Crime

Use of force by police is a local decision, but experts say it should be a last resort

Bryce Masters with his mother, Stacy Masters. The FBI is investigating whether Officer Timothy N. Runnels used excessive force when he subdued 17-year-old Bryce Masters with a stun gun.
Bryce Masters with his mother, Stacy Masters. The FBI is investigating whether Officer Timothy N. Runnels used excessive force when he subdued 17-year-old Bryce Masters with a stun gun. The Associated Press

When a teenage driver refused an Independence police officer’s demand to exit a car last weekend, the officer reached for his stun gun, issued a warning and fired.

Though the FBI is investigating whether Officer Timothy N. Runnels used excessive force when he subdued 17-year-old Bryce Masters, it could be months before its answer becomes public.

According to experts, however, using force against an uncooperative but unarmed suspect should be a police officer’s last resort.

“Sometimes the best avenue to take care of that problem is to sit back and wait for a minute,” said Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank, who has testified before Congress on civil rights issues. Taking time to breathe, talk and ask why the person is resisting can help an officer avoid using force, Burbank said.

“We should be smart enough to look at different avenues,” he said.

Masters reportedly has brain damage after the Taser’s prongs hit his chest near his heart. He fell into cardiac arrest and had to be resuscitated.

No national policy exists for appropriate use of force by police. Instead, each of the country’s 18,000 police departments sets it own policy.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that use of force must be objectively reasonable under the facts and circumstances.

The appropriate level of force depends on the level of a subject’s resistance and the threat level, said Greg Meyer, a retired Los Angeles police captain and a national expert on the use of force.

“Each situation is different,” Meyer said. “The officer’s verbal interaction with a resisting subject sometimes brings the situation under control. In other cases, hands-on tactics get the job done. Sometimes it takes pepper spray or Taser, but one of the key variables is time.”

Burbank and Meyer did not want to comment specifically about the Independence incident, saying they didn’t know enough about it or what Runnels was thinking at the time.

Independence department policy lists circumstances when an officer is authorized, and not authorized, to deploy a stun gun.

It says a Taser “shall not be used on those who passively resist,” and it defines passive resistance as “a refusal by an unarmed person to comply with an officer’s verbal commands or physical control techniques that does not involve the use of physical force, control, or resistance of any kind.”

Police say Masters refused a command and then braced himself in the car, to keep Runnels from pulling Masters out.

An article about use of force in this month’s issue of The Police Chief describes resisting arrest as “active resistance,” not passive resistance. It lists the use of batons and stun guns as appropriate in those situations.

Stun guns shoot two dartlike probes that send an electrical charge through a person’s body that temporarily paralyzes their muscles and causes intense pain. The weapons are touted as a way to reduce injuries to police officers and civilians. Studies have shown that they work because they prevent or reduce physical struggles.

Yet questions have arisen on whether all police use of stun guns is appropriate.

“As with any service weapon, officers can misuse (stun guns),” authors wrote in a 2009 report about police use-of-force cases. Stun gun misuse can range from “outright abusive or illegal use” to less obvious cases of officers pulling them “too early in a force incident,” said the report presented to the National Institute of Justice.

Officers need training not only on how to use the weapons, but also on when, experts say.

In 2009, Taser International issued a training bulletin recommending that the target area for stun guns should be away from the subject’s chest. Many police departments soon changed their internal policy to comply with that directive.

Independence’s policy tells officers to avoid stunning someone in the area of the heart.

Police departments in the Kansas City area say officers receive stun gun training either while attending police academies or when they are issued the device as patrol officers. In some departments, officers are stunned during training so they know what it feels like.

Independence officers have used Tasers 126 times since September 2011, department officials said.

In the last two years, Overland Park police have used them five times and Kansas City, Kan., police have used them 83 times. Numbers for Kansas City police were not available.

All police agencies need to evaluate their practices and determine if there are alternatives to officers immediately using force when a subject is noncompliant, Burbank said.

He doesn’t believe pepper spray or a stun gun is the proper response to someone failing to comply with an officer’s request.

“Maybe we wait a while. What is our rush?” he said. “Maybe going to the next call or delay traffic a little bit. But when you compare that to using force against a human being then we should always err on the other side. Force should not be our first option.”

To reach Glenn E. Rice, call 816-234-4341 or send email to grice@kcstar.com.

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