Justice

Police In Maryland Routinely Used Tasers When Suspects Posed No Threat To Their Safety

CREDIT: Toby Talbot, AP

FILE-In this Aug. 16, 2007, file photo, Police Chief John Martin demonstrates a Taser in Brattleboro, Vt.

Police officers in Maryland frequently did not follow safety guidelines when using Tasers, and often discharged the weapon before their safety was actually at risk, according to a six-month investigation by The Baltimore Sun.

In the first-ever analysis of Taser use in Maryland, the Sun studied three years of Taser incidents in the state. The study found that nearly 60 percent of the people that police hit with Tasers were described as “non compliant and non-threatening.”

Furthermore, according to police reports, only 20 percent of suspects who were Tased were armed with a weapon, and only two percent were armed with guns.

While Tasers are often thought of as a safer, non-lethal alternative to guns, when used improperly the stun guns still pose a great risk.

“Police have over-relied on it,” John G. Peters Jr., president of the Nevada-based Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Deaths, said. “Even the manufacturer has agreed that officers have become codependent on the Taser and they would rather not physically engage people and use the Taser. That’s pretty much true nationally.”

There is no statewide Taser policy in Maryland, which isn’t unusual — in fact, Vermont and Connecticut are the only two states that have official stun-gun policies. However, there are recommended guidelines for use, and The Sun found police in Maryland often disregarded them, such as in the 2013 death of Anthony Howard in Montgomery County.

Police said in a report on the incident that Howard had thrown “boulders” and charged at officers. But a 17-minute video taken by a resident and obtained by The Baltimore Sun shows that when officers approached Howard for the last time, he was standing still, holding a child’s scooter. Officers fired two Tasers, shooting electrified darts connected by long wires into Howard’s body.

After he dropped the scooter and keeled over onto a flower bed, police continued to pump electricity into Howard; he kicked wildly on his back with four officers standing over him. Police fired their Tasers at Howard nine times for a total of 37 seconds — far above the recommended limit of 15 seconds. He stopped breathing and died shortly afterward.

Official Taser warnings say that “repeated, prolonged or continuous” use of the device “may contribute to cumulative exhaustion, stress, cardiac, physiologic, metabolic, respiratory, and associated medical risks which could increase the risk of death or serious injury.”

The Sun study found that ten percent of the time Tasers were used, they were discharged for longer than the recommended 15 seconds. And in 2014, officers fired Tasers directly at the chest in 119 incidents, even though there are warnings that doing so could lead to cardiac arrest.

Since 2009, Tasers or similar stun guns have resulted in more than 400 deaths nation-wide. Eleven of those deaths have come in Maryland, some in cases where a Taser was used when a suspect was already handcuffed and face-down in the ground, or when a Taser was pushed directly against the suspect’s body.

Like other forms of police brutality, Taser use does not effect all communities the same — sixty-four percent of those hit by stun guns in Maryland over the past three years were black men.

“[Police officers] use Tasers as a compliance mechanism,” said Gregory Lattimer, an who sued Montgomery County in a wrongful-death suit involving Taser use. “‘If you don’t do what I say, I’m going to Tase you.'”