Attorneys who criticized the use of stun guns following the deaths of at least five Ohio suspects since 2009 said Monday that they’re encouraged by a new report by police agencies that aims to improve standards, but that there’s still more work to be done.
The report, which has not been released publicly and was obtained by The Associated Press, was written by officials from nine police agencies belonging to the Hamilton County Association of Chiefs of Police and comes after criticism by attorneys following at least five suspect deaths in as many years in southwestern Ohio.
The agencies in the report all use the Taser brand of stun guns. Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Taser International, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.
Company officials have said the devices — now used by more than 17,000 police agencies in 100 countries — are far safer than guns and regularly protect officers from harm.
The new report on Taser use identifies areas where improvements can be made to some police department policies, including avoiding shots to the chest and annual testing to ensure the devices are working properly.
The report also says that when possible, officers should warn suspects they’re about to be stunned and should be aware that using Tasers “may carry the risk of injury or death to the offender.”
“Unless we start somewhere, like in this corner of Ohio and get some common ideas about when Taser use is good and when it’s inappropriate, we’re going to be unnecessarily killing people, and that’s what we’re trying to stop,” said Al Gerhardstein, a Cincinnati civil rights attorney who has filed at least three excessive force lawsuits stemming from the deaths of suspects after being stunned with Tasers.
Gerhardstein commended the police association’s efforts but also criticized the group for relying on a Taser analysis showing one death per 2.5 million deployments.
He said a more appropriate and still-unknown figure would be the number of suspect deaths per Taser deployments to the chest. Otherwise “you’re missing the real risk,” he said.
The new Taser report comes about a year after Gerhardstein wrote an analysis on the use of the devices in southwestern Ohio, based partially on suspect deaths and the result of public information requests for the policies and practices of the 33 Hamilton County police departments using the devices.
The attorney’s study found that the vast majority of the agencies’ training materials don’t adequately warn of the risks involved and that 67 percent still allowed upper-chest shots despite Taser’s own warning to avoid the area.
Taser first began telling police agencies to avoid chest shots in 2009. Its product warning says that when possible, police should “avoid targeting the frontal chest area near the heart to reduce the risk of potential serious injury or death.”
Gerhardstein said he’s wants to prevent deaths like that of 18-year-old Everette Howard Jr., who was unarmed when a University of Cincinnati police officer stunned him with a Taser in the chest outside a dormitory in August 2011, causing him to go into cardiac arrest, according to an excessive force lawsuit in the matter.
The officer, Richard Haas, had said that Howard appeared agitated and angry, had his fists balled and refused his orders to back off.
The police department settled the case with Howard’s family for $2 million.