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Citing In-Custody Deaths, ACLU Calls for Policy Change to Limit Use of Tasers

Citing an increasing number of in-custody deaths associated with law enforcement use of electroshock weapons, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Colorado (ACLU) called on Denver Police Chief Gerry Whitman today to tighten the Department's use-of-force policy and restrict officers' use of the taser to situations that present a true threat to human life or safety.

"Tasers are often promoted to the public on the ground that they can save lives in situations where police would otherwise use deadly force," said Mark Silverstein, ACLU Legal Director, in a letter sent to Chief Whitman. "There is no question that tasers are less lethal than a revolver. But the public is much less aware that police departments around the country, including the Denver Police Department, are authorizing officers to use tasers in situations where no one would claim that lethal force is even arguably justified."

According to the letter, more and more persons are dying in custody shortly after law enforcement officers have subdued them with tasers or stun guns. The ACLU cited three deaths in 2001; ten in 2002; sixteen in 2003; and four already this year. Two of these deaths occurred in Colorado; in Pueblo in 2002 and Glendale last fall. In more than ninety per cent of these in-custody deaths, the ACLU's letter said, "the deceased was not brandishing any weapon, nor were law enforcement officers using the taser as an alternative to firearms."

According to the ACLU's letter, "these in-custody deaths raise serious questions about whether tasers, contrary to their proponents' claims, may be lethal in certain situations. They also raises questions about the propriety of policies that authorize officers to use tasers when there is no serious threat of substantial physical harm."

The ACLU urged the Chief of Police "to take a close look at whether the claims made for the taser's safety are sufficiently trustworthy to justify the Denver Police Department's use of force policy, which permits officers to use the weapon on suspects who present no threat to life or limb."

The ACLU contends that the proponents of tasers have not adequately addressed the evidence that electroshock devices may be dangerous or even lethal to persons in a severely agitated or psychotic state, persons who have ingested high levels of certain street drugs, and individuals with heart disease. According to the ACLU, the deceased fits one or more of those vulnerable categories in at least two-thirds of the recent in-custody deaths involving electroshock weapsons.

The letter also asserts that advocates of tasers overstate the claims for their safety and inappropriately understate or dismiss the role that tasers may have played in in-custody deaths. "The proponents of tasers have repeatedly said that tasers have never caused a death," Silverstein said. "What they mean, apparently, is that so far no medical examiner has listed the taser as the sole cause of death. But several medical examiners have said that an electroshock weapon contributed to a fatality. That could easily be enough for legal liability, and that is certainly enough reason to reexamine and redraft the current policy."

Silverstein said that the ACLU had also asked the Public Safety Review Commission and the Mayor's Task Force on Police to consider whether the use of tasers should be restricted "to situations where they truly serve as an alternative to the use of firearms." 

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