S.C. suspect's death raises questions again about TASER safety
CHARLESTON, S.C. - Charleston County and North Charleston police used or threatened to use stun guns more than 300 times in one 18-month period.
But the recent death of a man stunned nine times while officer tried to subdue him have some questioning the safety of Tasers and whether police are using them properly.
The stun gun uses an electromagnetic pulse to override a person's nervous system. Some argue that police are too quick to use the weapons.
An analysis by The (Charleston) Post and Courier of county and city of North Charleston uses showed that Tasers were used most often in cases that involved guns and drugs. Many of the incidents followed chases.
The analysis also shows that a higher percentage of Taser incidents involved black suspects and, in North Charleston, a relatively small group of officers were responsible for a majority of stuns.
Some of those hit by the stun guns said officers should have tried other means to control them.
North Charleston Police Sgt. Patrick Pontieri is one of the most frequent users of his Taser - at least 14 times since Jan. 1, 2005.
"What happens now is that 99 percent of the time, people give up when they see it, or when they see the red dot (from the Taser's laser) on them," Pontieri said. "The officers don't get hurt, they don't get hurt and the public doesn't get hurt. They end up on the car with handcuffs and that's it."
And that is the main reason the Tasers were bought, said North Charleston Police Chief Jon Zumalt. Another was the death of Asberry Wylder in 2003.
Police shot Wylder outside a supermarket after Wylder stuck a knife into an officer's protective vest. Wylder's death triggered protests from community leaders who accused North Charleston police of unfairly targeting blacks.
Zumalt said the incident showed how his officers needed more options to deal with violent people. "An officer was stabbed that day and getting that close to someone wielding a knife bothered me," Zumalt said.
In the past two years, the department has bought 100 stun guns and hopes to have one for every office by next year. And Zumalt said it has worked: Officers are injured less than 10 percent of the time in cases involving violent conflicts compared with a more than 27 percent injury rate before the Tasers.
The newspaper's analysis found that 16 officers in North Charleston accounted for more than half the department's Taser stun reports. Zumalt said that's partly because he has deployed the guns in stages, focusing first on getting them to more experienced officers.
But he said some of his officers are simply more aggressive than others or work in more crime-ridden areas.
The newspaper's analysis also showed that 72 percent of the Taser stun reports involved black suspects.
Zumalt said that is in line with statistics that show about 72 percent of people arrested for violent crime in the city from 1992 to 2002 were black.
Alana Lord said she thinks the officer who used a Taser on her didn't need to use that much force.
Lord was stopped after dropping her kids off at day care. In his report, the officer said he though she might have been driving with a suspended license. She says now that she panicked when he told her she was under arrest and she ran away.
"He was saying, 'You're going to jail,' and I thought 'Oh my God!' " Lord said. "I'm not saying I should have run. I shouldn't have. I was just scared."
She ran across the street and was hit by a car.
"Then he tased me," she said. "I'm 5-foot-3. He tased me after I got hit and was falling down. I think he was mad at me because he couldn't catch me."
Lord said she understands that officers get angry, but "a citizen had just hit me with a car. I didn't have a gun or a weapon. I don't think it was right."
According to the newspaper's analysis, about 7 percent of those who were hit by Tasers were taken to the hospital afterward.
Last Sunday, 38-year-old Kip Black was stunned nine times as officers tried to subdue him. He was in traffic, taking off his clothes and fought officers when they tried to pull him out of traffic. Officers eventually wrestled Black to the ground, but he died a short time later at a local hospital.
The number of times Black was shocked was unusual. On average, officers hit people 1.8 times per incident.
Two years ago in Anderson County, a 31-year-old man with cardiac disease and other severe health problems died after a struggle with deputies in the county's detention center. A deputy coroner later described the Taser shock as "the last straw."
Last year, an inmate in the Lancaster County Jail died from cardiac arrhythmia after being hit six times by a Taser. And in December, a man fleeing an armed robbery died after being stunned twice by Florence County deputies.
Two years ago, the American Civil Liberties Union said more than 70 people had died after being hit with Tasers. The group is urging police to restrict their use to only when there is an imminent threat to human life.
During a visit to Charleston earlier this spring, Taser International President Tom Smith said the device is a safe means of controlling violent people.
Still, the company said in a special bulletin to law enforcement last year that repeated or extended stuns could impair a person's breathing. The company cited tests on pigs that showed repeated stuns caused the animals to quit breathing.
But North Charleston and county policies on how and when to use the guns don't discuss repeated strikes.
Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon said he thinks his deputies should use Tasers "when you reasonably believe you have to fight someone."
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