New Orleans — The New Orleans Police Department is expanding its use of Tasers and dropping pepper spray from its arsenal as part of a consent decree addressing complaints over police brutality, training and civil rights violations.
The department said it’s dropping pepper spray because its officers hardly ever use it — just eight times so far in 2012, compared to 140 Taser discharges. The department prefers Tasers in part because it’s easier to track their use; the devices count how many times they’re discharged and onboard cameras provide video of incidents.
Both Tasers and pepper spray are considered nonlethal weapons, but Tasers have been linked to more deaths. Nationally, some organizations are calling for them to be used less. They’re motivated in part by a few high-profile misuses, including one in which a Louisiana state trooper used a Taser on a pregnant woman when she was handcuffed.
Their objections to Tasers resonate in New Orleans, where the Police Department has struggled with complaints over excessive use of force.
The local Fraternal Order of Police has asked U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan — the federal judge who will eventually sign off on the proposed NOPD consent decree — to reconsider the department’s ban on pepper spray. Raymond Burkart, a Fraternal Order of Police attorney, said his members want the option to use pepper spray.
“I have trouble, and so do some of our members, that the least amount of force is an electrical charge through somebody’s body versus a mild irritant to the eyes,” Burkart said.
A leading criminologist who has extensively studied Tasers and use-of-force policies said the issue isn’t the devices per se, but when and how officers use them.
“It’s a good tool when used appropriately and used within policy guidelines,” said Robert Kaminski, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina.
But, he said, it’s possible that officers will use their Tasers too often or use them instead of calling for backup.
Police spokeswoman Remi Braden said there were 17 uses of pepper spray in 2011 and eight, to date, in 2012.
Tasers, on the other hand, were used in the field 198 times in 2011, according to department figures. They were accidentally discharged another 30 times when officers were testing their weapons.
The devices have been used 140 times so far this year.
NOPD’s policy, spelled out in its Operations Manual, describes pepper spray and Tasers as “intermediate” use-of-force tools.
Asked why Tasers are used more frequently than pepper spray, Braden said officers “overwhelmingly have chosen” Tasers when they have to use force. Sgt. Travis St. Pierre, who heads up the Taser training program at NOPD, noted that it’s easier to track Taser use and that their effects don’t last as long as pepper spray.
But there can be lingering medical issues after a Taser has been used on someone. The federal consent decree makes clear that certain Taser incidents must be followed by a visit to the hospital — including any time a Taser is used on a person for more than 15 seconds.
NOPD’s shift away from pepper spray is spelled out in a pending consent decree over use-of-force and other policing protocols: “NOPD agrees to prohibit the use or possession of Oleoresin Capsicum Spray by on-duty officers, including officers working secondary employment.”
The first Taser-related guideline in the consent decree says that officers can only use the devices “when such force is necessary to protect the officer, the subject, or another party from physical harm, and other less intrusive means would be ineffective.”
The Taser isn’t supposed to be used on a suspect for any reason other than to give the officer sufficient time to handcuff or otherwise restrain the suspect, said company spokesman Steven Tuttle.
The consent decree warns against subjecting a suspect to multiple five-second cycles from the device, and it commands NOPD to train its officers in the “risks of prolonged or repeated exposure.”
The city, not the U.S. Department of Justice, pushed a ban on pepper spray, according to Donovan Livaccari, an attorney and former New Orleans police officer now with the Fraternal Order of Police.
Justice officials declined to comment.
There are 873 department-owned Tasers in use among the 1,280 sworn NOPD officers, according to Braden. The city has looked into buying another 400 devices and their camera add-ons, which attach to the butt of the weapon, said Tuttle.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s 2013 budget offering for NOPD includes $7 million in funding to begin implementing the NOPD consent decree; $600,000 of that is to buy “electronic control weapons.”
Although the NOPD policy considers Tasers and pepper spray equally appropriate options when nonlethal force is called for, Kaminski said some departments have changed their policies to differentiate between the two.
According to the October 2012 issue of Police Chief magazine, the Orlando, Fla., Police Department changed its policy to limit Taser use to cases of “active resistance.” Chemical spray can be used against people engaged in “passive resistance.”
Amnesty International has called for a moratorium on all uses of Tasers until an independent medical investigation “looks into why people are dying after being tasered,” said Jared Feuer, deputy director for membership.
He said it’s not fair to officers to tell “officers that they are nonlethal when they have killed people.”
The group said it has identified more than 500 incidents from 2001 to 2012 in which someone died after being struck with a Taser. That’s a figure that Taser International, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., takes strong issue with.
Tuttle said there have been 50 deaths in which a Taser was identified as a contributing factor or wasn’t ruled out by a coroner or medical examiner.
Kaminski, the criminologist, said the mortality issue is by no means exclusive to Tasers, and it’s more complicated than Amnesty International would have you believe.
Their concerns echo those that were raised when pepper spray became common in the 1990s. A 1995 Los Angeles Times investigation found that about 60 people had died over a five-year period after being pepper-sprayed.
In most cases he has studied, coroners and medical examiners ruled out pepper spray as a cause of death, Kaminski said.
“That’s the same thing with Tasers today. It is really hard to determine … what actually caused the death,” Kaminski. “(In almost all cases) there were underlying health problems: heart problems, drug intoxication.”
This story is published in cooperation with the independent, nonprofit news site in New Orleans, The Lens. It was reported in collaboration with The Louisiana Weekly. A more extensive version can be found at http://thelensnola.org