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Scrutiny on Taser practices, training after Lyles’ shooting

Credit: Paul Zinken/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

“Why couldn’t they have tased her?” That question, asked by Charleena Lyles’ sister in the hours after Lyles was shot and killed by two Seattle police officers, has become a central line of questioning in the public’s examination of the 30-year-old African-American mother’s death.

While police officials have questioned whether a Taser would have made the difference, the department is nevertheless re-examining its practices. In the wake of revelations that one Taser-trained officer who shot Lyles, Jason Anderson, had left behind his non-lethal weapon after its battery died, the department is rolling out new internal protocols for how it distributes batteries to officers. Amid concerns that replacement batteries are too difficult for officers to obtain, the changes would make it so each precinct would be better equipped to hand out Taser-related equipment.

In addition to new concerns about equipment, interview transcripts released by the department have also raised larger questions about how officers are trained to use non-lethal force. Specifically, when asked by department investigators if he thought a Taser would have made a difference, Anderson said no, that he was taught to drop the Taser when confronted with a knife. (According to the department’s accounts of the incident, Lyles threatened officers with a knife.)

In combination with Anderson’s citing during a post-shooting interview with department officials of the “21-foot-rule” — a controversial theory that someone with a knife can lunge and stab anyone within 21 feet and should be treated as a deadly threat — some elected officials, like councilmembers Lisa Herbold and Kshama Sawant, have questioned whether officers are being taught black-and-white rules on when to use deadly force.

But comments from current and former department employees as well as from the Washington state police academy provide more context to Anderson’s actions and his comments about Tasers and safety measures, suggesting that training around what to do with a Taser when threatened with a knife is nuanced and rarely taught in such distinct “if this/then that” terms.

 

There is every reason to take the Police Department seriously in its cautions against making any conclusion about Taser policies or practices being a key factor in Lyles’ death. It is very early in the fact-finding processes. Indeed, there are parallel investigations into the shooting — of the incident itself as well as into Anderson’s actions as an individual — and until those are complete, SPD has declined to comment any further on the information it released.

But the concern among the public and law enforcement itself about stemming the toll of civilian deaths in incidents with police, while protecting the law enforcement officers, has made the idea of non-lethal force — especially Tasers — a topic of interest in many police shootings.

American police departments began deploying Tasers in significant numbers in the early 2000s, in an effort to find less deadly alternatives to firearms. They have not been a silver bullet, by any stretch: They are often described as unwieldy, frequently ineffective, occasionally deadly, and critics say Tasers themselves are sometimes employed unnecessarily by officers. This month, two King County Sheriff’s deputies attempted to use their Tasers on 20-year-old Tommy Le, according to the Seattle Times, to no effect. Le was shot and killed by officers, who mistook a pen in his hand for a knife.

The Seattle Police Department began using them in 2000, to early success. According to a 2006 study, the number of suspect injuries in SPD incidents dropped by 48 percent.

According to retired Seattle police officer Dallas Murry who ran the department’s Taser training program until mid-2014, Tasers are inconsistent enough that officers are told not to rely solely on them in scenarios that may warrant deadly force.

But as the last several weeks have shown, that message may not be accepted by members of the public who imagine a scenario where Lyles was not shot, but electroshocked into submission.

 

Seattle police officers only carry a Taser if they have received specific training to do so. Those who are trained carry either an X2 or X26 model. While past models of Tasers held eight AA batteries, the current models have their own, unique “smart batteries,” which track battery level and usage, according to representatives from Taser and online materials.

The batteries prominently display their charge level. When that number hits 20 percent, officers are supposed to turn the battery into the department’s Education and Training section to avoid risk of the weapon dying during a shift. It’s then used in training scenarios until the battery hits 1 percent, before it is thrown away. The batteries are not rechargeable.

Draining the battery to zero can damage the Taser, according to materials on the company’s website.

The Taser company advises officers who carry the weapon to conduct a daily “spark test” before each shift, to make sure that the weapon itself is working properly, but also to be sure that their battery is functioning.

Most equipment in the Seattle Police Department, like radios or vehicles, is catalogued and distributed by precinct “station masters.” But Taser batteries are different. Officers must receive them from the Education and Training section, which is located off Airport Way in SoDo, according to Seattle Police Captain Bryan Grenon. That section is not always open, so if an officer’s battery is low, the current expectation is they show up to a shift early and borrow one from a colleague whose shift is ending.

Anderson told department officials he’d been without his Taser for “maybe two weeks.”

In the days since the shooting, the department has worked toward changing protocols, said Grenon, giving those batteries to station masters to ensure that officers are better able to replace dead batteries.

 

It’s unclear how the situation could have ended differently had Anderson brought his Taser. His partner, Officer Steven McNew, can be heard in audio released by the department telling Anderson to “tase her.” Anderson replies that he does not have it.

Regardless, when Officer Anderson told investigators he was trained to drop his Taser when in the presence of a knife, that tidbit didn’t sound right to some citizens who have worked on police policies in the city.

The department declined to make its Taser coordinator, Officer Kerry Zieger, available for an interview. But the former coordinator, Murry, said his instructions were always more nuanced than that.

Murry, who lives out of state now, stressed that he does not know how the training has changed in the three years since he left. A consent decree with the federal government, to settle U.S. Department of Justice accusations of excessive use of force, has seeded new policies department-wide. And Officer Anderson, hired in 2015, would not have attended Murry’s course.

Murry describes himself as an old-school cop; he was a police officer for 37 years, 27 of those with SPD. He was already thinking about retirement in 2014, but the department’s new use-of-force policies, borne out of the consent decree, pushed him into it earlier. He feared it would make officers less safe.

“Generally, when [officers] are confronted with a lethal threat or a potentially lethal threat such as a knife, the Taser should not be considered as their first option,” he said, because of its potential shortcomings or problems.

“We always want them to consider a less lethal option,” he said, but for an officer confronted with a deadly threat, the basic advice was to go to their guns.

Still, training tried to take account of circumstances. He always taught that considerations are much different when an officer has “lethal cover,” meaning a second officer ready with a firearm, as was the case in the Lyles case. “In those cases where you’re confronting a person with a knife where the person’s not actively attacking you, we did not forbid the use of taser, but did require lethal cover.”

In those cases where there’s lethal cover, he said, “a whole lot of options can open up to you when officers can protect themselves.”

 

While the department has already made strides toward changing how Taser equipment is handled, other internal investigations are ongoing.

Under the consent decree, the department has new policies for investigating deadly shootings. A team of investigators will take up to 90 days to complete its work before determining whether the shooting was within policy or not. If the department sees any lessons that could lead to change to departmental policies, it could take action at any point before or after that ruling.

Meanwhile, any ruling on the investigation into Officer Anderson’s failure to carry his Taser, which was the expectation, must be made within 180 days, at which point the OPA director will recommend discipline or not. The final word on punishment, if warranted, rests with Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole.

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