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November 27, 2014

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Sparks fly after court Taser demo for children

It must have been the most entertaining five seconds they spent together — this crew of grade-school kids, sitting in a courtroom on Take Your Child to Work Day at District Court in the County Courthouse, watching a square-shouldered bailiff draw his Taser, steady his aim and zap a volunteer with volts of learning.

See, the Taser demonstration was supposed to be some kind of educational moment for the children of court employees. But that was almost two months ago. Since then, the friendly five-second jolt has become a point of heated contention. One little pull of the Taser trigger set off volleys of angry e-mails between elected officials — and blew up into a bitter accusation.

Specifically, Justice of the Peace Douglas Smith, boss of the bailiff in question, contends that Clark County Manager Virginia Valentine, the most vocal critic of the Taser demo, is making a fuss not because of safety concerns, but because of political motivation.

“The marshals are in for a raise and she doesn’t want to give it to them, so she is trying to use this to make them look unprofessional,” Smith says.

Not so, Valentine says. It’s just that she and her colleagues in the county don’t think it makes sense to stun someone with a Taser for quasi-entertainment purposes. Not only could someone get hurt, someone could get sued. Taxpayers would be on the hook for the liability.

In an e-mail obtained by the Sun, courts spokesman Michael Sommermeyer outlines what happened April 24 and asks the judges on his mailing list for help “dispelling false rumors and correcting any myths regarding yesterday’s highly successful event.”

Despite whatever you heard, Sommermeyer wrote, bailiff Tom Lemke did not fire a Taser at a 15-year-old boy. He “Tased” a 23-year-old man, an employee of the court, who just looks young and “stood up and waved to the crowd” after his electrification in the name of education.

Just over an hour after that e-mail went out, Ed Finger, county comptroller and director of risk management, sent an e-mail to Clark County Chief Financial Officer George Stephens summing up his feelings about the demonstration in two words: “Completely unacceptable.”

Stephens then e-mailed County Manager Valentine and her top lieutenants with the question of the hour: What if the volunteer had some kind of serious undiagnosed medical condition? What kind of lesson would the kids have learned then? CPR? Defibrillator placement?

Valentine wrote back: Someone needs to be disciplined. Finger wrote a letter to District Court Chief Executive Chuck Short two days later, scolding him for allowing such a thing to happen and questioning whether the demonstration was a violation of workplace safety laws. Finger asked Short to send him a copy of the court marshal’s Taser use policy.

To date, Finger says, he has not gotten a copy of that policy. Smith provided the Sun with a copy of the courthouse marshals’ use-of-force policy Friday. The policy includes guidelines for Taser use but makes no mention of Taser demonstrations. Although initial reports suggested the courthouse marshal had his volunteer sign a waiver before being shocked, Smith later confirmed that no waiver had been signed.

When Tasers go wrong, they go terribly wrong. This is made clear in the release form Taser International makes volunteers sign before getting zapped at company-sanctioned events: two pages of liability legalese that outline a vast potential for pain. You might take a Taser prong to the eye, the release warns. Be ready for the possibility of passing out, hitting your head, having a seizure or a heart attack, or suffering a “strain injury” — a hernia, a rupture of some variety, a bone fracture, a cracked vertebra.

Smith, who did not witness the incident but spoke with Lemke afterward, reports that the bailiff’s first two volunteers backed out, so the court audiovisual technician raised his hand. Smith could not say whether the Taser was discharged in the typical manner, with two pointed prongs sailing out of the gunlike device and into the body, or in the “touch stun” manner, in which the Taser is held directly to the skin.

Lemke is certified to train other bailiffs to use the Taser, Smith said. When Lemke was getting certified he was shocked repeatedly with the device as part of the training, the judge said.

Perhaps journalists who write about Tasers, Smith added, should sample a shot of Taser as well — for research purposes, you know.

Metro Police used to shoot Tasers at officers who were being trained to use the weapon, but the department stopped the practice after a few were injured in the process. Officers complained of injuries sustained while falling to the ground. The Taser can lock legs stiff, and the Taser company release form advises volunteers to have two spotters ready to catch them.

Across the country, law enforcement is moving away from using Tasers on passive resisters, such as protesters or people who are not putting up a fight. This is the “don’t Tase me, Bro” backlash, and it’s hinted at in Metro’s “electronic control device” policy, which forbids using a Taser on anyone who is guilty of only simple disobedience.

Metro Police are also advised not to fire the Taser at anyone who has been in contact with flammable liquids. You can figure that one out.

Though Smith maintains his marshal followed court policy, the judge did acknowledge that the demonstration might not have been a “wise thing to do.” For example, Smith said, what if the volunteer had, say, “defecated themselves”?

This is not the first time a Taser has been used in a demonstrative capacity at the courthouse, Smith said. It will be, however, the last.

Though the judge firmly believes that the incident is being blown out of proportion, isn’t worth writing about, and has been leaked to the press only because of someone’s malicious political agenda, he and his bailiff had a chat and decided that, in the future, it’s probably best just to let children use their imaginations.

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