Cops revise Taser policy
Shift follows shocking of man with alleged license plate violation but also reflects national trend.
By Sarah Lison, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
May 5, 2010
Valley law enforcement agencies this week modified their Taser policies, saying the devices can no longer be used to force compliance by people who do not pose an immediate threat.
The change comes after an April 7 incident in which a Jackson police officer attempted to arrest a man and then used the Taser to stun him when he resisted. Jackson police had stopped Frank Meek because of an alleged license plate violation for which he had already been issued a citation.
A video of Meek’s arrest showed officers ordering him out of his car. Meek got out briefly but sat back down when an officer attempted to handcuff him.
Police said refusing to get out of the car is active resistance. Under the old policy, the officer’s use of a Taser after several warnings was allowed.
Jackson Police Chief Todd Smith said Monday that use of a Taser in a case like Meek’s will no longer be allowed because Meek was not being physcially aggressive toward officers.
“We’re really only using it as a defensive tool, rather than an offensive tool,” Smith said.
Smith and Teton County Sheriff Jim Whalen said this week that any time police use force they have a responsibility to review their policy.
“I don’t think Meek is the catalyst behind [the change], but his case is the most recent use of force,” Smith said.
Whalen said his office wasn’t involved in the Meek case but situations like it present an opportunity to revisit policy.
“Sometimes policy really doesn’t come into focus as well as it should until we have these kinds of things happen,” Whalen said. “What’s important is that law enforcement agencies should be willing to take a second look at how we’re doing business.”
Whalen said the fact that Smith wanted to review the policy is a good thing.
Smith said departments across the U.S. are making similar changes to their Taser policies. He said that Taser has always marketed its device as a low-level use of force that causes less damage than traditional police weapons such as batons and pepper spray.
The public seems to think differently, he said.
“The public perception is that the Taser is a much greater use of force,” Smith said. “You have to meet community standards.”
Smith and Whalen said it made sense to make the policy change now because their agencies are participating in a joint training session. The training was planned months ago and focuses on all types of issues, including pursuit and use of force policies, how to deal with the mentally ill. A review of laws was included, Smith said.
Under the new policy, officers will be permitted to use Taser to defend themselves, citizens or suspects. Such uses might include cases in which the suspect is taking a posturing stance toward the officer, refuses to stop assaulting someone or threatens to commit suicide.
Smith said officers always must consider possible consequences, such as a fall, before using a Taser.
Tasering someone on stairs has never been allowed, he said. Tasering someone holding a gun to his head also is not permitted because of the risk that he or she might reflexively pull the trigger.
Tasers also may be used to stop a fleeing suspect if the suspect would be a threat to the community if he or she escaped. Smith and Whalen pointed to situations where police encounter rape, robbery or burglary suspects.
“It’s all about the nature of the crime,” Smith said.
“For me, it’s going to come down to the gravity of the offense,” he said.
County prosecutor Steve Weichman dropped the charges against Meek that stemmed from the April 7 incident. He said he requested the state attorney general to order the state Division of Criminal Investigation to conduct an investigation of the incident. A DCI spokesman said Tuesday the agency had not received a request to investigate.
A review of Meek’s arrest is being conducted by the Wyoming Department of Criminal Investigation.
Meek, who said he works in Jackson and lives part time with his girlfriend in Driggs, Idaho, has up-to-date Colorado plates on his 1969 Volkswagen. Authorities have said Meek needs to have Wyoming or Idaho license plates on his car because he works in Jackson and obviously isn’t commuting daily from Colorado.
A bench trial on that original, March citation is set for June 25.