By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN, Neb. — The ACLU of Nebraska says saying law enforcement agencies in the state have “grossly misused” Tasers several times, jolting an elderly, disabled Omaha man with dementia, a drunk man who was “staring down” a cop from a Grand Island hospital bed and a combative 10-year-old Kearney student.
The report released Tuesday examined 11 police departments in 2013-2014, but was unable to include the state’s two largest police departments, the Omaha Police Department and the Lincoln Police Department, which refused to provide complete copies of their Taser policies or redacted police reports. The ACLU said it’s preparing a lawsuit to get the policies.
The ACLU said the Lincoln and Omaha police departments previously have provided information about their use of Tasers, but not this year. That means nearly three-quarters of a million Nebraskans live in cities that refuse to be transparent about their use of a weapon that can kill Americans, the ACLU said.
“The change in openness from the Omaha Police Department and the Lincoln Police Department should alarm residents,” ACLU of Nebraska Legal Director Amy Miller said. “The policies that guide our neighborhood cops shouldn’t be treated like military secrets. The growing trend of secrecy in local law enforcement needs to end.”
In a letter to the ACLU, the Omaha City Attorney’s office said it found 81 incidents where Tasers were used and 592 uses of force during the 17-month period the ACLU evaluated, but said it would charge the group $2,960 for the reports. The city refused to release several other types of police reports based on exemptions in state law for investigatory reports and confidential personnel information.
The city of Omaha also refused to release its policies and procedures on Taser use, saying the policies contain “strategic or tactical information,” but said it’s working on providing a redacted version. The city released information indicating Tasers were effective 76 percent of the time when they were used in 2013.
The Lincoln Police Department provided a heavily redacted copy of its current Taser policy and a complete 2009 policy. Lincoln Public Safety Director Tom Casady said the ACLU was denied copies of its use-of-force reports because the city doesn’t consider them public records, but provided a summary and blank use-of-force forms. The summary said Lincoln police used Taser guns 39 times during the 17-month period.
The ACLU evaluated how well departments comply with U.S. Department of Justice guidelines for using Tasers. For example, the feds say Tasers should not be used as coercion or punishment, but only if someone is exhibiting active aggression or resisting in a way that will injure themselves or others. The ACLU said about 65 percent of the incidents it examined didn’t involve active aggression or resistance likely to cause injury.
Federal guidelines also say officers should avoid targeting sensitive areas to reduce the risk of injury or death, especially in vulnerable people.
The report says most Nebraska agencies’ policies don’t comply with those guidelines and offer little information to help officers make decisions about using a Taser.
Tasers release 50,000 volts of electricity into the body’s central nervous system and have caused more than 540 deaths in the past 13 years, including three in Nebraska, the ACLU said.
“The lack of oversight and guidance for law enforcement officers who may be using a Taser is beyond appalling,” Miller said. “Fifty-thousand volts of electricity can be lethal. The fact that officers on our streets and in our schools have these weapons and little, if any, policies are in place on how to use them should concern all Nebraskans.”
The group found several instances where Tasers were used contrary to federal guidelines, including a 2007 incident where a Hastings person with Hepatitis C was Tasered by police in retaliation for spitting on officers and a woman with mental illness was zapped while sitting in Grand Island.
Miller said some of the people who’ve been Tasered were “incredibly vulnerable and at risk for extreme mental and physical health problems.”
In one case, a 10-year-old boy in a Kearney school was twice Tasered — once for 18 seconds — in the chest after pushing, punching and injuring an officer who was attempting to take him to the ground after refusing to listen to school staffers. According to a police report, the officer punched his shoulder, kicked the side of his head and used the Taser in “drive-stun” mode, a direct-contact method that is not recommended.
Taser International recommends avoiding sensitive areas like the chest to avoid causing heart attacks, and says exposures of more than 15 seconds can increase the risk of injury or death. The DOJ also recommends against using Tasers on young children, who are more susceptible to injury.
The group said Nebraska law enforcement agencies’ policies are not uniform and should be updated to comply with federal recommendations and then officers should be trained to comply with them. The ACLU recommends Nebraska pass a law governing Taser use, similar to one recently passed in Vermont.
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