Last month, video of the shooting of Laquan McDonald led many to wonder whether he might be alive today if a Taser had been available to police on the scene.
But last week, video of the 2012 tasing of Philip Coleman in a holding cell raised questions about the use of Tasers by police.
Coleman’s parents called police after he attacked his mother on Dec. 12, 2012. They told police their son was having a mental breakdown and asked that he be sent to a hospital.
He died the next day, shortly after being repeatedly tased by police at the Calumet District lockup and later at Roseland Hospital. The Cook County Medical Examiner ruled the death was caused by neuroleptic malignant syndrome (NMS), a reaction to the anti-psychotic drug Haldol administered to Coleman at the hospital.
Coleman’s family is challenging that determination in a lawsuit that charges police with using excessive force and failing to provide access to mental health care. On Monday, the federal judge hearing the lawsuit ruled that a Chicago police employee used “brute force” in dragging Coleman out of his cell.
The family’s attorney, Ed Fox, says studies show that agitation and distress are contributing factors to NMS.
“Tasing [Coleman] contributed greatly to his death,” he said.
That fits the pattern: nearly all deaths following tasing incidents are attributed to other causes. A national survey by the Guardian of 47 deaths which following police tasings so far this year found only one in which the Taser was listed as the primary cause of death.
Coleman fits the tragic pattern of Taser deaths in other ways, too. He was African- American, like a disproportionate number of victims. He was unarmed, like a large majority of Taser victims; he was handcuffed, like many. And he was experiencing a psychiatric crisis.
Police face choice of handcuffs or helping hand for mentally ill
Mental health crisis is one factor that increases the risk of death following tasing, said Justin Mazzola of Amnesty International USA; the use of repeated shocks is another. Coleman was subjected to as many as 16 separate Taser shocks by police in the final hours of his life, including 13 at Roseland Hospital.
Taser International considers it safe to use a Taser “back to back” up to three times, according to a report from the Police Executive Research Forum.
Amnesty International has called for restricting Taser use to situations where officers face the threat of serious injury or death. “That’s because it’s not a non-lethal weapon,” Mazzola said. “When an officer uses a Taser, there’s no way to know how that will impact the individual.”
Last November the United Nations Committee Against Torture – which heard evidence about the death of Chicagoan Dominique Franklin following his tasing last year – called for restricting the use of Tasers to life-threatening situations.
Chicago Police Department directives authorize the use of Tasers in cases of “active resistance,” which involves physical action aimed at avoiding police control and ranges from flailing arms to running away. This is in line with PERF’s guidelines, which describe Tasers as weapons “meant to control persons who are actively resisting or acting aggressively.”
But CPD’s directives do not follow many key recommendations from the Police Executive Research Forum, including banning “drive stuns,” or direct application of the weapon to a subject; limiting the number and duration of shocks; banning the tasing of individuals in handcuffs; or recommending against tasing individuals solely because they are fleeing. (CPD recommends tasing in the back, if possible, and also notes that multiple tasings “will increase stress in the subject.”)
PERF warns that “repeated and multiple applications” and applications of extended duration “may increase the risk of death,” and that “persons in mental crisis” are “believed to be at heightened risk for serious injury or death.” It notes that using Tasers “to achieve pain compliance may have limited effectiveness and, when used repeatedly, may even exacerbate the situation by inducing rage in the subject.”
Mazzola says most Taser use – inappropriately, in his view – is to gain compliance from individuals who aren’t following orders. Too often “noncompliance” merely means they are struggling against their restraints, he added. “Especially in custodial situations, it has the potential to be used in cruel, inhumane, and degrading ways,” he said, adding that depending on the number and duration of shocks, tasing can rise to the level of torture.
“In cases where there’s a mental health issue, a person may not be able to understand what’s going on,” he said.
Without audio it’s hard to tell what’s going on in Coleman’s holding-cell tasing. But the tasing takes place within a few seconds of six officers entering the cell, and there is no sign of physical resistance from Coleman. There’s nothing that resembles “active resistance.” Police reports and press statements described Coleman as “combative” at this point; but the video does not support that characterization.
Fox said he reviewed video for the entire time Coleman was at the lockup, and at no point was he violent or threatening.
Coleman’s father has postulated that the officers were retaliating because when his son was spitting up blood during his arrest, some of it got on their uniforms. Their “preemptive force,” as one expert described it, could also reflect a general dehumanization and fear of people living with mental illness.
It also reflects the fact that Tasers are “inherently open to abuse,” according to a researcher for Amnesty International, since they’re so handy and they can “inflict severe pain at the push of a button.”
We need to tighten up restrictions on their use. And when our police kill someone using a Taser, we should admit it.