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A Times Editorial

Police need better guidelines on Taser use

Victor Steen never should have died. The 17-year-old was riding a bicycle on an October night last year when a Pensacola police officer in a moving car shot him with a Taser for refusing to stop. Victor fell, was run over by the car and dragged 35 feet. The claimed reason for the stop was that Victor didn't have a light on his bicycle.

A dashboard video shows Officer Jerald Ard driving on the sidewalk and weaving in and out of the wrong lane to closely tail Victor's bike. But as much as the officer's recklessness put Victor in mortal danger, the department's lack of training and standards are also to blame.

Too many policing agencies allow the use of Tasers in situations where they are not justified. As Times staff writer Meg Laughlin reported Aug. 1, Victor was the 57th death in Florida since 2001 in which Tasers were used in the incident. He was the fourth death in 2009.

Tasers certainly have their place in the use-of-force continuum that police use. They are safer than guns and nightsticks, and when a suspect is using violence to resist arrest, the use of Tasers can reduce injuries by allowing officers to subdue the suspect at a distance.

But Tasers have been used inappropriately when officers are not in physical danger and suspects pose no threat to public safety. Apparently due to a lack of training, some officers seem to view Tasers as harmless, when in fact the devices deliver an incapacitating and painful electrical jolt and have likely contributed to deaths around the country.

Recent Florida cases include Derrick Humbert, who died in September after Bradenton police shot him with a Taser for fleeing on foot. Police had tried to stop him because he didn't have a bicycle light. A mentally ill man in Fort Lauderdale died last year of a heart attack after police hit him with a Taser. He had been wandering in traffic. Were Taser shots justified? It's hard to see how.

The Police Executive Research Forum's guidelines on Taser use say that they generally should not be used against suspects in control of a moving vehicle, including bicycles. Until Victor's death, the Pensacola Police Department had no specific policy barring the shooting of Tasers at or from a moving vehicle. Such a policy came soon after, too late for a young man who had never been in trouble, was about to join the Army and was described as "respectful" and "loving."

There are other questions surrounding Victor's death that warrant further scrutiny by the state attorney or a grand jury, such as whether a gun on his person that had been wiped clean of fingerprints had been planted there. And Ard's two-week suspension without pay for exposing Victor to "unreasonable risk of harm and injury" is wholly unsatisfying given the recklessness he displayed. But police agencies everywhere should heed the broader lesson from this case. Tasers are serious weapons that have no business being directed from or toward a moving vehicle. They should only be used when the individual is a suspect in a serious crime or is significantly endangering public safety.

Police need better guidelines on Taser use 08/08/10 [Last modified: Sunday, August 8, 2010 8:00pm]
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