Baltimore police use of Tasers in poor, black neighborhoods questioned

Shocking Force: Baltimore police used Tasers in poorest neighborhoods.

Baltimore police officers exceeded widely accepted safety limits for Tasers more than any other force in Maryland, and in nearly all cases fired the weapon at suspects who were not complying with police orders but did not pose a threat.

Most of the suspects hit by Tasers in Baltimore were black, according to data obtained and analyzed by The Baltimore Sun, and more than two-thirds of the incidents from 2012 to 2014 took place in ZIP codes with the city's lowest median incomes.

The trends concern the city's top cop.

"Who suffers the most when police departments have deficient policies and procedures? Minorities and poorer communities suffer," Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said in response to The Sun's findings.

Davis has begun reorganizing the department and implementing new policies aimed at reforming its practices, including how officers use Tasers. His efforts come as the Justice Department continues a yearlong investigation into whether Baltimore officers violate federal civil rights laws when using force on residents, ranging from deadly force to Tasers and pepper spray.

Civil rights leaders and attorneys contend that more needs to be done. They say that residents increasingly complain about police abuse of Tasers and that the data shows that officers treat residents differently, depending on where they live and the color of their skin. Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, called The Sun's findings "troubling."

"This is not community policing," she said. "It is not the right way to solve the city's problems. We're going to have to address it."

The Police Department has tripled the number of Tasers in its arsenal to 1,700 in recent years. While Davis acknowledges that the department's policies had been inadequate, he said the Taser can be a useful tool if used correctly as an alternative to lethal force and in some cases can save lives.

Steve Tuttle, Taser International Inc.'s vice president of strategic communications, agreed, noting that the weapon is used by 18,000 law enforcement agencies in 107 countries.

"Marylanders want safer, effective and transparent responses to resistance, and no other less lethal tool today accomplishes this challenge especially with police under a microscope by critics," Tuttle said in an email.

But policing experts across the country have raised concerns that officers rely too heavily on Tasers.

Former Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, whose five-year tenure ended in 2012, said he worries that police turn to Tasers rather than verbal techniques and other ways to subdue suspects or de-escalate tense encounters.

"Police have a fundamental responsibility to work to communicate to get people to comply with their directions," he said in an interview. "Anything that intercepts with that, we have to be careful with.

"There are a large number of cases where I have seen technology used as a default rather than resorting to verbal and nonverbal techniques that generations of police here and abroad have used effectively."

A number of federal courts have ruled in recent years that using a stun gun on suspects who put up nonviolent resistance is unconstitutional excessive force.

Amid concerns about Taser use, Maryland began requiring in 2012 that all police departments report data to the Governor's Office of Crime Control & Prevention. The agency's online annual reports only summarize the aggregate information for each year.

With the data obtained through public records requests on nearly 3,000 Taser encounters in Maryland through 2014, The Sun created a database as part of a six-month investigation. Data from 2015 is not yet available.

The Sun found that nearly 60 percent of those hit by Tasers in Maryland were described by police as "non-compliant and non-threatening," as opposed to making threats or using force. In Baltimore, police characterized suspects as non-threatening in 98 percent of cases.

In more than 100 incidents, Baltimore officers discharged the weapon for more than 15 seconds — exceeding the limit for Taser use recommended by the weapon's manufacturer, the Justice Department and policing experts. That is one-third of about 300 incidents statewide, and more than any other jurisdiction.

In addition, officers across Maryland failed to heed other safety recommendations from Taser International and the Justice Department, including to avoid repeated drive-stunning and chest shots, The Sun found.

Taser is the only brand of stun gun used by law enforcement in Maryland. It fires two electrified darts that incapacitate suspects long enough for them to be handcuffed. An alternative drive-stun method allows officers to press the hand-held device against a suspect's body to inflict localized pain or to complete the electrical circuit when a dart fails to pierce the skin.

Eleven people have died in Maryland since 2009 after encounters in which police used Tasers, including five who died after being shocked for longer than what is now recommended. Three people died after being repeatedly hit by a Taser in drive-stun mode, according to police reports and other accounts. One died after being hit in the chest.

In Baltimore

When Davis took over last summer, he found that the department's Taser policy, enacted in 2007, was vague and allowed too many interpretations for when officers could use the weapon.

Within weeks he approved a new policy that contained best practices written by national experts and adopted by the Justice Department to minimize injuries and to hold officers more accountable when they use Tasers.

To help defuse tense situations, the department developed training programs on cultural sensitivity and on ways that community foot patrols can better interact with residents.

Baltimore police, a force of 2,600 officers, reported the most Taser use in the state from 2012 to 2014.

Nearly 90 percent of those shocked in 730 incidents over the three years were black residents, a rate that far exceeds the 63 percent of Baltimore residents who are black, and tops the statewide rate of Taser use against African-Americans.

Nearly 70 percent of the incidents occurred in 10 of the city's poorest neighborhoods, including Sandtown-Winchester and Penn North, focal points of the unrest last April after Freddie Gray's death from spinal injuries suffered in police custody. By comparison, 11 percent occurred in the 10 ZIP codes with the highest median incomes, such as Roland Park and Govans. The city has 26 ZIP codes.

Kenneth Butler, president of the Vanguard Justice Society, an association for minority and female officers in Baltimore, said police do not target suspects based on their race or where they live. He said more officers might be deployed in low-income neighborhoods with high concentrations of minorities.

The neighborhoods that saw the most Taser use also had the most crime. Those communities, predominantly in East and West Baltimore, regularly record the city's highest rates of violent crime.

Butler estimated that he has shocked people with his Taser three times in the past five years. Two were black, one was white, he said. In every encounter, he added, he was attempting to gain compliance from people who were violently resisting his orders.

"Police work is not pretty," Butler said. "No matter how we use force, it's not going to look pretty. When the Taser is used correctly, it's an excellent tool."

But civil rights leaders pointed to deep-seated problems between police and residents.

"It's another example of the great systemic change we need with law enforcement in Maryland," the Rev. Heber Brown III, an activist and pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church, said about Taser use. "This is most concerning. We need to have eyes on this."

In the aftermath of Gray's death and the riots and protests that gripped the city, calls alleging police brutality to the Murphy, Falcon & Murphy law firm "dramatically spiked" and included dozens of complaints about possible Taser abuses by Baltimore police, according to lawyer Hassan Murphy. The firm represented Gray's family in a $6.4 million civil settlement with the city.

Murphy said he and his colleagues are checking out the Taser allegations and plan to compare them with the data Baltimore police reported to the state.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department is continuing its review of the Police Department and thousands of pages of records to determine whether the agency has discriminatory policies.

A similar federal probe of the Cleveland Division of Police in Ohio found that officers lacked proper Taser training and often used the weapons in situations when less force could have been applied, especially on people with mental illnesses or medical and drug problems.

"It's a systemic problem nationally," said Steven M. Dettelbach, the former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, who oversaw the federal investigation in Cleveland. Police "tend to fall in love with the Taser a little too much."

New Taser policies

Davis and other top brass hope the new policy changes how and when Baltimore officers reach for a Taser.

The new policy states that officers should only use the weapon for one standard cycle of five seconds, "then stop and evaluate the situation." Officers cannot fire multiple times merely because a suspect fails to comply with a command unless the suspect could obtain a weapon or poses an immediate threat.

The department moved the Taser up the scale of acceptable force in the new policy, so that Baltimore officers must exhaust other means before using the weapon. Tasers had been on the same level as pepper spray; now they are between pepper spray and deadly force.

Police brass also wanted to ensure that police reports accurately reflect what happened in Taser incidents.

Now officers must "clearly articulate" every Taser activation in police reports, including those longer than 15 seconds, and every time officers use the drive-stun mode, the policy states.

The new policy requires each computer chip to be downloaded quarterly and when used on a person. And before an officer can get a new Taser cartridge, the written police report must match the data on the computer chip, and a supervisor must approve it, said Jason Johnson, the department's director of strategic development.

The written narratives in police reports often do not match the data reported to the state from the Taser's computer chip, The Sun found in its investigation.

From 2012 to 2014, the reports on incidents that involved the five longest activations often noted only that officers "used" or "deployed" a Taser on a person — not how many times. The suspects in those cases were shocked well above the recommended limit, from 68 seconds to 159 seconds.

In one case, two officers responded in May 2014 to Brio Tuscan Grille on East Pratt Street about a man talking incoherently to patrons. The man refused officers' orders to leave. "He then started flailing his arms at this officer," the report states. With the help of another officer, the man "was placed in handcuffs."

The officer did not mention in the report that he fired the Taser darts and then used the device's drive-stun mode. State data shows the officer activated the Taser for nine cycles for 52 seconds.

The new Taser policy also cautions officers to avoid the chest and to limit use of the drive-stun mode. Officers should use drive stun to supplement the probe method when it does not work and as a countermeasure to create distance between officers and suspects.

"Do what's best for the person; do what's best for the department; do what's best for the officer," said Col. David Reitz, head of the administrative division.

Officers in Maryland fired Tasers at the chest in 119 incidents in 2014 — even though Taser has warned since 2009 that doing so could cause cardiac arrest. Baltimore officers hit the chest in 29 incidents. Data from earlier years only shows when police struck the "front torso," which includes the chest.

A teenager dies

One person has died in a Taser-related incident in Baltimore since 2009.

Novella Sargusingh still sobs in recounting the incident. She remembers flopping in her recliner and kicking off her shoes on Mother's Day 2014 when her phone rang. She answered, grabbing an envelope to jot notes: Good Samaritan Hospital, toothache, seizures, four security guards, police and Taser.

She learned that her former foster son, George Vonn King, 19, was near death after an officer struck King with a Taser five times, including four drive-stun jolts to his chest.

Days later, Sargusingh and others circled King's hospital bed and sang "Amazing Grace." As tears streamed down her cheeks, Sargusingh grabbed King's hand and whispered in his ear, "It's OK, baby, you can go." King died moments later when a nurse turned off life support.

"He went into the hospital with a toothache and ends up dead because of a Taser," said Sargusingh, 62. "That doesn't make sense. He was healthy as a horse. He was 19, for god's sake."

King had suffered seizures but objected to being moved to intensive care and asked to be released. King became "aggressive, combative and disoriented, possibly because of the medication he had been given," according to police records. King then removed an IV from his arm. When a nurse tried to reinsert it, King tried to hit her.

Nurses called police. Two officers tried to calm King, but he remained combative. An officer shot a Taser at King's chest, but it had no impact. The officer then used the drive-stun mode on King's chest. Nurses, hospital security and police held King down long enough to put him on a bed, but they could not put restraints on him, according to records.

State data shows six discharges totaling 27 seconds.

The medical examiner ruled that King's death was from natural causes by "acute epidural abscess and meningitis with complications."

In the aftermath of King's death, then-Commissioner Anthony W. Batts ordered police supervisors to evaluate whether officers should handle emergency calls at hospitals and mental health facilities. Hospital leaders objected across the state.

Batts then dropped that idea and said he would equip more officers with Tasers in order to reduce accusations of brutality.

A divided city Board of Estimates approved the most recent Taser purchase — a $1.1 million contract — in late 2014. City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and Comptroller Joan M. Pratt — the two on the five-member board who voted against the contract — doubted that police were being trained properly to use the weapon.

Young remains concerned.

"I have concerns about the health risks," he said. "I am against Tasers."

Police training

At the time of the contract vote, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland feared that more deaths would occur and warned Batts that the agency needed better training before adding the weapons.

In a recent interview, David Rocah, the group's senior staff attorney, commended the Police Department for updating its policy. However, Rocah said, a better policy would be to use the Taser only for "active aggression" such as an attack or threatened attack, not when a person is "actively or aggressively resisting."

Not having clearer guidelines "makes it difficult, if not impossible, to actually hold officers accountable when they do violate policy," Rocah said.

The NAACP's Hill-Aston also praised Davis for overhauling the Taser policy but said she fears "it won't get down to the rank and file. The older officers need to get the message."

Bealefeld, the former police commissioner who now serves as Under Armour Inc.'s chief global security officer, said teaching proper conflict resolution techniques is "labor intensive" and requires constant refresher courses. He said departments "look for expedited ways" to teach conflict resolution with technology rather than use of communication skills.

Davis said he is confident that his officers are following the new Taser policy. It is common for departments to have standard operating policies and standard operating practices, he added.

The department plans to report that its Taser use increased to 350 incidents in 2015.

Davis also has ordered an overhaul of the department's use-of-force policy for the first time since 2003, and recently dispatched Johnson to Seattle to examine how that police department's polices have changed after a similar federal civil rights investigation.

Baltimore's chief stressed that his department is serious about reforms and that the new policies are consistent with the Justice Department's best practices.

"We have to train to the policy, and we have to hold officers accountable," Davis said.

mpuente@baltsun.com

ddonovan@baltsun.com

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