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Taser shocks on mentally ill and intoxicated debated

Published November 19, 2009 12:21 pm

Police say Tasers are lifesavers, but the odds may change for substance abusers and the mentally ill.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

This report was first published Nov. 14

A friendly poker game is interrupted by a phone call, answered by a drunken player who doesn't like what he hears.

The man loses the next hand, then his temper.

When Salt Lake City police arrive at the apartment three minutes later, they find his trail of shattered glass and kicked-in doors. The man is punching a wall and tells officers he wants to "kick their asses." They pull out their Tasers. The first shot misses, but the next two send 50,000 volts through his body -- incapacitating him long enough for officers to handcuff him.

Police using Tasers against sober or sane suspects usually only have to pull the trigger once. But sober or sane is hardly typical for those who go toe-to-toe with police in Utah.

A Salt Lake Tribune analysis found nearly half the time, about 47 percent of the cases, in which Utah police deployed electroshock weapons over the past 2½ years, they used them on people in altered states -- those suffering from mental illness or under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Officers delivered multiple shocks to altered people almost half the time.

Yet science hasn't answered just how safe Tasers are to use on the mentally ill and substance abusers, a population that advocates say police will be even more likely to encounter as funding for treatment dwindles.

An American Medical Association council in June expressed concern that Tasers are used too often when a person does not pose a clear physical threat, and it determined there haven't been enough studies done on how they affect people in altered states. That same month, the death of a man shocked by police on a Utah highway sparked a widespread controversy. Nude and unarmed, Brian Cardall was suffering a psychotic episode when an officer zapped him twice -- at least once in the chest.

Electroshock-gun behemoth Taser International says its products can't conclusively be linked to any deaths but acknowledged individual reactions can't be predicted, particularly when underlying medical conditions or drugs are involved. After Cardall's death, the company also instructed police to avoid aiming Tasers at a person's chest - ---a departure from previous guidelines that recommended shooting at center body mass.

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Police say Tasers save lives » While the AMA says Tasers are particularly dangerous for people in altered states, police say the same people pose the biggest threats.

Officers argue some situations escalate so quickly or become so volatile that using a Taser is their only alternative to firing a gun.

"Whether someone is using narcotics or has a mental illness ... they [can] have that rush of adrenaline, and for a few minutes or even a few seconds it gives them that superhuman strength," said Sgt. Saul Bailey, who has worked for the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office for 15 years and used his Taser between 13 and 17 times since the department issued them in 2004.

Bailey recalled one instance in which he and other SWAT officers were confronting a man who was high on methamphetamine in the back room of his home. They weren't alone: The man's wife and infant child were in the room, too.

The man leaped at one of the officers, grabbing at a fully loaded, automatic rifle. He nearly had it wrestled from the officer's hands when other officers began to shock the man with their Tasers.

It took seven or eight jolts of electricity before the man let go of the rifle.

"If he hadn't let go of the rifle, we would have had to shoot him," Bailey said.

Police argue Tasers save lives by preventing major injuries, which are more likely if they are forced to use a firearm, police dog or a nightstick.

In an analysis completed in March, for example, the Durham Police Department in North Carolina reported a drop in injuries after implementing Tasers. The department said their use-of-force complaints filed against officers dropped by half in 2008 while physical contacts with suspects dropped by 75 percent, according to research publicized by Taser International.

"The No. 1 thing that it cuts down on is injury. The more often a suspect and an officer engage in physical confrontation, the more likely someone will get hurt," the report states.

But in Utah, such contentions can be difficult to quantify.

While the black-and-yellow shock devices have become a commonly issued accessory on police duty belts during the past decade, the number of fatal officer-involved shootings in the state has not seen any statistical decrease. Few departments keep or analyze their own statistics on how often and on whom officers use Tasers.

The Tribune found in most of the 423 cases reviewed, police reported deploying Tasers on people who verbally or physically threatened officers or themselves. In a handful of instances, the person shocked did not appear to pose a clear threat -- including 27 cases in which suspects were shocked as they ran from officers. No officers at departments involved in the review have been disciplined for misuse of Tasers.

Cardall's family disputes outright the notion that police should have used a Taser on the 32-year-old scientist, who died within seconds of being shocked.

"Absolutely, unequivocally a Taser should have never been used in this instance," Cardall's father, Duane, said after the death.

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'I'm still just as dead' » The Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health offers optional training for law enforcement officers across the state for situations involving mentally ill people. The Crisis Intervention Team teaches officers how to calm someone who is having a psychotic episode and how to use words-- instead of force -- to defuse the situation.

But the training isn't required. Ken Thompson, the Hurricane police officer who shocked Cardall, didn't have the training.

Crisis intervention instructor Ron Bruno said he won't use a Taser on a mentally ill person unless other options have failed.

"If I utilize my Taser first, I could put someone into [a mental] crisis," said Bruno, a detective with the Salt Lake City Police Department. "Then [that person's] pain threshold goes away."

The Tribune found mental illness, including suicide threats, was a factor in about 13 percent of all Taser cases, but the devices did not subdue the person in about one-third of those situations. In each of the 15 Utah cases where a person had a documented mental illness, officers knew ahead of time the person's situation and said they attempted to first talk down the person in three cases.

Bruno said with officer safety as his top concern, it's sometimes necessary to shock a mentally ill or otherwise altered person. It's a situation some fear will start happening more often as jail space is reserved for the most violent offenders and funding for prison drug rehab is decreasing.

"With less availability of treatment, the more likely a person is going to continue to use and drink, and there's no stopping point," said Denise Leavitt, justice program manager for the state's Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, which saw 13,000 people last fiscal year. "They are going to be more likely to be Tased or involved with police."

Taser training for law enforcement around the state does introduce the idea of identifying who a "high-risk candidate" is and how to handle them. At the Richfield Police Department, which bought its first Tasers in 2005, officers are discouraged from using a Taser on the elderly or pregnant, said Richfield police Officer Shane Scott. Also, officers are trained to recognize the symptoms of mental illness in which a person is agitated, possibly running around, stripping off clothing or behaving in an otherwise manic way, he said.

In those cases, officers are "trained to recognize that person is in a physical state of risk," Scott said. Officers call an ambulance and report the person as a mental subject. Then, Scott said, officers work to subdue the person as safely as possible -- first without using a Taser, but then with the weapon if the situation calls for it.

"If that means five of us can tackle him, we tackle him. We have to do whatever is reasonable at the time to prevent them and us from not hurting people," Scott said.

In the crisis intervention academy where Bruno teaches, he emphasizes that police first talk to people who are acting out before using force. But in order for communication to work, a person needs to have the ability to reason and understand, he said.

In situations where people are intoxicated and violent, it's not always possible to talk them into compliance, Bruno said. In those cases, officers must consider how a person is acting and decide whether using physical force such as pepper spray, nightsticks or Tasers is the right option to defuse a situation.

But Tasers appear to have a disproportionately high use on people who are mentally ill, said David Fassler, a psychiatrist from Vermont on the AMA council. He told the American Medical News the research has made him worry the devices are increasingly being used as a compliance tool in such cases.

Bailey -- the officer involved in the case in which a man wrestled for another officer's rifle -- argues police can't handle the mentally ill with kid gloves if they are threatening themselves or others.

"My wife isn't going to care whether the person was completely lucid or off their meds that day. I'm still just as dead," he said.

Others question why officers are quick to use a Taser. Antonio Calderon, who is now on the St. George Citizens Review Panel that asked law enforcement agencies to stop deploying Tasers after Cardall's death, is one of them.

The devices weren't around when he worked in corrections from 1993 to 1998.

"Indiscriminate use of Taser guns is a cop-out," Calderon said. "There should be better training and stricter parameters before the use of a Taser gun is permitted."

The AMA said Tasers, when used appropriately, can save lives, but called for rigorous training and accountability.

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When to reach for a Taser » Law enforcement agencies get their basic Taser training manuals and use policies from the same source: Taser International.

The Tribune review found nearly identical usage policies among Utah departments, all pointing to the same standard: Never use a Taser to coerce a suspect, and make sure deadly force also is available. But whether a person gets shocked may depend on where they are.

Comparing the number of Taser deployments to the size of each agency's force revealed Utah and Cache counties had some of the lowest Taser use, while Salt Lake County and Provo had some of the highest, with nearly three times the number of deployments. The state's capital landed on the low end of the middle.

Whether an officer chooses to reach for a Taser depends on the philosophy of the department. Deputies for both the Salt Lake and Utah County sheriff offices often find themselves in remote areas far from backup, but they might handle things differently.

Sgt. Jason Randall, who trains Utah County's deputies on Tasers, cautions against using Tasers in isolated situations.

"Your number one tool is your voice, and you should be able to talk somebody into handcuffs or patrol car," he said.

But in Salt Lake County, deputies are told when they're in a remote area with a small chance of backup coming, a Taser is a good option.

"Look at the injuries, there are zero to none for the officer or the suspect," said Nicholas Roberts, range master for the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office, about instances of Taser use.

Salt Lake County deputies use their Tasers nearly three times as often as Utah County officers, but such a discrepancy doesn't surprise Roberts, who points out that the capital county has twice the population and more than double the officers than its southern neighbor.

In four percent of the Salt Lake County cases, the person was shocked as he or she ran from an officer. The Sheriff's Office sets its bar high, saying an officer may only stun a fleeing person if the officer fears the person would "cause serious injury" to himself or others.

In 80 percent of the cases Salt Lake County handled, officers reported the person was combative or threatening them either verbally or physically. In the remaining 16 percent of cases, the person was shocked for resisting arrest.

While Utah County's Randall prioritizes keeping officers safe, he also focuses on using other means to do so.

"There are a lot of times where using a Taser is justified, but if you don't have to use force at all, we're encouraging officers to do that," he said. "Just because you can doesn't mean you should."

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Taser facts

First available to law enforcement in February 1998, now used by more than 14,200 law enforcement agencies in more than 40 countries.

More than 406,000 sold since the product hit the market.

Deployed in law enforcement agencies in 29 of the 33 largest U.S. cities.

Require training administered by instructors certified by Taser International.

Collects and stores information in a computer chip after each use and are equipped with Anti-Felon Identification (AFID) materials that leave confetti-sized markers containing serial number identification at the scene of a discharge.

Source: Taser International

Online Voting and discussions

Read about situations in which Utah police have used their Tasers in recent years. Click on the links to the scenarios in the box at top of this story and vote on whether you think the use was appropriate, discuss why, and see what a certified trainer had to say.

The Brian Cardall case

Hurricane police Officer Ken Thompson twice deployed a Taser on Brian Cardall on the side of State Road 59 near Hurricane after Anna Cardall called 911 to report her husband behaving erratically while having a bipolar episode.

The officer shocked Cardall, 32, once when he failed to respond to commands to get down on the ground, according to 911 call recordings of the incident. Cardall was shocked a second time when he was on the ground.

A pregnant Anna Cardall, who had her 2-year-old daughter with her, witnessed the deployment.

Anna Cardall had told dispatchers her husband was unarmed, bipolar and had taken Seroquel, a medicine used to treat manic episodes associated with the disorder. Cardall was naked and had been trying to direct traffic, the recording shows.

After the Taser was used on Cardall a second time, he quit breathing and had no pulse, officers state on the recording.

The Cardall family has been critical of the officer's handling of the situation, saying a Taser should not have been deployed. Peter Stirba, a Salt Lake City attorney representing the Hurricane Police Department during an investigation into the death, maintains the officer was justified in using the Taser.

The Washington County Critical Incident Task Force has forwarded evidence, including autopsy results it will not disclose, to the Washington County Attorney's Office. County Attorney Brock Belnap is considering any criminal charges related to the death.

Other Taser-related deaths in Utah

December 2004 » Police used a Taser on an Orem man who nearly collided with four cars while driving erratically on U.S. Highway 189 near Heber City. After a fight with police, which involved two Taser shocks and pepper spray, the driver, Douglas Meldrum, 37, died. An autopsy attributed the man's death to heart failure caused by the scuffle and high concentrations of ephedrine in his blood.

April 2006 » Salt Lake City police used a Taser on Alvin Itula, 35, who police mistakenly identified as a fugitive. As police tried to arrest Itula, a fight began and police shocked him at least four times with a Taser and used pepper spray and clubs. Itula died a short time later. His autopsy revealed high levels of cocaine and methamphetamine in his blood.