Police use of Tasers down in Maryland, up in Baltimore

The small girl waving the large butcher's knife was terrifying her mother.

But Radiance Pittman's terror quickly turned to panic when her bipolar 14-year-old daughter — still dressed in her school uniform — stopped threatening to cut herself and started threatening the police officers who had cornered her in the kitchen of her Baltimore home.


So when the sudden crack and pulsing buzz of a Taser erupted in the crowded kitchen and sent two electrified darts at the girl, Pittman instinctively screamed, "Nooo!"

She believed the officers she had called to help the distraught teen had shot her instead.


"I thought it was a gun," Pittman said. "All of a sudden, this Taser goes off."

For police, the Taser proved effective: The girl dropped the knife, officers handcuffed her and paramedics treated her for minor scrapes. Pittman was grateful the confrontation ended without serious injuries. But she said she wished officers had given her more time to calm her daughter.

"They escalated things so quickly," she said.

While law enforcement agencies across Maryland reduced their reliance on Tasers last year, police in Baltimore increased their use — including against juveniles such as Pittman's daughter — to record levels, The Baltimore Sun has found.


City officers accounted for nearly four out of every 10 stun gun incidents in Maryland in 2015, a year when U.S. Justice Department investigators were scrutinizing every use of force by city police.

The Baltimore Police Department used Tasers more often than Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Cecil, Harford, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties combined, according to state data analyzed by The Sun. 2015 was the most recent year for which that data was available.

Officers from 47 law enforcement agencies in Maryland reported firing their Tasers at suspects 944 times in 2015, a 3.4 percent decline from the previous year and a 12 percent dip from 2012, when state officials began collecting Taser data.

But Taser use in Baltimore increased 10.5 percent over 2014, and jumped 35 percent since 2012. And 19 of the city's 347 Taser incidents in 2015 involved people under age 18, a group that Taser International has said faces greater risks of dying from exposure to stun guns. The city was responsible for 40 percent of the juveniles subjected to Tasers statewide in 2015, up from 30 percent four years ago.

Across the state, 73 percent of people hit with a police Taser in 2015 were black, up from 69 percent in 2014.

In Baltimore, 93 percent of people shot with a Taser were black, up from 88 percent the previous year. The number of black people struck with the stun guns in the city increased 17 percent from 276 in 2014 to 322 in 2015. The number of whites shot by Tasers in Baltimore fell 43 percent, from 30 in 2014 to 17 last year.

They need to do better," said Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP. "They should not be Tasing people just because they get mad when someone is not doing what the police are asking them to do."

Hill-Aston said police have a difficult and complex job, and need better training about when to use Tasers.

"I'm not against Tasers. But they shouldn't be used when they don't need to," she said. "If they're using the Tasers too much, we need to have a discussion about that."

She said black people are stunned by Tasers disproportionately because they are stopped by police disproportionately.

"In every county, black people are targeted and stopped by police," she said.

Del. Curtis Anderson said he was "deeply disturbed about the use of Tasers without apparently any kind of direction from police supervisors."

"Whether it be in Baltimore City or the Charles County sheriff's office, there have to be rules," the Baltimore Democrat said. "They think that if you're not killing a person with a gun that they can Taser anyone at any time."

The 2015 data shows that most of the problems The Sun revealed about Taser use between 2012 and 2014 remained evident last year.

The Sun reported in March that officers across the state used the devices predominantly against suspects who posed no immediate threat, and did not follow widely accepted safety recommendations from policing organizations and Taser International, the only stun-gun brand used by police in Maryland.

Lawmakers and civil rights activists called for statewide stun-gun standards. What they got was a newly established Police Training and Standards Commission and the promise that the commission would consider state standards for Tasers.

Analysts warn that Maryland's hodgepodge of policies written by individual departments imperils the public and exposes police officers to greater liability.

Anderson said the Maryland General Assembly intends to get the standardization process moving in the legislative session that begins next month.

A bill expected to be introduced in January would require the new standards commission to devise use-of-force protocols, he said. An amendment he plans to file would require the commission to specifically spell out standards for Taser use.

"Because of [The Sun's] articles, I thought it would be necessary to have Tasers included so officers know the policy of when to use it and the length of time" for deploying the weapon, Anderson said.

Baltimore police attributed the increased use of Tasers last year to record levels of violence.

"With a record amount of homicides and nonfatal shootings, I think we can look at 2015 with an asterisk attached to it," Baltimore police spokesman T.J. Smith wrote in response to questions.

The city also increased the number of Tasers it provided to officers last year, Smith said. The department added 579 Tasers in 2015 to increase the total to 1,405.

A Taser fires two electrified darts up to 25 feet that cause neuromuscular incapacitation when they penetrate a person's body. The Taser can be activated multiple times in five-second intervals.

The device can also be used in "drive-stun" mode, in which officers to press the electrified tip against a person's body, inflicting pain in order to force compliance.

Analysts say discharging the weapons for more than 15 seconds can be dangerous. One out of 10 Taser incidents last year involved shocks that lasted more than 15 seconds, slightly higher than in 2014.

In Baltimore, 11 percent of Taser incidents exceeded 15 seconds last year, greater than the state average. That was also greater than the 9 percent city police reported in 2014.

No deaths were blamed on Tasers in 2015.

Six of the 10 longest exposures to a Taser in 2015 were recorded by Baltimore police. They averaged 60 seconds.

"We continue training and recertifications for the Taser and note any needs for additional training," Smith wrote in his response.

Baltimore police officers described every person they hit with a Taser in 2015 as "noncompliant," meaning they did not exhibit any force or threats against officers. Officers said most were engaged in criminal conduct, but almost all were unarmed.


That was largely true throughout Maryland: 81 percent of people who were shot by a Taser did not possess a weapon and most — 65 percent — were described as "noncompliant."


Only 19 percent of people displayed what officers labeled as "force" against police. But police reported that 80 percent of people they shot with Tasers were involved in criminal behavior.

In the Justice Department report on city police released in August, investigators criticized the agency for using Tasers on such people.

"The use of force on a passively noncompliant person in crisis was unreasonable," investigators wrote. Officers often resorted to "unreasonable use of force."

Investigators called new guidance issued by the department this year to limit officers' use of Tasers a "positive step forward."

Smith said the use of a Taser requires "a suspect's active aggression rather than active or passive resistance."

The department changed its policy in July to make it clear to officers that noncompliance was no longer a valid reason for using a Taser on someone.

Analysts have recommended against firing Tasers at the chest. Taser International has warned since 2009 that doing so could cause cardiac arrest, especially when people have been using drugs such as cocaine.

Chest shots were involved in 83 incidents in 2015 — down 19 percent from the 102 reported by police in 2014. Incidents described only as "front-torso" impacts declined 27 percent from 358 to 282.

Front-torso shots increased 14.6 percent in Baltimore. And shots described as hitting the chest rose by a third, from 33 to 44.

Police reported drive-stunning suspects in the chest who were not armed and posed no threat other than noncompliance in eight incidents last year. Two of the suspects were under age 17.

Taser International has warned police departments about the dangers associated with firing the weapon at children.

Taser use on a "pregnant, infirm, elderly, or low body-mass index person or on a small child could increase the risk of death or serious injury," the company said in 2013.

The youngest suspect Tased by police in Baltimore last year was a 12-year-old African-American boy allegedly involved in a car robbery that led to a police chase and a car crash. He is described in the Taser database as "noncompliant" but engaged in criminal behavior.

Police said they began pursuing a stolen Dodge Caravan out of the Westside Shopping Center that day in June 2015. They said the vehicle ran stop signs and changed lanes recklessly until it collided with a car in the 500 block of N. Payson St.

Four juveniles jumped out of the van and ran off, police said. An officer chased two boys who ran east on West Mulberry Street.

"At this time, I withdrew my Taser and ordered both individuals to stop running twice," one officer wrote in the police report. But "both continued to run, eluding capture."

As the 12-year-old jumped a fence, police said, the officer fired his Taser. One of the two prongs fired from the weapon struck the boy in the chest. The Taser pulsated for five seconds into the boy, but he kept running until other officers cut him off and arrested him.

Police went to Pittman's house in May in response to a report of a possibly suicidal teen.

"These are very complicated matters because you have people who are going through a traumatic event," Smith wrote. "Our goal is to end a threatening situation as peacefully as possible with little to no injuries to anyone."

Without a Taser, he said, officers might have been forced to draw their guns.

Cecil County sheriff's deputies also used a Taser to arrest a 12-year-old boy last year. They were trying to arrest him on a warrant for removing a monitoring device stemming from charges of theft and assault with a deadly weapon, police said.

Two deputies approached the boy in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart. Police said the boy was trying to flee when a male deputy "grabbed him with both arms around his upper body."

The boy punched the deputy as he was trying to handcuff the child, police said. The deputy tackled the boy to the ground, police said, but he "continued to resist by holding his arms under his body and refusing to comply with commands."

A female deputy "then deployed her Taser and drive-stunned [the boy] at the base of the neck and upper back. [The boy] finally rolled over on his stomach and surrendered his arms."

Cecil County Chief Deputy Sheriff Gerald K. Widdoes said the boy "was not in custody at the time of deployment of the Taser and was actively and physically resisting arrest. Just because a deputy has someone on the ground certainly and clearly does not mean they were restrained."

"A subject not showing their hands is a 'red flag' and deputies would certainly be concerned that the subject may be armed based on the circumstances," Widdoes wrote in response to The Sun's questions.

Widdoes said that the deputy used the drive-stun appropriately to get the boy to surrender his arms — "the exact designed purpose of pain compliance."

Under Cecil County policy, deputies should not use a Taser "if the person is a very young child."

Widdoes wrote that the policy does not "list a specific age" for "very young child." He noted that the boy was 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighed 135 pounds, "which is physically larger than both deputies attempting to arrest him."

"Police work often has grey areas and police officer discretion is based on the facts and situation present for each incident," he wrote. "Two trained deputies were having difficulty placing him under arrest and the individual punched one deputy in the face with a closed fist and kicked the other deputy.

"The use of the Taser in drive stun mode at that point was fully justified in my opinion," he continued, "and most likely prevented further injury to the subject as well as our deputies."