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Maryland lawmakers call for statewide policy for police using stun guns

Maryland lawmakers call for statewide police policy for stun guns in wake of Baltimore Sun investigation.

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

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

Lawmakers and civil rights activists called for statewide stun-gun standards after a six-month Baltimore Sun investigation that found police officers in Maryland frequently shocked people for longer than recommended and didn't follow other best practices identified by the Justice Department and Taser International, the only stun-gun brand used by law enforcement in Maryland.

"Most of us think you Tase someone once or twice, not 16 or more times," said Del. Curt Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat who led a working group that studied ways to improve police accountability. "I don't think that was ever the intention of the Taser."

Sen. Lisa Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat and former vice chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said police should only use a Taser when they are facing a serious threat. The Sun also found that police across the state predominantly used the weapons against suspects who posed no immediate threat.

Gladden wants the commission, which would be created in October under the legislation, to investigate Taser use in Maryland.

"They're using Tasers indiscriminately, and it's not right," Gladden said of police.

Legal and national policing experts warn that police misuse of stun guns is a nationwide problem as departments are increasingly adding the weapons to their arsenals. The experts warn that too often officers are turning to Tasers before exhausting other means of dealing with disorderly people, actions that courts are beginning to brand as unconstitutional excessive force.

More than 400 people have died since 2009 in the U.S., including 11 in Maryland, after encounters in which police used stun guns.

J. Howard Henderson, chief executive of the Greater Baltimore Urban League, said he and other civil rights leaders met with representatives of the National Association of Attorneys General in Washington last month to discuss police use of force, including Tasers. He urged the Maryland legislature to act this year.

"The overuse of Tasers has created some issues around the country as it relates to public trust of police, especially in communities of color," Henderson said.

Police officials and Taser say the weapon has become an essential tool — and a less-lethal option — for officers who face dangerous situations under intense scrutiny. Police leaders across the state opposed an effort six years ago to establish a statewide Taser policy.

Del. John W.E. Cluster Jr., a Baltimore County Republican on the Judiciary Committee and a former police officer, said an across-the-board mandate wouldn't take into account every possible scenario police may confront.

"It's difficult to make a statewide policy on the use of Tasers because every incident is different," he said. "It needs to be a judgment call by the individual officer. It's his life that's on the line or his safety that's on the line."

Cluster's police career in the county predated the widespread use of Tasers, but he said he believes officers use the weapon properly. "It's pretty intense training they go through, and I think that's more than sufficient," he said.

The state legislature has been considering broad legislation aimed at improving policing. After the riots that followed Freddie Gray's death in Baltimore in 2015, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, both Democrats, created the Public Safety and Policing Work Group to develop recommendations.

Many of the recommendations concern a training commission that lawmakers want to become an independent agency with wide-ranging authority. The new Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission would replace the Police Training Commission within the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

In addition to adopting national best practices for the use of force, the commission would create uniform standards for hiring, training and punishing officers. It would also be in charge of mandatory periodic mental health evaluations for police officers. And it would oversee annual reporting of police-involved shootings and other "serious officer-involved incidents," something that isn't currently tracked.

Developing Taser protocols should be one of the commission's first tasks, said Del. Kathleen M. Dumais of Montgomery County, vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee. She and other lawmakers said separate legislation on Taser use would be difficult to get through the legislative process during this year's session that ends in early April.

"Those of us that worked on this legislation are confident this is the best path forward," said Dumais, referring to the commission that would include police officials, lawmakers and civilians.

Dumais called The Sun's findings, published Sunday, "sad and disturbing."

The 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," and that in one out of every 10 incidents, police discharged the weapon for longer than 15 seconds — a duration that exceeds recommendations by the Justice Department and Taser.

In a 2010 incident, an officer activated a Taser 16 times for a total of 108 seconds during an encounter with a 65-year-old man 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 a man four times for 37 seconds; an autopsy later found the suspect was handcuffed at the time. During a 2013 incident, two officers fired Tasers for a total of 37 seconds. While only one Taser connected to the man, the suspect died shortly afterward.

The Sun built a database on Maryland's 2,973 Taser incidents between 2012 and 2014.

The data downloaded directly from the devices often shows more activations than officers document in police reports.

"The findings show an appalling lack of training, total lack of accountability and totally inadequate standards governing Taser use in Maryland," said David Rocah, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. "And they indicate a widespread use of Tasers as a pain compliance technique, which is profoundly dangerous, potentially deadly, and unlawful."

Former Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, who lobbied for a statewide Taser policy in 2010, welcomed the latest effort to establish consistent standards. "Getting that uniformity would be a step in the right direction," Gansler said.

He stressed the value of Tasers and said police need to understand the limits of the weapon. "If Tasers are used properly, then lives will be saved," he added.

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

Taser policies from 15 Maryland police departments with the most stun gun use vary widely, The Sun found in its investigation. Some don't incorporate the warnings issued over the years by the manufacturer or by leading police groups such as the Police Executive Research Forum, which developed the recommendations adopted by the Justice Department.

When reporting data to the state, police pick one of three options as the reason for using a Taser: non-compliant and non-threatening, threat of force or use of force. Officers must also describe the incidents as criminal, non-criminal or traffic.

Takoma Park Police Chief Alan Goldberg, a master Taser instructor who spoke on behalf of the Maryland Sheriffs' Association and the Chiefs of Police Association, said the data do not provide a complete picture of every Taser incident. He noted that an officer can still be in danger when dealing with a noncompliant suspect.

Other states collect more data. Connecticut gives officers nine options to describe the nature of Taser incidents, including crime in progress, domestic disturbance, emotionally disturbed, suspicious person. And they have 13 choices to describe a suspect's resistance level, including suicidal, threat/hostile, dead weight, fighting stance, fleeing and failed to follow directions.

Gladden, the Maryland senator, wants the state to collect as much information as possible about each Taser incident so lawmakers can have a better understanding of the circumstances.

Del. Talmadge Branch, a Baltimore Democrat, said he is concerned that some in law enforcement misuse Tasers. Branch sponsored legislation that passed in 2011 and required police to report on every Taser encounter to the state.

"They will use more force than necessary and zapping somebody multiple times is certainly inappropriate," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporters Erin Cox and Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

mpuente@baltsun.com

ddonovan@baltsun.com

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