The traffic stop began peacefully three hours into New Year's Day 2010, with the woman driving the SUV telling the officer that she hadn't been drinking and her husband merrily exclaiming he was the source of the alcohol smell.
But the situation soured when Steven Kotlinski, 55, stepped out to watch his wife's sobriety test, provoking the Mundelein officers to order him into the SUV. He reluctantly obeyed, but one officer said Kotlinski had obstructed his efforts. He ordered him back out, then tried to pull him out.
Next came the electric crackle of a Taser, a sound heard far more often in Chicago and many suburbs than it was just a few years ago.
A Tribune analysis shows Taser use has jumped fivefold in the city since 2008 and suburban agencies that were surveyed were on pace to double their use, as departments equipped more officers with the devices. Chicago police were deploying Tasers at a rate of more than twice a day in 2011.
And oversight has not kept pace with the explosion in use. Departments are on their own in developing policies on when and how electroshock devices should be deployed, with no state regulation.
In Kotlinski's case, the engineer at Abbott Laboratories was removed from his SUV and pinned in the snow. He lost control of his body as an "intense burning sensation" accompanied the surreal feeling that he was floating over the ground, he said. He roared about his heart condition, then begged in a faint wheeze for someone to call 911.
"Pain. I've never felt that way in my life," Kotlinski said.
They may bring pain, but the weapons save lives by reducing the use of guns or physical combat, police say. Civil rights advocates and experts on use of force counter that some officers deploy them too eagerly, spurring lawsuits and fomenting distrust of officers. The potential lethality of the weapons remains under debate, but critics point to hundreds of deaths that have followed their use as proof that electroshock devices should be seen as deadly weapons.
"It's a wonderful tool, when used properly," said Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminal justice professor who co-wrote a recent federal report on the weapons.
"But they've just got to be used judiciously, and in many departments, they aren't."
Like almost all states, Illinois does not track the weapons' use by local police, and departments have been left to monitor and govern electroshock devices with a patchwork of policies. In Chicago, the leap in the number of police carrying Tasers coincided with the scaling back of post-shock investigations by the Independent Police Review Authority.
Although no Illinois agency collects data on uses of force by police, figures provided to the Tribune by Mundelein and eight randomly selected suburban departments that use the devices show police are on pace to deploy them roughly twice as often in 2011 as they did in 2008.
Police in those departments used the weapons 35 times in 2008. By fall 2011, they had used them 56 times on the year. If that pace continued through December, the figure for 2011 would fall near 70.
Departments reported deployments at different levels of detail, and it was not clear in every case how a "use" or "incident" was defined. But the trend toward more frequent use was clear.
The rise has been steeper in Chicago. In 2009, officers logged 197 incidents. A year later, after hundreds more weapons were passed out, Chicago police reported 871 incidents. As of fall, the department was on pace for 857 uses in 2011, which works out to 2.3 per day.
The growth in the weapons' use should not come as a surprise, given their rise in popularity.
Several companies make electroshock weapons, which override the target's central nervous system by firing wire-tethered probes that deliver electrical jolts. Arizona-based Taser International makes the most popular models. About 576,000 of the devices are used by more than 16,500 law enforcement and military organizations, nearly all in the United States, said spokesman Steve Tuttle. Only 500 or so agencies used the weapons in 2000, he said.
In Illinois, a little fewer than half of the municipal police agencies that responded to a 2007 survey reported they were using electroshock weapons, according to the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board, and more departments have since bought the weapons. Several suburban agencies contacted by the Tribune appear to have started using them in 2008 or 2009.
Taser International and police departments have faced lawsuits over safety. And though many fatalities following electroshock weapon use have been attributed to other causes, human rights group Amnesty International has counted 490 deaths after electroshock device use in the U.S. since 1990, said Debra Erenberg, Midwest regional director for the group. In some 50 cases between 2001 and 2008, coroners listed the weapons as a cause or contributing factor in a death, according to a study by the group.
Tuttle said the company has yet to be informed of a study proving the weapons can directly cause death. A study published last year by the U.S. Department of Justice found "no clear medical evidence that shows a high risk of serious injury or death from the direct effects" of the weapons. But that study also noted more research is needed to determine what role electroshock weapons can play in suspect deaths, especially in the case of unhealthy or intoxicated people.
The same limited study concluded the weapons reduce injury rates among police and civilians, compared with other types of force. But the report cautioned against overuse.
Kotlinski's confrontation with police — captured on video and microphones — shows that a split-second choice to shock a suspect can sow long-term consequences. Lawyers for Kotlinski and Mundelein recently negotiated an undisclosed settlement to a federal lawsuit, and attempts by the Lake County state's attorney's office to prosecute him ultimately were unsuccessful.
The traffic stop "should have been a quick, 30-second ordeal," Kotlinski said.
Instead, he got out of the SUV during his wife's DUI test and hesitated for several seconds before obeying emphatic orders to get back in, the video shows. Back in the SUV, he can be heard on the recordings speaking heatedly with Officer Richard Turek, at one point asking, "What are you trying to prove?" The other officer, Anthony Raciak, halted the DUI tests and shut Kotlinski's wife, Jean, in the squad car's rear.
After telling Jean Kotlinski that her husband would be arrested for obstruction, Raciak walked briskly back to the SUV, where Steven Kotlinski sat in the passenger seat with the door shut but apparently not latched. Raciak ordered him out, then tried to tug him out.
Raciak later reported Kotlinski struggled, squeezing the officer's bicep painfully. Kotlinski said the officer struggled to remove him because he was wearing his seat belt.
The officer reported Kotlinski moved toward him, so he aimed the Taser's laser sight at his chest and fired. The probes hit Kotlinski's jacket as he sat in the car but didn't connect with his body, according to Raciak's report. Kotlinski said he felt "intense searing pain."
Kotlinski spilled from the SUV, and the officers pinned him to the snowy ground. During the commotion in the snow, Turek shocked Kotlinski twice in the Taser's "drive stun" mode, according to police records. A drive stun delivers a potentially painful charge by prodding the target with the weapon, rather than trying to incapacitate the subject by firing the probes. Kotlinski, who said he suffers high blood pressure and an irregular heartbeat, cried out, "I've got a heart condition," and, "My heart."
Kotlinski was shocked because he resisted, Turek reported. Kotlinski said he couldn't control his limbs as he was being shocked.
Once her husband was subdued and sitting in an ambulance, Jean Kotlinski registered a blood-alcohol level of zero, records show. She was not charged.
Steven Kotlinski was charged with felony aggravated battery and misdemeanor obstruction. A Lake County jury in August 2010 acquitted him of battery but convicted him of obstructing. He was sentenced to 100 hours of community service and 12 months of conditional release tied to good behavior.
State appeals judges in October 2011 reversed the guilty verdict, declaring "no rational trier of fact" could have found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, a move lawyers said is rare.
The judges said the officers' testimony clashed with the recordings.
Lake County prosecutors did not challenge the ruling. The officers, their lawyers and prosecutors did not return calls for comment.
An internal investigation found "other options were available" apart from shocking Kotlinski, according to records. But Mundelein Chief Ray Rose said the Taser use was not in violation of departmental policy.
"You use whatever force is necessary to effect the arrest, and if the incident escalates, the use of force has to escalate at the same rate, and that's what happened here," Rose said.
Although the internal inquiry found no policy violations, Raciak was suspended for 15 days after he admitted lying to department personnel when he said he didn't watch the video footage after the arrest, according to police records.
Rose said Raciak "does a good job."
An array of policies
Like other forms of police weaponry that came before, Tasers have opened a new avenue for civil rights lawsuits that can cost cities millions, and local police agencies continue to absorb new accusations.
North Chicago police face a suit from the family of 45-year-old Darrin Hanna, who died in November after police intervened in a domestic incident, leaving him with trauma and marks from the shocks, according to the Lake County coroner's office. Chicago is being sued by a motorist who said police shocked him 11 times in four minutes in May 2010.
Cities can reduce their exposure by making sure officers are trained and operate under firm policies, civil lawyers said.
But local agencies rely on policies that range from specific to general. Some say specifically when to use electroshock devices, while other departments have a broad policy on use of force.
Evanston's policy, for example, deals extensively with Tasers and spells out that they are only to be used on subjects who are aggressively resisting or attacking officers or threatening to hurt themselves. In smaller Itasca, a section of a broader policy on use of force deals with Tasers, authorizing officers to use them against people who don't obey verbal commands.
The Police Executive Research Forum and some experts on use of force recommend avoiding the use of electroshock weapons on passively resistant subjects.
Itasca police Chief Scott Heher said he agrees the weapons should only be used against actively resistant or violent subjects. But he said the device might be appropriate for a suspect who repeatedly refuses to get on the ground or put down a weapon.
Heher said the policy hasn't translated into heavy use by Itasca officers, who have logged seven incidents since 2008.
Frequency of use also varies widely by agency, according to the Tribune analysis.
The village of Northbrook owns 20 Tasers. Since 2006, the weapons have been used during an arrest in the suburb just once.
Chief Charles Wernick said he is glad his officers have the weapons because they provide a level of force that falls below lethal. "It's good that they have them, in case," he said.
Use in Chicago is understandably much higher, but Police Department spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton said the numbers don't show how many injuries are avoided — for officers and suspects — by pulling Tasers instead of shooting or using physical force.
Every incident is reported and examined by a supervisor, she said. However, the Independent Police Review Authority relaxed its review procedures for some Taser incidents just as the department raised the number on the street from 280 to 590.
Until 2010, each incident spurred an extensive investigation that could involve interviewing victims or witnesses, said Chief Administrator Ilana Rosenzweig. Now many incidents get a less exhaustive review that involves inspecting the department's documentation of the Taser use. The agency still launches deeper investigations when misconduct is alleged, a minor or senior citizen is involved, or a person is seriously hurt or killed, she said.
The increase in Taser use hasn't caused an explosion of complaints, and the agency must use its limited resources wisely, Rosenzweig said.
But the increase in use, concurrent with a reduction in oversight, worries civil rights advocates.
"When you look at this dramatic increase in the use of the device, it calls out for more oversight and more control and more training," said Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.
Nationwide, police uses of force are poorly tracked and regulation is generally left to individual agencies, experts said.
Tracking of electroshock weapon use "just doesn't exist, and we have a hard enough time documenting police use of firearms at a national level," said Michael White, an associate professor of criminology at Arizona State University.
The Illinois State Police collect crime data statewide, while the Department of Transportation gathers information about traffic stops statewide, as mandated by a 2003 law designed to detect racial profiling.
But the state doesn't ask local agencies for any information on uses of force against civilians. Informed of this, Rep. Monique Davis, D-Chicago, said she will introduce legislation soon that will mandate the tracking of uses of force, including the deployment of electroshock weapons.
In his comfortable home in Hawthorn Woods nearly two years after the encounter with the devices, Steven Kotlinski joked that his "bucket list" didn't include absorbing shocks while writhing in the snow. But, in the era of electroshock weapons, the incident shows how a traffic stop can turn into a life-altering ordeal, he said.
"If it could happen to me," he said, "it could happen to anyone."
Tribune reporter Joe Mahr contributed.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun