facing the company, which is currently named as a defendant in 38 more lawsuits.

Taser trouble in Federal Way

Rickey Beaver filed a Taser lawsuit of his own Nov. 18, 2005, from confinement in Western State Hospital.

It wasn’t the first civil rights complaint he’d written, according to documents from the U.S. District Court of Western Washington. Since 2001, Beaver has filed eight complaints with the U.S. District Court. Three were against the King County Jail and alleged that he had been denied prescription medications while in custody. Several of them include a common request: $250,000 in damages in addition to attorney’s fees “and any other damages the court sees fit.” Most of the time the court saw fit to dismiss his complaints without prejudice.

Not with Beaver’s Taser complaint, though.

Seattle attorney Kenneth Odza was appointed by the court to represent Beaver after it determined his Taser-related civil rights complaint had merit. Beaver named the City of Federal Way, Laird and then-Officer Heather Castro as defendants. Beaver could not be reached for comment.

Here’s poor Rickey, high as a kite, getting tased while they were giving him conflicting instructions. They relied on this weapon.– Attorney Ken Odza

Castro arrived on the scene after Laird had tased Beaver a third time, only two seconds after the second application, according to court documents. Between the time she arrived and when Beaver was hit by the Taser’s first charge, Beaver had failed to comply with Laird’s orders to lay flat on his stomach, reports said; instead, it appeared he was trying to get up. But a witness on the scene recalled in court testimony that Beaver said repeatedly in response to Laird, “I can’t.”

Castro then ordered Beaver to roll over on his back, but Laird told Beaver to get on his stomach. Castro told Laird to tase Beaver again, at which point Beaver experienced at least his fourth five-second jolt. Laird delivered one more charge before Castro moved in and handcuffed Beaver, according to an account of events in the district court’s judgment.

As Beaver’s lawyer, Odza believes a Taser is a very effective law enforcement tool. But after his client was tased the first time, Odza thinks it was just a matter of officers relying on that tool too much.

“Rickey Beaver was a quote-unquote known criminal, but he never had any sort of violent history,” Odza said. “The officers just didn’t want to move in and do what they needed to do. Instead, they tased him into submission. Here’s poor Rickey, high as a kite, getting tased while they were giving him conflicting instructions. They relied on this weapon.”

After a three-day, non-jury trial, Magistrate Judge James Donohue found that Laird and Castro had violated Beaver’s civil rights with the last two Taser applications. The court’s decision, made Aug. 31, 2007, was not reported by any local media, nor did the Federal Way Police Deparment post a press release.

Despite the ruling in Beaver’s favor, Laird and Castro (now detectives) were not found liable because they were entitled to qualified immunity. The court ruled it was not clearly established by the law in 2004 that tasing Beaver in such a manner would violate his civil rights, and the officers could not be held responsible. The city had already been dismissed from the charges by a pre-trial motion.

Since Donohue ruled that the officers violated Beaver’s civil rights, the FWPD has not changed its Taser usage policies, Skinner said. The department has, however, conducted additional training. The department tells officers not to tase the elderly or pregnant. But there are no policies against the number of times a Taser may be applied against a suspect. The overarching policy, according to Skinner, is for officers “to use their best judgment.”

“There’s no way to say that, ‘this situation you do this, this situation you don’t do this,'” he said.

While a recent U.S. Department of Justice study found suspects hit by Tasers receive only bruises or scrapes 99.7 percent of the time, several police organizations have cautioned departments to enact strict policies.

A 2005 report by the Police Executive Research Forum recommended Tasers only be used on suspects aggressively resisting arrest and warned suspects shouldn’t be shocked more than once. Another report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police found that certain groups — like the mentally ill — shouldn’t be tased at all.

Odza faults the policies of the FWPD rather than Laird and Castro. He’s worried the department’s current regulations leave Taser usage too open to abuse.

“The department’s behavior hasn’t changed, which is part of the reason we’ve appealed the decision,” Odza said.

The chief likes Tasers. We’re going to continue to buy them. – Det. Bill Skinner

Beaver’s appeal to Laird’s and Castro’s protection under qualified immunity will be heard Oct. 23 in Seattle. Odza argues the law surrounding excessive use of force with Tasers was clearly established in both 2002 and 2003, and said Laird and Castro should be liable.

Attorney Bob Christie, who represents Laird and Castro, said he would be surprised if the original decision was overturned. He thinks there’s a huge misunderstanding of Tasers — one that has too many lawyers picking apart police officers’ decisions in hindsight. The Taser, said Christie, is better than older use-of-force tools.

“Mr. Beaver is complaining about getting tased. But the options left to the officers would have been getting out their baton or punching him. Once the Taser has cycled, it’s done…and that’s it,” Christie said. “There’s accountability on how many times a Taser has been deployed.”

Taser International now offers a camera that attaches to its latest police Taser, the X26. A press release from the company says the Taser is “all about effectiveness, accountability and safety.”

While the FWPD continues to replace its older Tasers with the X26, it has no plans to purchase the optional camera attachment, Skinner said. The X26 already costs the department $800 each, and the camera attachment is another $400.

“The chief,” Skinner said, “likes Tasers. We’re going to continue to buy them.”

Because of the length of this story, it had to be split into two sections on the Mirror’s Web site. Here it appears without the split as it originally appeared in the Sept. 24 print edition.