Posts Tagged ‘Frederick County Sheriff’s Dept.’

Tasers: A Controversy Re-Charged

Police say tasers are safe. Then why have hundreds in the U.S. died?

A Maryland family is suing the Frederick County Sheriff’s Department for $145 million, charging it with the wrongful death of 20-year-old Jarrel Gray. Gray died in Nov. 2007 shortly after Corporal Rudolph Torres tased him twice.

Anna Thomas, Gray’s grandmother, says her family wants tasers out of officers’ hands. But, police across the country say tasers are saving lives.

Jarrel Gray's graduation photo hangs by his grandmother's front door

On Nov. 18, 2007, the morning of her 57th birthday, two Frederick County Sheriff’s deputies rang Anna Thomas’ doorbell in Frederick, Md. to deliver the bad news. “They came at 10 minutes to eight. I remember exactly,” Thomas says, recalling the moment she learned from deputies that her grandson, whom she called her sidekick, was dead, “I’m thinking, was he shot?” Three years later, Thomas says her family is getting closer to getting answers in court.

On Nov. 10, 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit dismissed an appeal by the Frederick County Sheriff’s Department, the Board of County Commissioners and Cpl. Torres. The appeal aimed at getting Torres immunity from the wrongful death charge since the tasing happened while he was performing his duties. However, the court found no reason to let the appeal stand. It is allowing the case to move to trial next year in the U.S. District Court in Baltimore, Md.

Attorney Ted Williams, who represents Tanya Thomas and Jeff Gray in the civil wrongful death suit, says Jarrel’s parents are ready for this to go to trial next year, “We are seeking vindication for this young man. Jarrel Gray is no longer here to speak for himself.”

What Happened?

Friends who were with Jarrel Gray that morning tell his family the group had been drinking and after coming back to the neighborhood, Gray did not want to go home drunk.

The Frederick County Sheriff’s Department report says 911 calls came in from neighbors who saw the group fighting outside. Williams says he’s not disputing why officers were called, “What we are deeply concerned about is that Jarrel Gray was tased not once, but twice.”

Thomas says her grandson’s close friends recounted how officers pulled up and Cpl. Torres started yelling at Gray. Seemingly annoyed, according to witnesses, Gray turned away from Torres. That’s when friends say Cpl. Torres tased Gray twice. Jarrel Gray died later that morning at Frederick Memorial Hospital.

Cpl. Rudy Torres, courtesy Frederick News Post

The Frederick Sheriff’s Department police report indicates Jarrel Gray was not cooperating with officers and that Cpl. Torres found it necessary to tase Gray. It says the responding officers gave Gray first aid on the scene until paramedics arrived.

Williams says this suit isn’t just about getting justice for Jarrel Gray. He says the family’s lawsuit is stirring controversy outside their hometown of Frederick, Md.  TASER International itself, as well as law enforcement agencies across the country, is looking to the family’s court battle for answers to policy questions. Did the corporal use excessive force in tasing Gray? And could his death have been prevented?

Can a Tase Kill?

Steve Tuttle, vice president of communications for Scottsdale, Az.-based TASER International, says a taser charge alone cannot kill. In fact, you’ll get more of an electrical jolt off a Christmas tree light bulb according to Tuttle, “When you get hit by a taser, you recover immediately.”

But Gray did not recover. His family believes if Cpl. Torres had not tased Jarrel Gray, he would still be alive. Anna Thomas says the grandson who lived with her and was always by her side died too young, “In our family, we are very close. It was extremely hard.”

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Trained to Tase

Corporal Jennifer Bailey, public information officer for the Frederick County Sheriff’s Department says, “We do have a policy on using tasers. Our deputies are trained with tasers and that happens every year. We have policies for when it’s appropriate to use them.” The department did not release its taser policy for this story.

Though she is unable to share more about the department’s policy, Cpl. Bailey says sheriff’s deputies use the same TASER gun as neighboring Montgomery County Police officers.

“From what I know of the case, it was a righteous tase,” says Officer Scott Davis. He is the TASER instructor for Montgomery County’s Police Department.

While Officer Davis says Cpl. Torres’ actions were defensible by his department’s policies doesn’t mean they are defensible under the Frederick County Sheriff’s Department policies. According to TASER International, each law enforcement agency decides its own policy for using tasers in the field.

Both Frederick County and Montgomery County law enforcement use the X26 taser. It’s the same model Davis uses in his taser demonstration for this story (below.) TASER International calls the X26 a protection tool.

Davis agrees using a taser protects the officer by giving him or her a “hands off” approach, “If we use pepper spray there’s the chance of spraying your partner and other people, if you use a baton there’s a chance of a pretty bad-looking injury and if you use a firearm…well you know what. Tasers enable the officer to maintain a relative safe distance away from the person if they are combative or are holding something that has the potential to injure the officer or other people.”

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Until TASER International started selling to law enforcement agencies in 1998, Tuttle says, there was no option between beating a suspect or shooting them. According to Davis, there are dozens of situations where tasing a suspect to take control of a situation keeps everyone safer, “We don’t know if this guy is mentally ill, if he’s fine, we don’t know. It gives me a few seconds to secure the scene.”

According to the operating manual issued by TASER International, the X26 uses “propelled wires or direct contact to conduct energy.” It affects “the sensory and motor functions of the nervous system.”

TASER International says its X26 model is the most widely used by law enforcement across the U.S.

Officer Davis says, the X26 essentially shoots two pins into the body that penetrate the skin. The charge, released through wires attached to the taser, forces the muscles to contract and leaves the person unable to control his or her body for a period of seconds. Davis says, it hurts, but when you are tased, you are still conscious, aware and can breathe normally.

Taser Abuse

Training is essential in using tasers correctly, Davis says, because tasers are so effective, officers can develop a tendency to overuse them. Officer Davis points out, most officers would rather use tasers than their gun, “You don’t get into this line of work to see people get hurt. Sometimes it happens. But this gives you another option to protect the scene, yourself, and the bad guy.”

Law enforcement agencies across Maryland use tasers in the field. It’s a practice staunchly supported by the state’s Attorney General Doug Gansler. He’s not alone in his opinion. According to TASER International, 6,400 law enforcement agencies across the country are using tasers as standard equipment. Tasers are not issued to law enforcement in Virginia or Washington, D.C.

In Montgomery County, Md., Davis says using tasers in the field has significantly lowered the department’s workers compensation filings, “61 percent fewer workers comp filings is the national average. We are right on target with that here. Our workers comp claims are down quite a bit because of the taser.”

Tolerating a Tase

While tasers are considered reliable tools for officers in the field, there are still many open questions as to why some people can tolerate a tase and others cannot. Curt Goering with Amnesty International, a human rights protection organization, has been investigating the use of tasers for a decade to find out if they are unsafe for the general public, “Over the last 10 years, approximately 440 people have died after being tasered. We’ve gone through the autopsy reports of about 100 of these cases — those reports, from coroners and medical examiners – have shown that tasers were either a cause or a contributory factor.”

Goering says in some cases, pre-existing medical conditions, medications or a person’s mental health can affect how their body reacts to a tase.

In Jarrel Gray’s case, the autopsy results show his death was caused by a combination of electric shocks, police restraint and the alcohol in his system.

Officer Davis says he feels horrible for Gray’s family. But he says, when making split second decisions in high-risk situations, there is no way officers can tell if a person will be killed by a tase.

Cpl. Jennifer Bailey with the Frederick County Sheriff’s Department says Cpl. Torres retired this year after 13 years of service.

Police Officers, Not Doctors

“They’re not doctors,” says Steve Tuttle with TASER International. He says he feels for Gray’s family but, he points out, Gray’s death is one compared to more than “a million field use or suspect applications” and more than a million “training or voluntary applications.” Tuttle says in 12 years of field use, 440 deaths out of 2.1 million taser uses is a small fatality rate.

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Those numbers do nothing to comfort Anna Thomas who says she still does not understand why her grandson died. Staring at his graduation photo by the front door, Thomas says she wants tasers out of officers’ hands, “I’m sure there’s something else you can do other than tasing a person.”

That’s part of the reason Thomas says her family decided to move forward with its suit against the sheriff’s department. Thomas says her motivation is not the money her family could receive. She fights back tears when she thinks of her grandson saying, “The end goal for us is that it doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

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