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September 12, 2006

Cease and desist: LMPD should stop using Tasers till more is known

Keep your Tasers in your holsters, officers. That is the message Louisville Metro Police Chief Robert White needs to deliver to his force following the death of Larry Noles, the unarmed black man who was killed after being shocked by an officer last week.White has promised to re-evaluate his department’s use of stun guns if they are shown to have caused Noles’ death. But that misses the fundamental problem with Tasers: The stun guns should be shelved right now, and their use re-evaluated once the investigation and Noles’ autopsy are complete.  Here’s what we know already: Noles, 52, was alive before he was shocked at least three times by Officer Michael Campbell, who along with a partner was trying to subdue Noles at the intersection of Seventh Street and Algonquin Parkway. Campbell first fired two darts, attached by 25-foot strings to the gun, and sent high doses of electricity through Noles’ body. According to police, Noles kept moving toward officers, which prompted Campbell to place the gun directly on Noles’ neck and deliver a third shock. Very shortly afterward, he was dead. Based on those facts alone, the use of stun guns in Louisville should be put on hold, and their future use should be strongly re-evaluated. They’re billed as non-lethal alternatives that let officers refrain from using their handguns. But Noles’ death demonstrates — as scores of similar deaths across the country have already shown — that the weapons are potentially deadly. Louisville police were introduced to Tasers in 2004 when the department spent about $1 million for about 1,000 of them. The idea — and it was a solid one — was that the Tasers would give officers another option for dealing with problem people, short of firing their pistols. Given the Louisville department’s recent history of questionable shootings, Chief White’s decision to equip his officers with the stun guns was reasonable. But neither the chief nor Mayor Jerry Abramson are taking the appropriate lesson from Noles’ regrettable death. Last week Abramson said he continues to support the use of Tasers.“At this point in time we certainly do,” he told WAVE-TV. “Our experience in the last two years is that it works exceptionally well, when it is used instead of using a gun.”  Abramson isn’t the only one holding fast to that faulty logic; even a long-time friend of Noles said he was glad police officers carry Tasers in addition to their pistols. “They (Tasers) are a lot better than using the gun and just shooting someone like Larry,” said Larry Bell, who grew up down the street from Noles near 17th and Kentucky streets. Filling his tank at the Thornton’s near the intersection where his friend died, Bell said, “Larry is a good guy, never caused any trouble. I can’t even see him being out in the street like they said he was. But I don’t think the officers meant to kill him. It was just something real freaky.” There’s no reason to believe the officers meant to kill Noles, and his death appears to have been strange, even if far from unforeseen given the number of deaths nationwide from Tasers wielded by officers. But Bell is wrong — and so is the mayor — to frame the officers’ options so narrowly: either shocking Noles with the Taser or shooting him. Noles was roaming naked in the streets, causing a disturbance, and he did not respond to officers’ commands to stop. He should have been arrested, surely, but who in this city believes the officers would have used their pistols to bring him down if they hadn’t had the Tasers? He wasn’t a mad dog. He was a man with a family and future, in the middle of a mental health crisis. He needed to be subdued, not killed. No, if Officer Campbell had been without a Taser when he ran into Larry Noles, he would have had more options, not fewer. Without a Taser, he might have used his nightstick, or pepper spray, or he may have simply waited for back-up if he and his partner needed help wrestling Noles into the squad car. Instead, Campbell opted to use a weapon he had been taught was non-lethal. Inadvertently, he shocked Noles to death.  More than 70 other people in America and Canada have been killed by police officers in similar situations since 2001. In those cases, documented by Amnesty International and other agencies, police officers were faced with situations they believed did not call for deadly force. By 2004, Louisville police had developed a reputation — deservedly or not — for being trigger-happy, and so the decision to buy Tasers seemed to make sense. But of more than 350 incidents where they’ve used Tasers so far, how many situations were like the Noles situation — touch-and-go for the police but far below the threshold for using a firearm? Certainly, the cops have been trained that using Tasers will help them subdue unruly folks but avoid lethal outcomes.Noles’ death shows that the training that tells police the Taser is non-deadly is misleading. The city should develop new, and more restrictive, rules for how Tasers can be used. During training, officers should be informed that Tasers can kill.Based on available information, Chief White has said officers seem to have done their jobs appropriately. But according to news reports, Campbell’s first two shots put darts in Noles’ chest. When Noles didn’t stop walking, Campbell placed the gun directly on his neck. That was likely the fatal blow.Based on a preliminary assessment, Campbell may have acted counter to precautions that are already written into the department’s operating procedures. Those rules especially warn of the risks of administering shocks too quickly in succession — and add a further warning about shocks to the chest, neck, head and other sensitive areas. We’ll have to wait for the results of the investigation to learn how his use of the Taser conformed to the warnings already in place. But there are plenty of cases in other cities that Louisville could learn from. For example, the city of Fresno is defending a wrongful death suit in federal court following the death of an unarmed naked man who was killed by police using a Taser. According to both sides in that suit, department rules prohibited placing the stun gun directly on the skin of a subject. Those rules weren’t followed in Fresno.Now Louisville has its own sad example, and when it happens in your own backyard, it’s time to stop using them and seriously revisit the guidelines. Officers deserve to know that the weapons are inappropriate for situations where deadly force is not justified. This is not one man’s opinion. The ACLU and others have called for the suspension of stun guns. The Rev. Louis Coleman is anxious to see the autopsy report. “I strongly believe what we are going to see is that the thing simply blew Larry Noles’ heart out,” Coleman said. He fears police are misusing the guns. So far, such admonitions have been largely dismissed as typical liberal overreactions to a police force with a controversial past. But there’s a great deal more on the line than that. We must remember how important the police are to the community, and how important it is that they operate with legitimacy. Giving police a deadly tool but telling them it’s non-lethal invites disaster — for the officers, for the people they deal with, for all of us who need an effective, respected police force.Roy Wade, a 25-year-old black man who has lived in the Algonquin Parkway neighborhood for nine years, said residents there depend on the police to get it right, and that incidents like Noles’ death undercut that mission. “Things haven’t changed around here,” he said last week, barely pausing from his work, removing a soot-black tire from a rim. Wade sees Noles’ death as unjust, but he said the area needs the police. “There are too many people ready to use this (Noles’ death) to push the police out of the neighborhood,” he said. “They just want a free hand to run their drugs and do as they please.”If the police continue using Tasers without an honest and thorough re-evaluation, it only  gives their critics more ammunition. If another “freaky” death occurs, the private tragedy of Larry Noles’ will grow into a much larger community disaster. Contact the writer at michael.lindenberger@gmail.com