WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As police confront protesters across the United States, they're turning to rubber bullets, pepper spray, tear gas and other weapons meant to minimize fatalities.
But some are using a weapon that has potential to kill: the Taser. When those encounters have turned fatal, black people make up a disproportionate share of those who die, according to a Reuters analysis.
Reuters documented 1,081 cases through the end of 2018 in which people died after being shocked by police with a Taser, the vast majority of them after 2000. At least 32% of those who died were black, and at least 29% were white. African-Americans make up 14% of the U.S. population, and non-Hispanic whites 60%.
(To explore the Reuters database of deaths involving police and Tasers, click here: https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-taser-database )
“These racial disparities in Taser deaths are horrifying but unsurprising," said Carl Takei, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union. “Police violence is a leading cause of death for black people in America, in large part because over-policing of black and brown communities results in unnecessary police contacts and unnecessary use of force.”
In 13% of the deaths identified in police reports, autopsies or other records as involving people of Hispanic ethnicity, Reuters was unable to document race. The race of the person who died was also unknown in the remaining 26% of the cases.
The deaths illustrate a challenge for U.S. law enforcement at a time when protests over police killings have thrown a spotlight on their tactics. Tasers, which deliver a pulsed electrical current meant to give police several seconds to restrain a subject, have been nearly universally embraced since the early 2000s as a less lethal alternative to firearms. About 94% of America’s roughly 18,000 police agencies now issue Tasers.
Tasers drew fresh attention over the weekend after the Friday night death of Rayshard Brooks. A police officer shot the 27-year-old with his handgun after Brooks ran away with an officer's Taser and pointed it at police following a scuffle, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said. A lawyer for the Brooks family, L. Chris Stewart, said Brooks’ wielding of the Taser didn’t justify his shooting, noting that police routinely argue in court that the devices are non-lethal weapons.
In a series of reports https://www.reuters.com/investigates/section/usa-taser in 2017, however, Reuters identified more than a thousand cases since 2000 in which people died after being shocked by police with the weapons, typically in combination with other forms of force.
Most independent researchers who have studied Tasers say deaths are rare when they are used properly. But the Reuters investigation found that many police officers are not trained properly on the risks, and the weapons are often misused. Tasers fire a pair of barbed darts that deliver a paralyzing electrical charge or can be pressed directly against the body – the “drive stun” mode – causing intense pain.
Some recent examples of Taser misuse highlight the risks and confusion surrounding the weapon.
On May 30, during nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, two college students, Taniyah Pilgrim, 20, and Messiah Young, 22, had gone out to get food and were stuck in traffic due to the demonstrations in Atlanta.
In a confrontation with police caught on bodycam video, one officer repeatedly struck the driver's side window with a baton as a second officer stunned Pilgrim with a Taser. A third officer used a Taser on Young, as the police dragged the black students out of the car.
Video footage of the officers shocking them drew criticism around the country. Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields apologized at a news conference the next day. “How we behaved as an agency, as individuals was unacceptable,” she said. Young was treated in the hospital and required stitches. Shields resigned on Saturday after the Brooks killing.
After the May 30 incident, one officer wrote in a police report that he used his Taser because he was unsure whether the students were armed. The Taser’s manufacturer, Axon Enterprise Inc, warns in guidelines distributed to police departments that the weapon should not be used on people who are driving or restrained. And law enforcement experts say Tasers generally shouldn't be used on anyone who is already immobilized, such as in a car.
Six police officers involved in the incident -- five of them black, one white -- were charged for using excessive force. Four have been fired. Two have sued the mayor and police chief seeking their jobs back. An attorney representing the two officers says he believes the firings were politically motivated.
“The question police should be asking is not: ‘Can I use the Taser?’ but ‘Should I?’” said Michael Leonesio, a retired police officer who ran the Oakland Police Department’s Taser program and has served as an expert witness in wrongful death lawsuits against Axon. “This is a dangerous weapon,” Leonesio said. “The more it’s used, the more people are going to die.”
Axon says its weapons are not risk-free but are safer than batons, fists, tackles and impact munitions. “Any loss of life is a tragedy regardless of the circumstance, which is why we remain committed to developing technology and training to protect both officers and the community,” the company said in an email to Reuters.
“TASE HIS A**”
On a hot July day in 2017, Eurie Martin, 58, wanted a drink of water. After walking more than 12 miles to visit relatives for his birthday, he stopped to ask a homeowner for water in Deepstep, a town of about 130 people in central Georgia. The homeowner refused and called police to check out Martin, “a black man,” according to the district attorney.
Martin was walking on the side of the road when a Washington County Sheriff’s deputy arrived and tried to speak with him. Martin, who suffered from schizophrenia, ignored him and kept walking. The deputy called for backup.
The officers said Martin got “defensive” and “clinched his fists,” ignoring commands to place his hands behind his back, the district attorney said. One deputy told another to “Tase his a**,” according to the officers’ dashboard camera video.
When the deputy fired the Taser, Martin fell to the ground, removed the Taser prong from his arm, and walked away. A third deputy arrived and fired his stun gun at Martin’s back, causing him to fall.
The deputies surrounded Martin as he lay face down, applying the weight of their bodies and deployed their Tasers 15 times. Martin could be heard crying out in pain saying, “they killing me.” He died of cardiac arrhythmia during police restraint, according to an autopsy.
“He was a victim of walking while black,” said Mawuli Davis, an attorney representing Martin’s family. The deputies, who were fired after they were indicted, said they followed their training on use of the stun gun.
Last November, a judge granted the three deputies – all white - immunity from prosecution just weeks before they were to go trial on murder charges in Martin’s death.
In its guidelines distributed to police departments, Axon warns against using multiple Tasers at the same time. Law enforcement experts say repeated applications and continuous use of stun guns can increase the risk of death and should be avoided.
The sheriff’s office declined to respond to multiple requests for comment.
The judge ruled the deputies acted in self-defense and that their use of the Taser was “justified” and “reasonable under the circumstances.” Citing Georgia’s Stand Your Ground Law, the judge wrote all people have the right to use reasonable force to protect themselves against “death or great bodily injury.”
The district attorney appealed the ruling, and the case is scheduled to be heard before the state Supreme Court in August. If the high court overturns the lower court’s ruling, the murder charges against the deputies will be reinstated.
Martin died “for daring to ask for a drink of water in the Georgia sun,” said his sister Helen Gilbert. “Every person of common sense knows he did nothing to deserve his death. I will not rest until this long walk to justice is complete."
Deaths involving Tasers typically draw little public scrutiny – no government agency tracks how often they’re used or how many of those deployments prove fatal. Coroners and medical examiners use varying standards to assess a Taser’s role in a death. And there are no uniform national standards governing police use of Tasers.
Late in 2009, as evidence of cardiac risks from Tasers mounted, the manufacturer made a crucial change: It warned police to avoid firing its stun gun’s electrified darts at a person’s chest.
But on March 3 in Tacoma, Washington, that warning wasn’t heeded.
Newly released video and audio recordings show Tacoma police officers using a Taser and beating a black man as he shouted, “I can’t breathe” -- similar to George Floyd’s desperate cry when a white police officer in Minneapolis pressed a knee into his neck on May 25.
Police said they found Manuel Ellis, 33, trying to open doors of unoccupied cars and that he attacked a police vehicle and two officers. An attorney for his family said he was walking home from a convenience store when the confrontation with police took place.
Police handcuffed Ellis and bound his legs with a canvas strap after firing a Taser into his chest, according to an autopsy report. He lost consciousness, and efforts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful. The medical examiner ruled his death a homicide. An autopsy listed his cause of death as respiratory arrest due to hypoxia as a result of physical restraint.
His death sparked protests in Tacoma on June 5 after video of the incident surfaced. The governor called for a new investigation, and the city’s mayor demanded the four officers involved be fired and prosecuted. Two officers are white, one is black and the other is Asian. They have been placed on administrative leave, but have not been charged.
One of the officers, Christopher Burbank, declined to comment. Attempts by Reuters to reach the other three were unsuccessful. The Tacoma Police Department said it was cooperating with county and state investigators.
(Additional reporting by Grant Smith. Editing by Jason Szep)