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Published: Saturday, 4/30/2005

It's time to put Tasers away for good

BY ROSE RUSSELL

WHEN Toledo Police Chief Mike Navarre decided his officers should have the popular electric Taser stun gun, most folks probably believed it was the right move.

More and more police departments are equipping their officers with Tasers to subdue violent suspects.

It was believed Tasers would help officers bring a situation under control without the use of so much force that it would result in suspects' deaths.

Three days after a mentally ill East Toledoan, Eric Wofford, wielded a sword at police who fatally shot him in November, 2002, Chief Navarre acknowledged that officers at the scene "had to make a split-second decision in that situation." He added, "had those officers been armed with Tasers, the outcome might have been different."

But if Mr. Wofford had been shocked with a Taser, he might have died anyway. By that time, nationally three people had died after being struck with Tasers, even though autopsies in each one of the fatalities cited medical and other pre-existing conditions, not the Tasers, as the causes of death.

Since then, more than 100 people have died in Taser-related deaths. That includes Toledoan Jeffrey Turner, 41, who last January was shocked nine times with Tasers. Lucas County coroner Dr. James Patrick ruled the death a homicide, adding that pre-existing heart disease and multiple Taser shocks contributed to his death.

Toledo Museum of Art security guards called police on Mr. Turner, who was standing in the street near the museum.

Just in case, an officer trained to talk with suspects who might be mentally ill was also sent to the museum. Police tried talking Mr. Turner to the sidewalk. When they tried to move him, he resisted, and was placed under arrest.

Mr. Turner continued to resist arrest. After all, he probably thought he wasn't bothering anybody.

So the officers used a Taser to shock him five times. Then later when he became agitated at the jail, he was shocked four more times with a different Taser.

Chief Navarre said he believes the officers acted responsibly in arresting Mr. Turner. However, he also said five officers face administrative charges for improperly handcuffing him.

Mr. Turner's death has generated a lot of controversy, especially in Toledo's black community. Although there have been calls for halting the use of Tasers, so far those pleas have been ignored.

However, there have been changes in the use of the devices. Mr. Turner's death compelled Lucas County Sheriff James Telb to stop the use of Tasers at the jail. He also requires now that before a suspect shocked by a Taser can enter the jail, the individual must first undergo a medical exam.

Also as a result of Mr. Turner's death, Chief Navarre said that police officers are limited to how many times they can stun a suspect. Furthermore, any suspect who is shocked by a Taser must undergo a medical exam, too.

Those are reasonable moves, but they are not enough.

Meanwhile, the Toledo branch of the NAACP has flatly called for police to stop using Tasers, period. Also, the Lucas County Prosecutor's office is weighing whether to take action, and the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation is assisting the prosecutor's office in its review. Furthermore, the FBI has been asked to investigate the matter, and it is reviewing whether to look into Mr. Turner's death, too.

Would citizens prefer police officers use firearms instead? Foolish question. Of course not. But people wonder whether officers use Tasers judiciously and whether they are more likely to use them on black suspects. A Blade analysis of police reports between Aug. 20, 2003 and Feb. 5 this year shows that out of 298 times officers used Tasers, they were used on blacks two-thirds of the time. The chief says that is in proportion to the racial breakdown of arrests.

In the meantime, the Toledo Public School board of education tabled a resolution regarding the use of Tasers in schools. Why? Tasers should not be used on school children.

Miami-Dade Schools don't want them used on students anymore. The police director there defended police use of a Taser on a 6-year-old who threatened to further harm himself with glass. Police there also used a stun gun on an inebriated 12-year-old girl fleeing them. Without access to stun guns, might police have been quicker to use their wits to reach those youngsters? Maybe.

And while we lament the death of Mr. Wofford, we also lament the death of Mr. Turner, whose death was hastened with the use of the very tool that is supposed to subdue suspects, not contribute to their deaths.

It's time to put the stun guns away for good.



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