Raleigh, N.C. — Stricter guidelines are needed to regulate law enforcement use of Tasers, a coalition representing vulnerable adults and children said Thursday.
The North Carolina Taser Safety Project said sheriff’s offices need to take the lead to adopt proper safety standards for Taser use to protect the public as well as deputies who use the devices.
“We call on law enforcement to exercise restraint in these situations and to use safer means to put people under arrest,” said Jennifer Rudinger, of American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. The ACLU is a member of the coalition.
Since 2006, at least 10 people have died in the state after being shot with a Taser.
The purchase and use of the devices are exempt from regulatory oversight, which is required of firearms, the group said. There are also no state or federal legislations on Tasers.
Each agency develops its own Taser guidelines.
“The sheriff is elected in that county. The sheriff is close to the people in that county. They’re best suited to make that decision,” said Eddie Caldwell Jr., of the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association.
The coalition calls for policies that clearly define situations for appropriate firing of the device, as well as the circumstances in which Taser use is limited or prohibited. The group wants policies to address the use of the weapon in consideration of health concerns, with use being limited against children, pregnant women, senior citizens and people with disabilities.
The group also wants policies amended to address situations in which Taser use has increased the risk of injury, restricting multiple firings and use against passive resisters, people in elevated areas, restrained individuals and people in the presence of flammables.
Richard McKinnon, of Cumberland County, died as a result of burns he sustained after being tased near flammable materials in 2005. After being pulled over by deputies for a broken tail-light, McKinnon led police on a chase, crashed, and got soaked with gasoline he had in the front seat.
Deputies say McKinnon resisted arrest. They used a Taser on him, and his clothing burst into flames. Months later, he died from the burns.
“When Richard was tased, we understand that he was trying to get away from the Taser,” said Deborah Hayes Black, McKinnon’s niece.
A study by the group showed that 72 of the state’s 100 sheriff’s offices use Tasers.
The survey looked at restrictions of using the devices on pregnant women, children, the elderly, persons with disabilities, suspects who were passively resisting and suspects already in handcuffs or shackles. The majorities of sheriff’s offices nationwide prohibit the use of Tasers on these groups or restrict their use to the most extreme of circumstances.
Nationally, 82 percent of sheriffs restrict the use of Tasers against obviously pregnant women. North Carolina is behind the national average with nearly 43 percent of Taser-using counties reporting restrictions on use against pregnant women. The remaining 57 percent permit use of Tasers on pregnant women.
Sixty-four percent of Taser-deploying counties in the state permit the use of Tasers against minors and the elderly. As of fall 2007, 36 percent of counties had restrictions on Taser use against the groups.
According to the survey, only one county in the state restricts the use of Tasers against persons with mental illness.
In addition, the group analyzed whether policies were placed on multiple tasings, the use of Tasers against suspects operating a vehicle, on a suspect standing in an elevated position, and in the present of flammable materials. These policies are used nationwide by many law enforcement.
The survey showed only 18 percent of Taser-using counties reported in 2007 that they restricted or prohibited the use of the devices on passive resisters, people who did not forcibly try to resist officers.
Most sheriffs offices in the state do not place restrictions on the number of repeated times a Taser may be deployed against a person. In North Carolina at least three of the six people who died in 2006-07 in the course of TASER-proximate arrests were fired upon multiple times, the group said.
The state trails the nationwide average of 91 percent of sheriffs’ offices that explicitly prohibit the use of Tasers around flammables. In North Carolina 61 percent of counties that use Tasers reported similar policies in 2007.
The coalition praised 13 counties for adopting stricter policies in recent months. Those counties, include Wilson, Wayne, Edgecome and Sampson.
The N.C. Taser Safety Project, founded last year, is a coalition of concerned groups who serve the state’s vulnerable populations, including children, elderly and people with mental and physical disabilities.
Taser International, which manufactures the stun guns, report that the weapons are in use more than 11,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide.
Tasers, invented in 1969, deliver a high-voltage, low-current electrical shock to temporarily paralyze a person by causing an electrical interruption of body’s normal energy pulses. The devises were made more powerful in 1990s and marketed to law enforcement.