An independent review of Taser incidents in Montgomery County determined that police there are not overusing the electronic weapon — a finding that drew criticism from civil liberties activists and relatives of a Gaithersburg man who died in 2013 after being shot by Tasers far more than safety limits allowed.
The report by a South Carolina criminologist found that Montgomery County police have deployed Tasers appropriately over the past two years and that the department's policies should be a model for police agencies across the nation.
The department, which has an arsenal of 565 Tasers, used the weapons 59 times last year and 63 times in 2014 — significant declines from the 148 incidents in 2013.
"It's remarkable that you have a department of this size with this many weapons on the street and you have so few Taser deployments," said Geoffrey P. Alpert, a University of South Carolina professor who was paid $35,500 for his review. "Taser use is low and is not the 'go to' weapon or 'weapon of choice' that is found in so many police departments throughout the United States."
Four people have died after being hit by Tasers in Montgomery County since 2009, the most in any jurisdiction in Maryland.
Relatives of Anthony Howard, a 51-year-old man who died after a 2013 incident with county police, attended a news conference held by Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett in Rockville. They were upset that Alpert's report focused only on 2014 and 2015 and that it did not examine deaths of people who had been shot by Tasers or explore whether officers were exceeding safety limits.
Two Montgomery County officers fired their Tasers at Howard nine times for a total of 37 seconds. He died shortly afterward.
"This report to us is useless," said Robbin Howard, the sister of Anthony Howard. She was joined by Anthony Howard's son, his two brothers and his father. "Why is 2013 not relevant?"
Civil liberties activists agreed.
"I wonder why they conveniently took the last two years, which just happens to miss the case of Anthony Howard," said Mike Mage, co-chairman of the ACLU of Maryland's Montgomery County chapter. "They said the past is the past and we should concentrate on the present. But you have to learn from the past. You can't just ignore it."
Thomas Nephew, a founding member of the Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition, said the analysis was a "pretty weak effort."
"I'm disappointed that they would commission an independent review and get such a partial look at what all the issues are," Nephew said.
They said the report should have provided information about whether police were exceeding recommended safety limits that advise officers not to deploy the weapon for more than 15 seconds and to avoid areas like the chest and the head. They also were shocked that nearly 65 percent of people shot by Tasers in the past two years were black in a county with a 19 percent black population.
"That's disproportionate," Nephew said.
Mage said the racial aspect deserves further examination to rule out racial profiling.
Leggett said the Police Department was continuing to examine Howard's death. Montgomery County police said Howard was "noncompliant" in a report to the state. In a supplemental synopsis, investigators said only one of the two Tasers connected with his body.
A spokesman for Leggett, Patrick Lacefield, said the county executive was not concerned that "the 65 percent signals racial profiling."
"We have no reason to believe that and no evidence to believe that's what that number represents," Lacefield said.
Alpert said the data did not appear to indicate that "there was an indiscriminate use against minorities" when compared to the number of black suspects police encounter. He noted the declines in the number of Taser firings from 2013 but didn't look in-depth into incidents from that year.
Leggett said he ordered the review in March in response to a six-month Baltimore Sun investigation into the ways 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.
Police across Maryland fired Tasers in 2,973 incidents from 2012 to 2014. Montgomery County, which employs 1,251 officers, ranked third in the state for stun gun use with 326 incidents. Baltimore and Baltimore County had 730 and 376 Taser incidents, respectively.
Eleven Marylanders have died since 2009 in Taser-related police encounters. In three of the four deaths, Montgomery County officers activated the devices for longer than 15 seconds — the recommended limit — and as long as 108 seconds.
In the first-ever data analysis of Taser use by police in Maryland, The Sun found that nearly 60 percent of those hit by the weapons over the three years were described by officers as "non-compliant and non-threatening."
In addition, in one of 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 documented in police reports.
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, physiological, 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 the data obtained by The Sun through the Public Information Act.
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.
Alpert said he did not study those deaths or whether police followed safety guidelines because the data from 2014 and 2015 did not indicate any issues that stood out to him.
But in hindsight, Alpert said he should have included information on how often officers used Taser more than 15 seconds and whether they shot people in restricted areas such as the chest or head.
"I generated the report based on data I thought was important," he said. "That was probably an oversight of mine. I think it's because I didn't see a problem."
"I have no problem criticizing a department that needs to be criticized. But this is more progressive than I thought," he said. "I wanted to get the most recent data. I didn't really care about the history. I was interested in what they've been doing in the last year or so. If you back to 2010 in any department, the further you go back the more problems you're going to find."
County police Chief J. Thomas Manger said Alpert's study confirms the department uses best practices.
"He does conclude that the Montgomery County Police Department's performance is impressive," Manger said.
Alpert recommended small changes to the Taser policy used by the county, which is in the process of updating it to require that officers avoid using the weapon on suspects who are resisting arrest but pose no immediate danger. A ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which includes Maryland, found that using Taser in those situations to be unconstitutional excessive force.