A door is breached. Police officers swarm the house, clearing each room. As they enter the kitchen, a man is standing there. He’s not complying with orders. The police officer thinks: Taser or gun, non-lethal or lethal? He pulls the Taser from his arsenal and demands compliance again. Nothing. Zap. A five second “ride” has started. How many rides will it take for compliancy? One? Ten? Thirty? At the end of some of these encounters, the suspect is left unconscious or, worse, dead.
Recently, attorney Todd A. Peterson filed suit against the Salem Police Department on behalf of Felisa Rold, whose son Gregory was killed in 2009 during arrest. According to Peterson, Gregory had a Taser used on him for a total of 156 seconds. He also said that the incident involved eight police officers.
Amnesty International suggests that more than 400 people have died nationwide after being shocked with police Tasers. “Although coroners have attributed most deaths to other causes, the Taser has been cited as a cause or contributing factor in more than 50 deaths,” said Amnesty International in a statement.
“Tasers have been related but only because they’ve been used. One Taser was used last week and the person died several hours later. It turns out the man had a knife injury to the spleen,” said Steve Tuttle, vice president of Taser International, who manufactures the conductive energy devices that Salem Police Department and many other law enforcement agencies use.
He added that there should be no long-lasting effect of their Taser. “It’s like a light switch; when you turn it on it’s on, when it’s off, it’s off – you can’t store electricity. When it stops it stops, the entire event is over with.”
But how does a law enforcement officer decide when to use a Taser? Lt. Dave Okada of Salem Police Department said that there are not guidelines to say when to use a Taser as opposed to control holds or a firearm.
“We have use of force guidelines that say these are your tools and use the appropriate level of force. We use the least necessary force as possible. Tasers are one of those tools,” he said.
Salem police officers do not have martial arts training, but do participate in a basic course of hand-to-hand training that includes control holds and how to control aggressive individuals. Okada said that they retrain on the defensive techniques every year.
In Rold’s case, police were called to the apartment complex that Felisa Rold lived in to remove Gregory Rold from the property.
“He was visiting his mother. But he shouldn’t have been visiting there because he had made some inappropriate comments to some young children but he hadn’t done anything,” said Peterson.
The apartment manager called the police after seeing him on the property. But Peterson said that there was no court order or restraining order. Despite having his mother’s invitation to her apartment, Rold was on private property without permission.
Once police arrived, according to Peterson, Rold began to pick up his things to comply with the request from the police officers. A Taser was then used on him.
“He was tased and after he reacted by raising his hands and screaming then they tased him for two and a half minutes. These guys went crazy on this guy.”
At some point in the process, Rold was unresponsive. Peterson said that the officers thought that he was playing possum, but he had actually died on the scene.
“Should someone be killed because they’re not supposed to be visiting? The officers can’t point out to one single thing that shows he was being violent. He didn’t have a gun or any weapon. It’s increasing and it’s happening in a lot of different cases,” Peterson added.
Tuttle said that Tasers are a better option where there could be a worse outcome. “Say you have a knife and you’re pregnant … [should law enforcement] use a baton, a firearm? A Taser is a good alternative at that point. We’re not so much worried about the electricity but the fall is what we’re concerned about.”
The Salem Police Department participates in an eight-hour training course to be certified each year.
Okada said, “The standard Taser training educates us on the Tasers, we learn about how it works, liability – a general Taser training. We also talk about how we use it in accordance with our directives.”
The ACLU of Oregon took a stance as early as October 2007 against the use of conducted energy devices. A report released at the time said:
“It is particularly troublesome that many of the reports of death or serious physical injuries appear to involve individuals in crisis – those who are mentally disturbed or under the influence of drugs.”
The process of investigations into the use of deadly force is defined by the county and then approved by the Oregon Department of Justice. Marion County’s Law Enforcement Use of Deadly Physical Force Response Plan was approved in 2008. It states that “it is recommended that members of an organization outside the involved officer’s agency conduct the investigation under the direction of the District Attorney.”
Okada said that the state police investigate Salem incidents and Salem police investigate state police.
“It’s part of our responsibility and we don’t mind doing it. We have complete faith in them and them in us,” he said.
The Oregon State Police and Keizer Police Department investigated the use of force in the Rold case. A Marion County Grand Jury unanimously found that Salem Police officers were justified in using physical force with Rold.
“In this case, all the [involved] police officers were interviewed by the Oregon State Police and one of them said they could’ve handled the situation differently without the Tasers. They overreacted,” Peterson said.
He added, “They used the Taser on Mr. Rold, who had a mental impairment. He was not a normal functioning person – without any provocation whatsoever.”
Recently, the Salem Police Department concluded an investigation on a case where Steven Avila, a 16-year-old South Salem High student, was critically injured after having a Taser used on him by Oregon State Police SWAT during execution of search warrants. Avila spent four days in the hospital after having a Taser used on him.
“Following the review of the investigation, the Marion County District Attorney’s Office has concluded the use of force was reasonable and will not present the case to a Grand Jury,” stated a news release by the Marion County District Attorney’s office.
The release also concluded that the District Attorney’s Juvenile Deliquency Deputy determined that there is probable cause that Avila committed the offense of interfering with a peace officer. The District Attorney’s office referred the case to the Marion County Juvenile Department. Due to the possible criminal case pending and the age of Avila, further information on the investigation is sealed to protect the juvenile involved.
Peterson and his client hope for the Salem Police Department to change their policies in regard to Taser use.
“[We want them] to address what they did and how something like this shouldn’t happen again in the future, and not to employ a Taser on someone who is trying to comply with an officer and is unarmed.”