After death, more debate on tasers

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 17, 2009

The death of a Pensacola teenager has sparked another debate over police officers’ use of Tasers.

Early in the morning of Oct. 3, a Pensacola police officer saw 17-year-old Victor Steen at a construction site. Officer Jerald Ard tried to stop Mr. Steen, who was riding a bicycle, but the teenager didn’t respond to his commands. The officer fired a Taser at the teen through the window of his moving patrol car. Police officials say the Taser missed Mr. Steen, but after he turned into a parking lot, he fell off his bike and into the path of the patrol car. He died after the police vehicle ran over him. Pensacola police are still investigating the incident, but based on what has been reported so far, it appears to have been a tragic mishap. Even so, the police department reviewed its policy on Tasers and decided to prohibit officers from firing them out of or into moving vehicles.

This was the correct decision, regardless of whether the new directive could have averted the death of Mr. Steen. Except, perhaps, for a few extreme situations, the risks of sending a disabling 50,000-volt shock into the body of the driver of a vehicle outweigh the benefits of immediately stopping the suspect. Also, the difficulty of accurately firing a Taser from a moving vehicle argues against this use of the powerful stun gun. The tragedy in Pensacola should be a reminder to all police agencies that equip officers with Tasers to periodically review their policies and training.

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Law enforcement agencies have used the devices thousands of times without causing injuries. Research indicates Tasers are less dangerous than other methods of subduing suspects, including batons or fists. But Tasers aren’t harmless, and questions persist about incidents in which suspects died after being shocked by the devices. In one incident in 2002, a 46-year-old Mobile man died after receiving two shocks from a Taser during a confrontation with police. -Press-Register

Police officers shouldn’t be discouraged from using Tasers when the devices can serve as a substitute for more dangerous types of force. It’s essential, however, that police departments develop policies that require officers to exercise caution.