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Baltimore police cut Taser use by nearly half in 2016

Baltimore police cut their use of Tasers nearly in half in 2016, a year when commanders put new limits on when officers can fire the stun guns, officials said.

Officers reported 181 Taser incidents in 2016, a 46 percent decline from the record high of 347 in 2015, the Baltimore Police Department reported this week. The drop occurred even as the department equipped dozens more officers with the weapons last year.

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"This proves that good policies, thoughtfully implemented, can and do change behavior," department spokesman T.J. Smith said.

Del. Curt Anderson introduced legislation Thursday that would require the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission to establish "a set of best practices and standards for use of force, including guidelines for the use of electronic control devices," including Tasers.

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"I hope that the decline [in Baltimore] is as a result of them implementing these best practices," said Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat. "It may well be. That's what I'd like to ensure statewide."

Commissioner Kevin Davis enacted a policy in July that required officers to use Tasers only when suspects display "active aggression," a standard that conforms to a recent federal court ruling and widely accepted best practices. The previous standard allowed police to shock individuals simply for failing to follow an officer's orders.

The policy changes came about four months after The Baltimore Sun revealed widespread misuse of Tasers in Baltimore and police departments across the state. Baltimore police exceeded recommended safety limits for Tasers more than any other force in Maryland, and in nearly all cases officers fired the weapon at suspects who did not pose a threat.

This first-ever data analysis of all Taser incidents in Maryland revealed that nearly 60 percent of those hit by Tasers in Maryland were described by police as "non-compliant and non-threatening." In one out of every 10 incidents, The Sun found, police discharged the weapon for longer than 15 seconds — exceeding recommendations by the Justice Department and Taser Inc.

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Most of the suspects hit by Tasers in Baltimore between 2012 and 2014 were black, according to data obtained and analyzed by The Sun, and more than two-thirds of the incidents took place in ZIP codes with the city's lowest median incomes. An analysis of 2015 data showed Taser use increased in Baltimore even as it declined statewide.

Taser is the only stun-gun brand used by police in Maryland.

After The Sun published its findings last year, Davis described his efforts to reorganize the Police Department and implement polices on how officers should use force, including Tasers.

The Justice Department was conducting its civil rights investigation of the department.

Justice investigators criticized the department for using Tasers on noncompliant people who did not display any force against officers. Police listed every person hit with a Taser in Baltimore in 2015 as "noncompliant."

Smith said the increase in Taser use in 2015 was driven by an increase in crime, the issue of Tasers to more officers and the old policy.

The city issued 1,405 to officers last year, 5 percent more than in 2015. The city and the Justice Department agreed last week to a consent decree that will enact sweeping police reforms.

Maryland is the only state in the nation that tracks all Taser use by police.

The General Assembly authorized collection of the data in 2011 on the recommendation of task force convened by former Attorney General Douglas Gansler.

The task force also recommended establishing a statewide Taser policy, but police leaders across Maryland balked at a mandate, and the action failed to pass.

Analysts say Maryland's hodgepodge of policies written by individual departments, imperils the public and exposes police officers to greater liability. Only Connecticut and Vermont have statewide policies governing stun guns.

Anderson wants to add Maryland to that list.

Stun gun policies at several of the state's largest police departments disregard key safety recommendations from experts and Taser's manufacturer, The Sun found.

Statewide data for 2016 is not due to the Governor's Office of Crime Control & Prevention until March.

Baltimore police released their totals to show that the department has made progress in implementing best practices that officers previously were not using.

Jason Johnson, deputy police commissioner for strategic services, said the new policy and training drove the decline in Taser use.

That decline was not offset by an increase in another use of force, he said.

The department expanded the types of incidents that officers must report as force — including the act of pointing a gun at an individual, or pointing a Taser with its electric charge sparking.

"We're very happy with where it ended up," Johnson said. "It bodes very well as we go into a consent decree."

He said the decline proves that officers are capable of adjusting their practices when they operate under proper policies and training.

"It's early evidence that our cops want to do the right thing," he said.

Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP and a critic of police use of force, praised Davis for rapidly implementing policy changes that are likely to be required under the consent decree.

She called the decline in Taser use "wonderful."

"I think if they keep going in this direction," she said, "police [use of] force goes down, Taser use goes down, and we'll see a better police force."

ddonovan@baltsun.com

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