Questions arise about Tasers after death of Virginia man caught on tape

Updated

A new video of police repeatedly tasing a Virginia man while he was handcuffed in police custody, first reported exclusively by MSNBC, is raising questions about how police deploy Tasers, an increasingly common weapon for law enforcement.

The three officers discharged their Tasers 20 times during a half hour period on May 4, 2013 — despite rules against tasering a restrained suspect and warnings about repeat tasing. The suspect died shortly thereafter in police custody. An autopsy listed cocaine intoxication as the cause of death, while in a new federal lawsuit, his family argues the repeat Tasing killed him.

RELATED: Driven to hospital, Virginia man tased, shackled and dies in police custody

A new review of the officers’ history using Tasers, published exclusively by MSNBC Friday, provides new context about the officers’ use of the potentially deadly weapon.

TASER USE

According to police, from 2010 up until the night Lambert was tased in May 2013, Officer Clifton Mann used his Taser in three other incidents. One of those attempted tasings was unsuccessful, with the probes missing the subject, according to police. Mann had one complaint for use of force as of 2013, based on injuries a suspect sustained during an arrest, but police indicate he was “cleared” in the incident.

Andrea Mitchell Reports, 11/12/15, 12:52 PM ET

Taser death ‘grisly reflection’ of policing culture

Sherrilyn Ifill from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund argues that Lindwood Lambert’s taser death directly reflects current police culture.

This information is from a written “use of force history” prepared by a superior officer, Lt. D. W. Baker, which was filed in the discovery process of the civil suit against the officers.

The police did not provide a use of force history for the other two officers in the civil case, but in depositions last month, Cpl. Tiffany Bratton and Officer Travis Clay said they had only deployed their tasers in the field a handful of times. (Officer Clay had been on the force less than a year in May 2013, which is when Lambert was tased.) 

Records from the police department also indicate the officers participated in required training sessions on how to operate Tasers, which included warnings about avoiding repeat tasings, according to Taser training documents obtained by MSNBC.

While South Boston, Virginia, police records suggest relatively infrequent tasings by the officers in question over several years, the adoption of Tasers as a policing option is increasingly common by police departments around the nation.

 “THE LESS LETHAL WEAPON ON AN OFFICER’S BELT”

Over the past 15 years, virtually all American police departments have embraced Tasers as a non-lethal weapon for officers. About 97% of law enforcement agencies in the U.S. now deploy Tasers – 17,800 departments – according to Taser International, a leading manufacturer of tasers and body cameras.

“It’s the most used, less lethal weapon on an officer’s belt,” Taser VP Steve Tuttle told MSNBC.

RELATED: Opinion: How de-escalation is bad business for Taser International

The company estimates Tasers are used 92 times a day and have “saved more than 155,000” people from serious injury or death.

While the seller of the device has an incentive to tout its safety benefits, the Justice Department has indicated that when selected police departments used Tasers instead of other types of force, the odds of injuring suspects fell by up to 60%.

In situations where officers face a threat, Tasers can incapacitate a suspect, even at a distance, with 50,000 volts of electricity. The five-second shock is usually delivered through two darts, which create a circuit, effectively turning the human body into an electricity conductor.

Many law enforcement experts herald Tasers as a powerful non-lethal weapon, subduing suspects in a way that protects the public and officers alike. 

During a period of mounting public scrutiny of policing, in fact, Taser International is effectively marketing two technologies viewed as a bulwark against police-involved shootings – Tasers and officer body cameras. While Tasers certainly carry far less risk than a firearm, they can still injure and kill.

There is no uniform national data on deaths causes by or related to tasing, but the Justice Department has reviewed instances where suspects die in police custody after tasings, and noted that “many” of those deaths “are associated with continuous or repeated shocks.”

“Like any less lethal weapon, they have their limitations,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a police think tank in Washington. 

“There is a limitation to the point at which it can cause great injury, and in some cases death,” Wexler tells MSNBC, “so you need to have polices in place — you need to have training.” 

Using field research, Wexler’s group helped the Justice Department craft national policy guidelines for Tasers. Those federal guidelines, published in 2011, limit Taser use to subjects showing “active aggression.”

They not only advise against using Tasers on “passive” individuals, but also against Taser use on a suspect who is simply “fleeing.” The DOJ counsels severe caution for repeat tasering, noting exposure that lasts longer than 15 seconds can “increase the risk of serious injury or death and should be avoided.”

TASER ‘DEPENDENCY’

Taser International said it provides guidance on that very point in its trainings, including the need to justify each individual Taser use. In other words, the grounds for tasing a suspect one time do not automatically support a second tasing.

Tuttle does note that when the weapons were first introduced in the 1990s, some officers were too quick to use a taser without cause, or to use it as the first tool in their arsenal.

“We saw what we call ‘Taser dependency,’” said Tuttle, “some officers relying on the Taser as their only go-to force.”  He argues that is not a common problem today.

RELATED: Exclusive: Death of man in police custody caught on video

Wexler said Tasers undoubtedly save lives, providing an option for a type of medium use of force when used correctly.

While no charges have been filed against the officers in the Virginia incident, which occurred in May 2013, there have been a range of civil suits challenging Taser use and, recently, a handful of prosecutions for Taser-related deaths in law enforcement interactions.

Bastrop, a town near Austin, Texas, settled a $775,000 civil suit last year with Noe Nino de Rivera, a high school student who suffered severe brain damage from a fall after a sheriff’s deputy tased him at school. 

Georgia prosecutors indicted two prison deputies for manslaughter after they tased a restrained, mentally ill inmate to death. This month, however, the deputies were acquitted of charges related to the death, and convicted of lesser charges of perjury and cruelty to an inmate.

In another Georgia case, prosecutors indicted two officers for murder in August, based on a Taser-related death. Responding to a domestic dispute call, the officers pursued and handcuffed an unarmed 24-year-old man, then tased him 13 times. He died shortly after.

While each case is distinct, the prosecutors are working off a common theory – that even a controlled, non-lethal weapon can be dangerous when used the wrong way.  

Georgia, Police Brutality and Virginia

Questions arise about Tasers after death of Virginia man caught on tape

Updated