Group pushes for education, restriction on use of Tasers

An N.C. advocacy group pushing for more education and restrictions on the use of Taser stun guns is contacting police departments across the state to share a study on the device's risks.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg department, which is reviewing its Taser policy after the death of a 17-year-old stunned by an officer, is one of the departments contacted by the Taser Safety Project. The group's officials say they're especially worried about CMPD's use of Tasers on minors.

The project released a study in April that reviewed use of the devices by N.C. sheriff's offices and found that improper use of Tasers contributed to 11 deaths in the previous four years. The project was a coalition of the N.C. Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Arc of North Carolina, the NAACP and others.

“No one in the coalition is trying to ban the use of Tasers by law enforcement. It's better than a bullet,” said Jennifer Rudinger, the executive director of the ACLU's N.C. office in Raleigh. “But there's definitely a feeling that there needs to be more awareness of the risks Tasers pose and better training to educate law enforcement about those risks. It needs to be more of a last resort than what it currently is.”

On Wednesday, CMPD announced that it had suspended Officer Jerry Dawson Jr. for five days without pay for violating department policy when he used a Taser on 17-year-old Darryl Turner.

Dawson shocked Turner for 37 seconds during a confrontation at a north Charlotte grocery store on March 20. Turner, a store employee, died of cardiac arrest. An autopsy showed his heart was pumping so fast and chaotically from the stress of the confrontation and Taser shot that it stopped pumping blood properly.

It was the first Taser-related death in department history and the 13th in the Carolinas this decade; Turner was the youngest of the 13. The next-youngest who died was 28.

A police department review concluded that Dawson should not have shocked Turner for as long as he did. The department teaches officers to pull and immediately release the Taser trigger to deliver a five-second shock, although officers may repeatedly pull the trigger in extreme circumstances when necessary to control a suspect. Holding down the trigger violates department policy.

The Taser Safety Project surveyed only sheriff's offices, not police departments. It found that sheriff's offices in 70 of the state's 100 counties issue Tasers to some or all of its deputies, but that many agencies lack clear policies about when and how they should be used.

Since last year, when the coalition began contacting sheriff's offices, 15 have adopted new policies on Taser safety, though not CMPD, Rudinger said. Seven have adopted prohibitions or restrictions of the use of the devices on minors, she said.

The coalition is trying to decide how many police departments statewide to contact. It has sent copies of its study, “Not There Yet: The Need for Safer Taser Policies in North Carolina,” to the state's 25 largest police departments, including CMPD.

The coalition worries especially about the effects of Tasers on minors, the elderly and the disabled, who might not be able to withstand even the typical five-second shock, Rudinger said.

Tasers typically use compressed nitrogen to shoot two tethered, needlelike probes into skin, delivering a debilitating but temporary electric shock. CMPD has used the devices since 2004, and law enforcement agencies nationwide have praised them as less lethal alternatives to firearms.

But critics say their effects haven't been studied enough: Amnesty International, the worldwide human-rights organization, says at least 290 people have died after shocks from U.S. law enforcement Tasers since mid-2001, when it began tracking Taser-related injuries and deaths.