03/31/2006

Wichita police pull out TASER 148 times in first week of use

BY TIM POTTER AND HURST LAVIANA   
The Wichita Eagle

In the first seven weeks of Taser use by Wichita police, the electrical-shock devices have been drawn 148 times, data released Wednesday by the department shows.

That number seems like a lot, but it was expected, Deputy Police Chief Tom Stolz said. He predicted that the rate of use would drop over time. Police chiefs elsewhere said that initially, some people would not take Tasers seriously, he said.

Stolz said he was still going through the data, but it appears that most times, the stun guns were only drawn or the arcing current was activated. In fewer cases, it appears, a jolt was actually administered, either by pressing the gun against a person or shooting wired barbs at the person. The Eagle was unable to determine the exact totals because the data is incomplete.

An Eagle analysis of the data also shows that:

 Police deployed Tasers 18 times during a large disturbance outside the Cotillion on March 10. Officers' logs show that in all but four or five uses, Tasers were only drawn or sparked in the air -- not used to jolt someone.

 Overwhelmingly, Tasers were drawn or used on males: 119, compared with 11 females.

 People who had Tasers drawn on them ranged in age from 14 to 73. The largest group was in its 20s.

 Two of the subjects were dogs.

 In over half of the incidents -- 79 -- the suspects were thought to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

 In all but a few of the cases, officers reported that use of Tasers prevented injuries to officers and kept the use of force from escalating.

"The injuries that we're seeing from Tasers are very minor," Stolz said. "So I think those are positive signs."

There have been a couple of cases where officers would have been justified in using their handguns but used Tasers instead, he said.

The data shows that between Feb. 2 and March 27, Tasers were drawn against whites 64 times, against blacks 48 times and against Hispanics 19 times.

That reflects a disproportionately large number of blacks, considering they make up a smaller percentage of the population.

"We're concerned about that," Stolz said.

"We'll monitor that closely. We want to be fair."

Stolz said distrust of police by some in minority communities can lead to an increased tendency to resist officers' commands -- sometimes prompting the use of a Taser.

J.J. Selmon disagreed that the situation has cultural roots. Selmon, a community organizer with Sunflower Community Action, said, "I think it just has to do with police making a situation good or bad."

The numbers reflect racial bias among police, he said. "I just think the officers see the minorities as more of a threat."

Selmon also said that 148 incidents seemed like an alarmingly high number of Taser deployments.

As The Eagle reported in early February, police used Tasers three times in the first 24 hours they were on the streets. The first incident involved a man who was charging officers with a knife in each hand. A Taser safely stopped the man, Stolz said. Otherwise, the situation was so threatening, "we'd have had to shoot him."

Police Chief Norman Williams said he was still studying the Taser data, and he cautioned people from being alarmed about the number of Taser incidents so far.

"We operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Williams said. "So the officers come into contact with quite a bit of people."

The department says it will provide quarterly reports on Taser use.

Williams said he'll be looking at the data to determine: "Is it accomplishing the objective... is it getting people to comply?"

"It's another tool that assists us in performing our duties in a safe manner," he said. "I don't like to look at it as a weapon but as a tool."

In the comments police gave in their reports about Taser use, it appeared that sometimes just brandishing a Taser was enough to make a person comply.

In other cases, officers said, people who did receive a jolt promptly stopped resisting.

There was one case on March 1 when a suspect -- a 25-year-old white man involved in an incident in the 4700 block of West 13th Street -- said: "I'll do whatever you want. Just don't do that again."

Told of the comment, Stolz said, "That's exactly what we want to hear."

 Wichita Eagle (http://www.kansas.com/)

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