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UI, IC police stand by Tasers

BY MATT STARNS | SEPTEMBER 15, 2011 7:20 AM

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A cell-phone video opened on a familiar setting, Iowa City's downtown Panchero's location. Iowa City police officers arrived on scene, finding one man on top of the other, punching his head and torso.

A police officer defused the situation moments later when he discharged his Taser, incapacitating the combative subject in seconds.

The practice of employing stun guns has come under scrutiny across the nation recently as human rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have fought police departments on their use of the device.

According to a proposal of standards for law enforcement by the Massachusetts chapter of the ACLU, there have been more than 100 Taser-related deaths in the U.S. alone since 2001.

"There's been controversy for many years now that there are people who die after being Tased," said Ben Stone, the executive director of the ACLU's Iowa chapter. "People say that Tasers are perfectly safe; that's just not true."

Stone also said he's concerned with the amount of training law enforcement officials receive regarding appropriate use of Tasers.

"It's very easy just to use it, rather than trying to use less painful and less dangerous methods of subduing a person," Stone said. "I think there needs to be consequences for their misuse."

But police contend that the Tasers serve as a safer, more effective means of subduing a combative or unruly subject in a situation that doesn't merit lethal force.

"These devices are meant to help us avoid having to get to that point [of lethal force]," said Mike Smithey, an investigator with the Iowa City police.

He said in a lethal-force situation, however, a Taser can mean the difference between a dead subject and a successfully detained one.

"If it's appropriate, if I have the ability to pull it out, I may not have to use a gun." Smithey said. "It may keep me from rising to the level of lethal force, or it may give me an option if we're already there, and I've got cover, if we have someone else who can do that lethal force."

Smithey said complications from Taser exposure typically occur from drug use on the part of the subject or from misuse by police.

Michael Miller, a UI clinical assistant professor of emergency medicine, said the risks associated with correct Taser use are generally low, and most people who have been Tased experience no permanent injury.

"Being Tased contracts all your muscles at once; you have a big fatigue factor afterwards, almost as if you just ran a marathon," said Miller. "That's the main thing we see. Injuries are pretty rare, usually it's because someone has fallen after being Tased."

Smithey also said he thinks the Taser is an improvement from previous less-lethal force options, such as Mace and ASP batons.

"It is the most beneficial tool that has come around, I think, to law enforcement with regards to safety of everybody in a very long time," Smithey said. "It is the best tool for us in non-lethal-force situations. It's the most effective, it's the most immediate."

He also touted the safe nature of the Taser from an officer's perspective, as well as the subject's.

"It protects me as an officer, it protects the victim, and it protects the person who is getting [the Taser]," Smithey said. "I don't have to hit them with an ASP."

Officers of both the UI police and the Iowa City police now carry Tasers, a practice that is becoming the norm around the United States.

Sgt. Denise Brotherton of the Iowa City police said she supports the decision to use Tasers and considers them a safe, less-lethal force option for use in Iowa City, even for the bar crowd.

"The majority of people we deal with in arrest situations, there are substance abuse issues going on. That's not going to be unusual that someone would have alcohol in their system, that's what may have caused them to make the poor decision," she said. "We would not choose to use equipment that would be unsafe to deploy on an intoxicated subject because of this."

There have been only 42 Taser deployments by the Iowa City police since they implemented the device in 2008, a number Brotherton said is not alarming.

By comparison, UI police have deployed Tasers three times since 2008.

It is current Iowa City police policy to offer medical attention to each subject who has been Tased, and emergency medical personnel are called to the scene. If a subject is brought into custody after being Tased, he or she is monitored after the incident.

UI police policy dictates that each subject who has been Tased must be transported to the UIHC emergency room for an examination, after which the police may continue to process the individual.

Dave Visin, an associate director of UI police, said UI police officers only use Tasers when the situation warrants it.

"We use the amount of force necessary to take control of the situation as quickly as possible and as safely as possible for the suspect and the officer," he said.


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