Taser Cams add accountability, protect officers
Sales brisk as agencies seek to document use of their stun guns
By Jeff Schweers
When West Melbourne, Fla., police officer Ken Wells subdued Zak Anthony King with a Taser earlier this month, the takedown of the naked 18-year-old jogger was recorded on a camera mounted to the officer's weapon.
The grainy black-and-white video captured in raw detail how the officer used the Taser. The department released it to the news media to show the shooting was justified. The video made its way to YouTube, where more than 90,000 had viewed various postings of it as of Wednesday.
"The officer used the proper tools, and the video backed it up," said Cmdr. Steve Wilkinson, internal affairs investigator for the West Melbourne Police Department.
More than 2,400 law enforcement agencies across the U.S. have bought 45,000 of the $400 video camera attachments that Taser International started selling in 2006, says Steve Tuttle, spokesman for the Scottsdale, Ariz., company. Sales have been brisk in the past six months, he says, as agencies look to provide accountability for the department, he said.
The Taser Cam is activated as soon as the officer unholsters the Taser and turns off the safety, Tuttle says. There is no way to deactivate the camera without disabling the gun, he says.
"Video is going to help the officer," Tuttle said. "And if you don't record it, the kid down the street with a cellphone is going to use it."
440 deaths claimed
Tasers are used by law enforcement as an alternative to deadly force, Tuttle said. The gun releases two darts with wires that attach to the subject's body and deliver up to 50,000 volts of electricity, he said.
The use of stun guns has been controversial for years, especially in cases where the subject died after being shocked, says Curt Goering, chief operating officer for Amnesty International.
Goering says there are 440 people he knows of who have died after being shocked with such devices since the human rights organization started accumulating those statistics in 2001. The organization has asked for a moratorium on stun gun use until medical effects can be studied further, he says.
Taser International disputes those numbers.
"Amnesty International continues to promote a number for Taser-related deaths that is not only misleading and inaccurate, but also unsupported by medical or academic science," Tuttle says. Medical examiners have attributed Tasers as a contributing factor in fewer than 50 of those deaths, he said.
"In many of these cases, numerous causes, drug overdoses, pre-existing medical conditions, blunt trauma and other factors have also been listed," Tuttle said.
Despite his opposition to the use of stun guns, Goering says the use of video cameras is a positive development.
"If the recordings are closely monitored and studied and acted on by law enforcement agencies, it could be a tool to ensure accountability in cases of abuse," Goering says.
John Burris, a San Francisco civil rights lawyer who specializes in police misconduct cases, says he has represented clients where the use of a Taser or other stun gun was not captured on camera, and believes a video recording of those events would have resolved any uncertainty.
Taser loaned the cameras to police departments in major cities including Houston and Las Vegas in 2006 and 2007 to test them, Tuttle says.
The Las Vegas Metro Police Department bought 1,061 cameras in 2008 with a federal grant so that every patrol officer had one on, says Officer Marcus Martin, departmental spokesman and a Master Taser Instructor.
The videos have backed up contentious situations many times, Martin says. In one case, a suspect on PCP was stunned with a Taser several times before police subdued him.
"Without the video, the officer would be in trouble because of the long usage, which can be perceived as a misuse of force," Martin says. "The officer was clearly exonerated because you could see the altercation."
Nearly 13,000 of the agencies that have Tasers have not yet bought the cameras, Tuttle says. That number includes the Houston Police Department, which is one of the largest purchasers of the stun guns. Houston was one of the first departments to try the cameras, says Kirk Munden, executive assistant chief for field operations. After two trial runs, the department took a pass.
"The primary reason we didn't buy them was the expense," Munden says. It would have cost $2 million to equip all 4,000 officers with the cameras, he says.
Video can cut both ways
Though a Taser Cam in Las Vegas helped prove an officer's innocence, the cameras have also had the opposite result. An officer in Eugene, Ore., responded to a trespassing call and used his Taser on a college student in the student's apartment, says Lt. Doug Mozan, Eugene's daytime watch commander.
Police Chief Pete Kerns said the action was justified because the officer believed he was in danger and that the student could have had a weapon, Mozan said. But a review of the video showed no weapon, and the Civilian Review Board ruled the officer misused it, according to minutes of the February meeting where the case was reviewed.
That review might have had a different outcome had the video camera been rolling sooner, Mozan says, but the camera only activates when the safety switch is off. He also says it was limiting in that the camera only records what the Taser is pointing at.
Still, Mozan says, he supports their use.
"Cameras only add to the quality of evidence and transparency in law enforcement," Mozan says.
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- Less Lethal