Tasings of pregnant women highlight poor standards at CPD

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Photo by Grace Donnelly

When is it acceptable to use a Taser on a pregnant woman?

For at least a few Chicago police officers – including two whose actions have led to lawsuits against the city – it seems to be whenever she gets out of line and needs to be shown who’s boss.

That is, apparently, if the woman is African-American.

The Chicago Police Department’s use-of-force guidelines support deployment of the weapon in such cases, in contrast to national best-practices standards – and in conflict with a recent federal court ruling that may be headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The incidents underlying two African-American women’s lawsuits show that CPD needs to update its Taser guidelines.  (According to the Chicago Reporter’s lawsuit database, the city has paid out nearly $4.5 million in 37 Taser-related lawsuits between 2012 and 2015.)

In 2013, the city agreed to pay $55,000 to Tiffany Rent, who was eight months pregnant when she was tased during a dispute over a parking ticket.

Now, Elaina Turner and her fiancé, Ulysses Green, are in court charging that Officer Patrick Kelly tased Turner three times, shortly after he arrived with several officers to tow Green’s van.

According to Turner, Kelly tased her in the belly, back, and leg, after she objected when he grabbed her arm as she attempted to retrieve her children’s car seats and Green’s work boots from the van.  The third tasing ­– a direct “drive stun” application – came as she writhed, screaming in pain, on the ground, by her account.

A few days later, she went to the hospital with heavy bleeding and was told she had miscarried.

Kelly’s account is noteworthy because, while it comports with CPD’s guidelines for Taser use, it’s clearly inappropriate under more civilized standards.  He says he was trying to arrest Turner after he stopped her from getting in the van and driving away; he tased her as she was trying to walk away.

It’s worth noting that in a deposition, the tow truck driver backed Turner’s account, according to her attorney, Jeffrey Granich.  It’s also worth noting that Kelly has a long record of civilian misconduct complaints, including excessive force and racial slurs. An investigation into the shooting of a friend of Kelly’s in 2010 at Kelly’s house with Kelly’s revolver was recently reopened, and is the subject of another lawsuit.  Kelly is on medical leave.

But Kelly’s account of his tasing of Turner describes a situation in which Taser deployment would be justified under CPD guidelines. They authorize Taser use against “active resisters,” subjects who move their arms or actually run away to avoid arrest or physical control, whether or not they pose a physical threat.

As I’ve noted before, that standard conflicts with the Electronic Control Weapon Guidelines of the Police Executive Research Forum, backed by a national survey of police departments’ policies.  “ECWs should be used only against subjects who are actively resisting in a manner that, in the officer’s judgement, is likely to result in injuries to themselves or others,” according to the guidelines.  “Fleeing should not be the sole justification for using an ECW.”

The guidelines add that Tasers should “generally” not be used against pregnant women, children, or the elderly, or against handcuffed subjects.  CPD’s directives contain no such restrictions. (In April, the city paid $5 million to settle a lawsuit in the death of Phillip Coleman, who was tased repeatedly while suffering a mental breakdown – and while handcuffed.)

Now, a federal appeals court has ruled in a North Carolina case that “Taser use is unreasonable force in response to resistance that doesn’t risk immediate danger.” The court notes that “immediate danger” is a higher standard than “physical resistance.”

That case involved a bipolar and schizophrenic man who was resisting involuntary commitment by sitting on the ground holding onto a traffic sign post.  He died shortly after he was tased five times.

Taser International apparently sensing a serious threat to its business model if its product’s lethality is fully acknowledged, is seeking to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.  But whatever the outcome of this one ruling, it’s evidence of the evolution of a higher standard for use of the shock weapon.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has dramatically expanded the availability of Taser guns for Chicago police officers in response to the death of Laquan McDonald (and the lobbying of former Supt. Terry Hillard).  But Tasers are no panacea; they can cause serious injury and death, and the ease of their use invites abuse.  Expanding Taser deployment without tightening standards is asking for trouble.