CLEARWATER — A Pinellas County sheriff’s deputy chased an unarmed man through a mobile home park in August, trying to subdue him with an electroshock weapon: the Taser X26.
The deputy’s first shot missed. Baudilio Morales Velásquez reached the top step of his trailer’s stoop and banged on the door, desperate to get inside. Then the deputy fired again. A barbed-electrode dug into the 31-year-old’s right biceps and a thin wire transmitted an electroshock that caused his muscles to painfully contract.
Paralyzed, he fell and hit his head on the concrete below. Deputies said he continued to resist, so he was shocked three more times. He died days later.
Morales Velásquez had committed no crime that night. But he ran from a deputy trying to question him, and the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office says firing a Taser is “an appropriate response” — just as it would be if deputies were subduing a suspect behaving aggressively.
“When somebody runs from you, what are you supposed to do, say, ‘Bye?’” said Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri last month.
But a growing number of law enforcement agencies across the country are restricting the use of electroshock weapons such as Tasers, ordering officers to use them only as a last resort to target immediate threats — like an armed suspect.
These weapons were seen as a safer and less lethal option when law enforcement widely adopted them starting in the 1990s. But in recent years, as more people have died in incidents involving these devices, there is growing concern that officers reach for them too often and underestimate their potential to harm.
The Police Executive Research Forum and other policing experts say running away should never be the sole justification for using conducted electrical weapons such as Tasers. The Department of Justice has ordered police departments in Cleveland and Ferguson, Mo., to add such a rule and other safeguards to their policies.
“There’s a potential for people to die from these things and we don’t know why,” said police Lt. Sean Mitchell, whose department patrols Charlotte, N.C. and the surrounding county, with about the same population as Pinellas.
“We are not going to allow officers to use (Tasers) unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
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Morales Velásquez was the fourth person in seven years to die after an encounter involving Pinellas deputies using Tasers.
In two incidents, the men were acting violently before a deputy used a Taser on them. One had broken into a home and attacked a couple when he was stunned. The couple defended themselves with a machete, and the official cause of death was sharp force injuries. Drugs were also found in his system. The other man refused to obey commands and struck a state officer, then resisted while in handcuffs. The official cause of death was complications of asphyxia, with contributing factors such as blunt trauma and restraint.
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In the other two, the men who died had attacked no one.
One of those men was Morales Velásquez, a father of six who came to Clearwater from Guatemala nine months ago with his 14-year-old son. He was undocumented, working as a dishwasher to send money back home to his family. He didn’t speak much English or Spanish, only an indigenous language. He was biking home from work when deputies spotted him.
Earlier that Aug. 18 night, a drunken, bleeding man reported he had been attacked by a man who fled on a bicycle. He had concocted the story and cut himself with a broken bottle, investigators later determined, but the deputies looking for a man on a bike didn’t know that.
Sgt. Noble Katzer saw Morales Velásquez and thought he matched the description of the supposed attacker: Hispanic male, 35, medium build. Katzer stopped him. Morales Velásquez handed over his Guatemalan ID and Katzer went to his cruiser to run it. Morales Velásquez bolted. His family thinks he was afraid of being deported.
He ran between the trailers, ignoring the sergeant’s commands to stop. Katzer fired a Taser probe at him, but missed. He caught up to Morales Velásquez while he was banging on his own front door. His son was inside, but too afraid to open it.
Katzer later said he believed Morales Velásquez was trying to break into the trailer and had just heard over the radio there was blood at the scene. He feared the man was ready to fight. This time his Taser struck its target.
Morales Velásquez fell from the stoop, crashing his head against the concrete below. Then he was shocked again and again and again, as deputies said he kept his hands tensed under his chest when they tried to handcuff him.
By the time paramedics arrived, Morales Velásquez had suffered a hematoma, or a brain bleed, according to the investigative report. At the hospital, he fell into a coma.
He died Aug. 30 of complications from blunt head trauma, according to the autopsy. The Taser shock was listed as a contributing factor. The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office concluded that his death was an accident and that the sergeant acted properly because he believed Morales Velásquez was trying to break into the house.
The deputy is still the subject of an internal sheriff’s investigation. An attorney for Morales Velásquez’s family said they are considering a lawsuit.
“What Sgt. Katzer believed is this guy was a suspect and had just committed a violent crime where somebody was bleeding, and the guy took off running from him,” Gualtieri said. “You don’t just let them go.”
The other fatal Taser case involving a man who was not violently resisting deputies took place in 2016. A civil suit against the Sheriff’s Office, which is still ongoing, alleges what happened:
A woman called 911 when her husband Donald DeGraw, a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, experienced seizures. When deputies arrived, she told them her husband was upstairs in their bedroom and kept a gun under his pillow, but he had not threatened anyone with it and had no history of violence.
Deputies found DeGraw, 58, lying on his bed with a bloody mouth from the seizure and moaning, the lawsuit said. A deputy ordered DeGraw to come toward him, then ordered him to stay on the bed. DeGraw, confused in his post-seizure state, stood up and stepped toward the deputy. He was yelling and had his arms outstretched, “almost like a zombie,” the deputy later said.
So the deputy fired a Taser into his chest. DeGraw fell to the floor against the wall and began yelling and struggling with the Taser wires, refusing to comply. The deputy jolted him repeatedly in the chest to get him into handcuffs.
Deputies then realized DeGraw was no longer breathing. He had suffered cardiac arrest. The lawsuit said he was unarmed and posed no threat.
Gualtieri said he thinks there is no conclusive evidence linking Tasers to the fatal outcomes of these cases or any others.
“The Taser does not kill people,” the sheriff said. “It incapacitates people.”
In the four fatal cases from his agency that involved Tasers, Gualtieri said deputies could have used other methods of subduing suspects, such as a metal ASP baton or physical force, with similar results.
“The majority of the time it is much more effective and safer to use a Taser than it is anything else,” Gualtieri said. “You ever see somebody hit with an ASP or a nightstick? That's injury, that's ugly. People bleed, they break bones.”
He said Tasers are less risky to use than other weapons, and suspects recover quicker.
“To paint the Taser as something that is causing a worse effect than these other things is just not accurate,” he said. “The amount of times that it results in some collateral or serious injury is minimal.”
• • •
Invented in the 1970s, electronic control weapons can shoot small metal probes at a moving target that deliver a shock that can temporarily disrupt their nervous system. They can also be pressed against someone and used to stun them.
These weapons were seen as a non-lethal alternative to firearms and more predictable and safer to use than batons and physical force. Studies credit their adoption with saving lives.
But there is a growing body of research that show Tasers and similar devices can cause harm, said Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor who directs a project on police accountability.
“There are countless examples in which the use of a Taser has directly killed someone or contributed to the death of a person," Futterman said.
The federal government doesn’t track electroshock-related deaths, and the link between these weapons and fatalities is still debated. But in 2017, Reuters documented 1,005 incidents in the U.S. since the early 2000s in which people died after officers stunned them.
In 9 of every 10 incidents, the person was unarmed, according to the data. Some died because they fell and injured themselves. Others suffered cardiac arrest. Some had a medical condition or were using drugs, and it’s not well understood how shocks affect those conditions.
Taser is the brand name for the most widely-adopted electroshock weapons used by officers in the country. It is manufactured by Axon Enterprises Inc., formerly known as Taser International, which told Reuters that no one has died from the “direct effects” of a Taser shock. The company said its research has found 24 deaths associated with Tasers, mostly from head or neck injuries.
Still, in recent years, some law enforcement agencies — often spurred by lawsuits and federal consent decrees — tightened their electroshock policies. They have limited the number of times officers can shock a person or for how long, and restricted them from stunning fleeing suspects, unless they’re a threat. Agencies also prohibit officers from shocking people in the head, neck, chest or genitalia, or when people are in an elevated area.
But not every agency has kept up with these developments, said John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor Maria Haberfeld, who is writing a book on how officers use force.
She said that agencies that believe Tasers and similar weapons are safe are “not up-to-date with the research.” Electroshock weapons require extensive training, she said, and should only be used as a “last resort, before the use of firearms.”
Experts say the potential harm of Tasers can be minimized by giving officers clear instructions on when and when not to use them, and to deploy them.
“Tasers shouldn’t be used in a willy nilly fashion,” Futterman said, “or simply just to get someone to do what you say.”
• • •
In 2011, a family sued the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department after an officer repeatedly fired a Taser into La-Reko Williams’ chest while he was arguing with police and refusing to get on the ground. In federal court, the judge gave the officer immunity for the first shock, after Williams shoved the officer and tried to get away.
But a jury ruled that the second shock constituted excessive force. The city paid $706,479 to the family to end the legal case.
A separate North Carolina Taser case made it to the United States Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2016. The court ruled that using a Taser on an uncooperative suspect violates the Fourth Amendment protection against excessive force, and that police cannot stun suspects unless facing imminent danger.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police now have one of the most restrictive electronic control device policies in the nation. The agency instructs its officers to only use Tasers as a last resort before having to use a firearm.
The policy includes what’s called a “use-of-force continuum” — a flow chart that helps officers know when to use escalating levels of force, depending on the suspect and situation. Tasers are at the far end of that spectrum, after pepper spray and “hard empty hand control” — striking a resisting suspect.
Officers are also required to justify each time they use a Taser to deliver a shock, and not to do so more than three times.
Officers should not intentionally target the head, upper chest or genitalia. They should consider other non-lethal methods of subduing someone “visibly pregnant, elderly, otherwise infirm or of a very young age,” according to the policy.
When confronted with someone under the influence of drugs or alcohol, the policy says “officers should be aware there is a higher risk of sudden death.” It also cautions officers against shocking those who are mentally ill, have committed no crimes and pose no “imminent threat.”
Officers can stun someone acting aggressively or when other measures have failed to gain control of a person — and, in those cases, if someone runs away. But officers are restricted from using Tasers against someone who is resisting arrest without using violence, such as tensing their arms to avoid being handcuffed, or if a nonviolent subject is trying to get away.
“We’ve tased people that were not deadly force threats — they didn’t have a gun, they didn’t have a knife or were choking anyone — and we tased them because they exhibited active resistance, and we lost them,” said Mitchell, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police training director.
“It’s this agency’s opinion it would be better that the person gets away, assuming they are not a threat to officer and public at large, than to tase them and we end up in a bad situation.”
Arizona State University criminology professor William Terrill has analyzed more than 600 electronic control device policies across the country, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s, and studied data on use-of-force incidents from the National Institute of Justice. He found that officers working under more restrictive policies used force less readily.
• • •
Gualtieri declined to review Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s policy at the Tampa Bay Times’ request. He said restricting Tasers to immediate threats and telling deputies to refrain from shocking someone trying to get away would be “misguided” and “illogical.”
“I don’t really care what their policy is,” he said. “What some other agency or state’s policy is doesn’t make any difference.”
The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office allows its deputies to shock suspects for fleeing or resisting arrest — including bracing, tensing, pushing or pulling while a deputy is trying to establish control.
There is no limit to how many times a deputy can jolt someone, though they are advised that multiple and prolonged shocks should be “minimized or avoided.”
Terrill called it a “middle of the road” policy. It includes some restrictions, such as warning deputies not to intentionally aim for the head, groin or female breasts, and it forbids Tasers from being used to coerce or intimidate a suspect. But some language is ambiguous, he said.
“It opens up too many questions because offices can interpret it so differently,” he said. “They are indicating to me that you can use it as a pre-emptive weapon, and that would be concerning.”
He said Pinellas deputies would benefit from more precise policy language and graphics that spell out when they should use their Tasers. Officers, Terrill said, often appreciate the clarity.
Gualtieri said the state of Florida does not include a use-of-force flowchart in its training, so his agency doesn’t either.
Tampa Bay law enforcement agencies all have separate policies with varying language. None go as far as Charlotte.
Police departments in St. Petersburg, Miami and Orlando have flow charts to help officers decide when to use different levels of force.
St. Petersburg officers are reminded to attempt de-escalation first. They can use a Taser on a fleeing suspect if the person has committed a felony or after a failed attempt to gain physical control of them.
Tampa’s policy has a whole section on “fleeing subjects.” It prohibits shocking someone who is running from a traffic infraction, but also allows an officer to shock a suspicious person hiding in the bushes who tries to run.
Hillsborough sheriff’s deputies are reminded to consider language barriers when deciding whether someone is intentionally refusing commands. Those deputies are also restricted from shocking more than three times.
Gualtieri said he sees no reason to review his agency’s policy.
“It’s well-grounded in fact and law and best practices,” he said. “When people are looking at this, they need to take into context that any time force is used, it’s ugly.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story did not differentiate between Taser, which is a specific brand of electroshock weapons, and the devices in general.