On a recent afternoon, Kelso police confronted a mentally ill woman armed with a knife at a Kelso apartment complex. The officers' attempts to negotiate with the woman proved fruitless, police said. So when the woman began lunging at the officers, they shocked her with their Tasers.
One officer fired the weapon's two probes, which zapped her with 50,000 volts of electricity. It had little effect. So the other officer also deployed his Taser and the woman, who was in her late 20s, fell to the ground. She was uninjured and was taken to PeaceHealth St. John Medical Center's mental health ward.
In the days before officers carried Tasers, it's entirely possible that police would have fatally shot the woman. Police facing a person charging with a knife had little other choice in those days. But since local officers began carrying stun guns 10 years ago, they've become a commonplace tool in subduing aggressive suspects.
Even after a decade of widespread use, however, Tasers remain controversial. There is still disagreement on when and how officers should use them. The U.S. Supreme Court is about to decide whether it will hear a case involving a pregnant Seattle woman who was Tasered three times in 2004 because she failed to follow orders given by police officers.
Local law enforcement agencies say Tasers have become an invaluable tool. In the last three years, Longview and Kelso police and Cowlitz County Sheriff's deputies have used their Tasers a total of 74 times, according to data provided by the agencies. In many of those incidents, the weapons helped officers avoid injury to themselves and to suspects, who become temporarily disabled by the shocks but were not permanently harmed, police say.
"The Taser has saved lives," said Longview police Capt. Deborah Johnson. "I can tell you we have used a Taser on people we would have had to shoot."
Use on non-violent suspects?
There have been reports of Taser-related deaths nationwide. Most controversial of late, though, has been the practice among law enforcement agencies of using Tasers to control nonviolent subjects.
Malaika Brooks of Seattle was seven months pregnant when Seattle police pulled her over for speeding in 2004 and Tased her three times in front of her 11-year-old son, according to press accounts. The officers said Brooks refused to sign a speeding ticket, which the law required at the time, and refused to leave her car. The Taser left permanent scars, according to media reports, which also said that Brooks eventually delivered a healthy baby.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the officers used excessive force but that they were immune from liability or prosecution. Even so, the officers said the 9th Circuit ruling "effectively strips officers of the authority to use any pain-compliance technique to control an actively resisting arrestee" and have asked the U.S. high court to rule that the force was justified.
Representatives of local police agencies said last week that each Taser deployment is reviewed at several levels within the department and they knew of no situations where a local officer inappropriately deployed a Taser against a suspect.
Johnson, the Longview police captain, said Longview police use Tasers to subdue aggressive suspects, not to get them to comply with officers' demands.
"Just because somebody is not complying with our commands, we cannot Tase them," Johnson said. "That would be a violation of our policy."
Specifically, she said, the policy says Tasers are "intended to control a violent or potentially violent individual while minimizing the risk of serious injury" to police and the suspect.
Both Kelso police and the Cowlitz County Sheriff's Office follow similar Taser policies.
"We wouldn't Tase them if we said, 'Get out of the car,' and they said, 'No,' " said sheriff's Capt. Corey Huffine.
In that situation, he said, deputies would try to remove the person from the car with their hands. A Taser might be deployed if the suspect resisted or fought during the process, he said. Huffine said deputies would probably deploy the Taser right away if a suspect threatened them or had a weapon.
Kelso Police Capt. Darr Kirk said that officers had been allowed to Tase people for not following their orders up until a few years ago when court decisions resulted in tighter policies. Now, he said, "noncompliance in and of itself is not enough" reason to Tase someone. There have to other factors involved: the suspect has to be resisting or fighting — or has to have just committed a violent crime, he said.
"It's a pretty clear line that we all abide by," Kirk said.
A safer option
Still, Kirk said that Tasers are remarkably safe and can be a safer alternative to other options, such as pulling on or tackling suspects. Tasers, he said, could prove less harmful to a defiant suspect than physically pulling them from a car, which could result in a dislocated shoulder or other injury.
Kelso officers have deployed their Taser's far more frequently in the past three years per capita than the other two police agencies. Kelso police, who patrol a much smaller area with a population of about one third of Longview's, used their Tasers 27 times over three years. Longview police used their Tasers 29 times during the same period, and the sheriff's office used them 22 times.
Kirk said any number of factors could have contributed to Kelso's comparatively frequent use of Tasers, including whether a disturbance is still in progress when police arrive and how many officers are carrying the weapons.
"It's something we've come to rely on at times," he said. "That's probably why we use it more. It's in our culture more."
Kirk also noted that officers should "routinely use less force than we would be justified in using. ... If you hire the right people, you use less force than case law allows."
Doug Honig, a spokesman for the Washington State chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said last week that the ACLU believes the Seattle incident amounted to "excessive use of force."
The ACLU doesn't oppose the use of Tasers, but it believes the weapons "should be used with caution," Honig said in an interview with The Daily News last week. Police departments should have clear rules for their use, make sure their officers know those rules and document each Taser deployment to ensure the rules are being followed.
"It's designed to be used to restrain somebody, but not to punish them," Honig said. "And it should not be used as a substitute for less restraint such as handcuffing."