Short Relief: Portland suffers leadership short-circuit on Tasers for police

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One of the first things that Portland’s new police chief, James Craig, wanted to do when he arrived was to equip his force with Tasers – stun guns that use an electric charge to temporarily disrupt a person’s muscle control, typically causing them to collapse.

On the continuum of force available to law enforcement, Tasers are generally considered nonlethal. They don’t have the deadly force of a firearm, but are more disabling than batons, pepper spray and bean bag projectiles. Chief Craig had experience with Tasers in Los Angeles and believes they are a valuable option for an officer to have available.

A Taser provides an officer who encounters a dangerous situation with a means of incapacitating a person who presents a threat. Without that option, an officer may have to use some measure of force that is more than what is necessary to defuse the situation, or less than what is needed to be effective. Either way, a Taser can reduce the chance of injury to the officer and the other person.

This is not to say that Tasers can’t be misused. Any tool can. But the response to that possibility should not be to ban Tasers. It should be to regulate them and hold accountable those who misuse them.

If Biddeford police had been equipped with Tasers in March, then they might have been able to avoid shooting Barbara Stewart when she confronted them with what appeared to be a firearm, but turned out to be a pellet gun. If South Portland police had used a Taser in August 2008, they might have been able to defuse a confrontation without shooting Michael Norton. (By then, that department had lost a lawsuit for using a Taser during a drunk driving arrest in 2005.)
Anecdotal evidence suggests that once law enforcement has been using Tasers for a while, people are more likely to comply with police orders and submit without a struggle.

Since Chief Craig asked for Tasers, the process in Portland has been anything but a model of clarity and decisiveness. City Manager Joe Gray seemed to authorize a trial period, but then stepped back from doing so when he realized that the City Council’s Public Safety Committee had not taken a position on the matter. Tasers first appeared as an item on the Public Safety Committee’s May agenda. Apparently, the matter is again on the Committee’s July agenda.
The city’s Web site features information about Tasers, including testimony from Amnesty International and the Maine Civil Liberties Union, as well as a Department of Justice study of fatalities associated with Taser use. The site features no favorable information about Tasers.

The chairman of the Public Safety Committee circulated a survey whose questions emphasized concerns about the health effects, human rights implications and cost effectiveness of Tasers. He has written that the most important factor in his mind is “majority consensus.” Meanwhile, the chief and his officers are left hanging.

Whether the committee or the council as a whole has to approve Taser use is the source of debate that arises out of the current City Charter’s allocation of authority among the various components of city government.
Under the charter, the manager proposes the budget, controls the departments – including the Police Department – and enforces laws and ordinances. That power would seem to include the power to authorize police use of Tasers. However, the council writes ordinances and orders and passes a budget. It could use that authority to refuse to fund Tasers, or to regulate or prohibit their use.

Some situations require leadership. When time is of the essence, when lives are in danger, when opportunities will be lost by delay, a decision needs to be made. Unnecessary delay doesn’t result in better decision making. It just wastes time.

Someone needs to authorize the Portland Police Department’s use of Tasers. After a reasonable trial period, the city should evaluate the results. And do so in an evenhanded manner that accounts for the injuries avoided by Taser use as well as any misuses and injuries incurred.

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hbfrank.JPGHalsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.