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Montgomery County executive wants police to review Taser-related deaths

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett orders police to review Taser deaths.

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett announced Wednesday that he has ordered the Police Department to examine its use of Tasers and review investigations into four deaths of people shocked by the stun guns fired by officers.

Of the 11 Marylanders who have died since 2009 in Taser-related police encounters, four involved Montgomery County officers — the most in any jurisdiction in Maryland. In three of the four deaths, officers activated the devices for longer than 15 seconds — the recommended limit — and as long as 108 seconds.

"We need to go back to review them," Leggett said. "Are we doing it too often? How often should we be using them?"

Leggett launched the Taser inquiries in response to a six-month Baltimore Sun investigation into how police across Maryland use the weapons. The Sun found that officers frequently failed to follow best practices identified by the U.S. Department of Justice and Taser International, the only stun-gun brand used by law enforcement in Maryland.

Montgomery County police spokesman Capt. Paul Starks declined to comment. He had previously defended the actions of officers involved in the four deaths, saying they followed proper procedures, and pointed out that grand juries convened at the time of the incidents declined to file charges against them.

Leggett said he wants to make sure the incidents in which suspects died and the subsequent investigations were handled properly.

Police across Maryland fired Tasers in 2,973 incidents from 2012 to 2014. Montgomery County, which owns 550 Tasers for its 1,251 officers, ranked third in the state for stun gun use with 326 incidents. Baltimore and Baltimore County had 730 and 376 incidents, respectively.

Leggett said he wants to make sure police aren't using Tasers in situations that warrant less force. While he understands that the weapon comes with risks, he said injuries and deaths need to be minimized. The review will determine whether the county can improve the way police use the weapon, the Democrat said.

Thomas Nephew, a founding member of the Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition, also called for the County Council to undertake its own independent review of police use of Tasers.

"I would expect them to press the Police Department to adhere to best practices," Nephew said.

He worries that police use Tasers even when people don't pose a threat. The Sun, which created a database with information reported by police to the state over three years beginning in 2012, found that officers predominantly used Tasers against suspects who posed no immediate threat.

"Using Tasers as compliance tools enters the arena of torture," Nephew said.

Montgomery County Council President Nancy Floreen, a Democrat, could not be reached for comment.

The Sun's first-ever data analysis revealed that nearly 60 percent of those hit by Tasers over the three years in Maryland were described by police as "non-compliant and non-threatening."

In addition, in one out of every 10 incidents, police discharged the weapon for longer than 15 seconds — a duration that exceeds recommendations from the Justice Department and Taser. The data downloaded directly from the devices often shows more activations than officers document in police reports.

Data from 2015 is not yet available.

The Police Executive Research Forum, which devised the best practices adopted by the Justice Department, has recommended since 2011 that police avoid activating the Taser for longer than 15 seconds.

Taser has warned police since 2013 that "repeated, prolonged or continuous" use of the device for longer than 15 seconds "may contribute to cumulative exhaustion, stress, cardiac, physiologic, metabolic, respiratory, and associated medical risks which could increase the risk of death or serious injury."

A year later, Montgomery County police began to warn officers that any activation longer than 15 seconds "may increase the risk of death or serious injury."

From 2012 to 2014, Montgomery County officers exceeded the limit for prolonged exposures in 42 incidents, according to state data.

In a 2010 incident, a Montgomery County officer activated a Taser 16 times for a total of 108 seconds during an encounter with 65-year-old Karreem Ali, known formerly as Cicero Satterfield Jr., who later died. Montgomery County paid $450,000 to settle a lawsuit over the incident but admitted no wrongdoing.

In a 2011 incident, an officer stunned Delric East, 40, four times for 37 seconds. East had been in a car accident and violently resisted when officers tried to help, according to police reports. An autopsy later found that the suspect was handcuffed at the time, contradicting what police had written in reports.

During a 2013 incident, two officers fired Tasers nine times at Anthony Howard, 51, for a total of 37 seconds. While only one Taser connected to the man, he died shortly afterward.

Robbin Howard said her family had been trying to learn more about her brother's death. She praised the department-wide examination of Taser use ordered by Leggett and the additional review of her brother's death.

"This is something that should have been done a long time ago," she said.

Jane Milne, a spokeswoman for the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35, which represents Montgomery County officers, said the union does not have "any information" on the Taser-related deaths and declined to comment further.

Taser policies from 15 Maryland police departments with the most stun gun use vary widely, The Sun found in its investigation. Some do not incorporate the warnings issued over the years by the manufacturer and national policing experts.

Since 2014, Connecticut and Vermont have enacted statewide polices after people died in high-profile incidents with stun guns.

A 2010 effort by former Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler to create a statewide Taser policy failed when police leaders objected.

As the General Assembly moves to create an independent police commission, key lawmakers said this week that one of its first priorities should be to develop a statewide policy on how officers use stun guns across Maryland.

The commission's mandate, under bipartisan legislation, would be to adopt the "use of force" policies recommended by the Justice Department. Those policies would cover how and when officers should resort to using a stun gun on suspects.

Sen. Susan Lee, a Montgomery County Democrat, believes the task force, which would be created in October under the legislation, should examine Taser use in Maryland.

"This is a lethal device and you have to have good standards and you have to follow them," Lee said. "There should be some best practices and monitoring to make sure they're following them."

mpuente@baltsun.com

ddonovan@baltsun.com

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