The voluntary manslaughter trial of Officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick is focusing fresh attention on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s use of Tasers.
The trial continues Monday. Kerrick is charged in the death of Jonathan Ferrell, who was shot 10 times after another officer fired at the unarmed man with his Taser and missed.
Ferrell’s death adds to debate among civil liberties groups and use-of-force experts about whether Tasers, which are supposed to provide police with an alternative to lethal force, are in fact escalating incidents that could be handled by more peaceful means.
They acknowledge the overwhelming majority of police interactions with the public end peacefully. And a 2011 federal study found that, when used properly, Tasers prevent injuries to both police and their targets.
But some law enforcement experts now fear too many officers have become overly reliant on the weapon, which is designed to deliver a high-voltage shock to subdue threatening suspects.
“They are being used too early in confrontations,” said Geoffrey Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina. “You want to make sure the person deserves the pain they are about to get. Some officers are starting out with the Taser because they are lazy.”
Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University who has conducted research on Tasers in Houston, said law enforcement agencies struggle to ensure the use of Tasers is justified. Most of the information they have comes from the officers involved, Jones said.
“If there is certain language you need to justify the use of the Taser, they will include it in their reports,” Jones said. “There is a great tendency to say the suspect engaged in a ‘furtive movement.’”
In 2013, the most recent year of available data, Charlotte-Mecklenburg officers fatally shot four people, including Ferrell, the highest total in at least a decade.
CMPD says its officers deployed Tasers in 51 incidents in 2013. That compares with 122 in 2004, when the department started using stun guns.
A CMPD spokesman declined comment, citing the ongoing Kerrick trial.
Capt. Mike Campagna, who led CMPD’s effort to equip officers with Tasers, testified last week that department policy allows officers to deploy Tasers to prevent physical injury to themselves or others when they face “active aggression.”
In an interview in April, Campagna said the department has rules for all uses of force. Tasers offer officers an alternative to physical force, in which all sides of the confrontation are more likely to be injured, he said.
“Nothing we use is perfect – we have to make adjustments on the fly,” Campagna said. “Every officer is different, and every person we come in contact with is different, too.”
‘Fail in a big way’
CMPD’s use of Tasers has been the subject of litigation.
In two recent fatal shootings by police, suspects with histories of mental problems were killed after the unsuccessful deployment of Tasers. The shootings were ruled to be justified. But the families of Clay McCall, who died in 2012, and Spencer Mims III, shot in 2013, accused police in lawsuits of escalating the confrontations and using unnecessary force.
In Ferrell’s case, a dashcam video shows he may have been attempting to dodge a Taser when he ran toward Kerrick and the officer began shooting.
In the video, it appears Officer Thornell Little first pointed his Taser while Ferrell was walking – and moments before he took off running. Ferrell ran directly toward Kerrick, who drew his pistol and shot him 10 times.
Kerrick testified he pulled out his gun during the 2013 encounter with Ferrell to provide backup because the first officer on the scene had pulled his Taser. Kerrick said he based that decision on his training at CMPD’s police academy and his experience on the street.
Campagna testified that Kerrick’s decision to “go lethal” in case the other officer’s Taser did not do the job violated CMPD policy.
Kerrick also said he believed Ferrell had been struck by the Taser deployed by Little and that Ferrell “ran through” the electrical shock.
Charlotte attorney Charles Monnett, who won a record $2.25 million settlement representing the Ferrell family in the civil case, said Tasers can escalate a situation, “and when they fail, they fail in a big way.”
In 2008, then-Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Chief Rodney Monroe ordered more training for his officers after the Taser-related death of 17-year-old Darryl Turner. Three years later, Monroe temporarily pulled the department’s arsenal of stun guns following the death of La-Reko Williams after a CMPD officer twice hit him with a Taser.
The city paid $625,000 to settle the Turner family’s lawsuit. A jury handed down a $10 million judgment against Taser International, which was later set aside on appeal.
Last August, a federal jury awarded Williams’ parents $500,000 in their wrongful-death complaint against CMPD officer Michael Forbes.
Taser International, the Arizona-based manufacturer, says more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies have purchased the devices and use them about 900 times a day.
Charlotte enforces a relatively strict policy. It limits Taser use to situations in which the subjects present “an imminent physical threat” to officers, themselves or other people. Tasers also can be deployed “to restrain violent individuals” when other means are likely to fail or risk the officer’s safety. Unlike some agencies, CMPD officers are prohibited from using the weapons against “a passive subject.”
Officers can face discipline if they violate the department’s policies.
Law enforcement experts contacted by the Observer said comparing CMPD to other agencies is difficult because reliable statistics are scarce and departments make their own rules about when officers can deploy the device.
“Historically, one of the knocks on police policy is that it is very good at telling officers what not to do, but not so good at telling them what to do,” said William Sousa, a criminology professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. “Officers are kind of left on their own to figure it out.”
CMPD’s Campagna said the department has used the device responsibly.
“There is never just one option (of force),” Campagna said earlier this year. “We haven’t seen a trend of officers jumping to the Taser when it is not a viable option based on the circumstances. They are a great tool and a great way to get violent subjects under control with a minimal risk of injury.”
Clasen-Kelly: 704 358-5027