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July 30, 2014

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LAW ENFORCEMENT:

Bill would restrict police use of Tasers

Beyond the Sun

Metro police have purchased just over 1,000 Taser cameras and will begin distributing the recording devices to police on the beat in two weeks. These cameras will capture grainy footage of every electronic zap, though the fate of that footage may be up to the Legislature.

As Metro equips its troops with Taser cameras, Assembly Bill 273 is working its way through the Legislature. The bill, if approved as written, would require a camera on every law enforcement Taser in Nevada. It would also make any video captured a public record, “open to public inspection during regular business hours.”

Metro is not a fan of this idea. The department considers Taser videos evidence and will release footage only in the course of a trial or as the department sees fit.

But wait, there’s more about the bill that Metro doesn’t like — AB273 would limit the circumstances in which police can use Tasers. Metro officers are currently allowed to use the electronic control devices during “custodial or arrest situations.” In other words, when officers are attempting to arrest someone who’s not cooperating, when they are trying to catch someone to arrest him, or in any self-defense situation. The phrase “compliance tool” tends to rub cops the wrong way, but that’s how Tasers are routinely used. The bill aims to put an end to that.

The legislation would allow police to use Tasers only on a person who committed a felony that involved the infliction or threat of bodily harm, or on someone who the officer believes poses a threat of bodily harm to himself or another person. The bill would make Tasers acceptable “only as an alternative to deadly force.”

Police officers are not crazy about any of this: the videos or the attempt to constrain their Taser use.

Groups that think the Taser is overused and underestimated, in terms of its potential to hurt people, say the bill is nothing short of necessary.

In short, there’s going to be a fight.

Assemblyman Joe Hogan, D-Las Vegas, is the bill’s primary sponsor. He has already heard from police representatives and he’s open to adjusting the language of the proposed law, though he does think Taser videos should be available to the public in some capacity and, moreover, thinks the Taser should be ranked high on any department’s use-of-force protocol.

“It’s to be used in really serious situations, where they (police) or someone else is in danger,” Hogan said.

In recent years, Metro has stopped calling Tasers “nonlethal” and starting calling them “low-lethality weapons.”

Because of their lethal potential, Gary Peck, director of the Nevada American Civil Liberties Union, says Tasers should not be used as a compliance tools. Peck emphasizes that he is not calling for a ban of all Tasers, as other groups have, but is merely asking that the circumstances in which an officer can use the device be limited.

“We know there is reason to believe these weapons can cause death or serious permanent bodily injury, and police policy should be much more restrictive to reflect that fact,” Peck said.

In 2008, Amnesty International ranked Metro as the police department with the most deaths that occurred after the application of electronic control devices — from June 2001 to August 2008, six people died after being shocked by Tasers in Clark County.

When Metro began trying out Taser cameras in the field two years ago, the department suggested the captured footage would allow Metro to be more transparent. In other words, the cameras would help Metro prove its use of Tasers was aboveboard. So, Peck said, the subsequent decision to guard videos as evidence and deny their distribution undermines department assurances of credibility.

“It doesn’t really lend itself to inspiring public confidence,” he said.

Chris Collins, president of Metro employees’ largest union, the rank and file Police Protective Association, said police have nothing to hide. Moreover, Collins noted, Metro has been recognized by the International Association of Chiefs of Police for having one of the country’s best Taser policies, namely because Metro banned zapping anybody who was already in handcuffs.

The Taser is best used in the place of a baton, which can break bones, to get people into custody, Collins said. The bill narrows this discretion.

“I don’t want my officer standing there saying, ‘Oh boy, what is Gary Peck going to say?’ This is a decision you make in a split-second, and no offense to lawmakers, but they are not police and they are really going to tie officers’ hands” if they pass this bill.

Representatives of the police union will make their feelings known when the bill comes up for discussion in Carson City, which could happen late this week.

Metro representatives will also make their objections heard. Department lobbyist Lt. Tom Roberts says limits on Taser use would put officers and the public in danger.

“I am a firm believer that we have reduced officer-involved shootings, I believe we have reduced injuries to suspects and officers as a result of deploying the Taser,” Roberts said.

Both Roberts and Collins acknowledged that officers sometimes use Tasers as a compliance tool. If officers are denied this right, they insisted, there will be more injured officers, injured suspects and police shootings in Clark County.

Metro officers fired their Tasers 432 times in the field in 2007. If each of these incidents would have been a shooting were it not for the Taser, Peck said, then Clark County has a far more serious problem on its hands than anything suggested by the bill.

“It’s obvious that law enforcement agencies are not going to develop and implement the appropriate policies for the use of Tasers,” Peck said. “It’s clear the legislature needs to step in.”

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