Study examines the specifics of the Houston Police Department’s stun guns.
TASER is a trademark or brand name for what is known as a conductive energy device (CED). It may also be known as a stun gun. A CED can be used in two ways: in the probe mode it fires two metal probes attached to 21-foot monofilament wires; in the drive stun mode it is applied directly to the skin. The device delivers 50,000 volts, sufficient to achieve muscular incapacitation, in five-second bursts. Similar devices are being adopted by police departments worldwide, and personal versions are widely available on the Internet.
My office just wrapped up a yearlong performance audit of CED use within the Houston Police Department. (The full text is available at www.houstontx.gov/controller/index.html along with an abbreviated PowerPoint presentation.) We found that, while CEDs have generally been a very effective intermediate weapon and the Houston Police Department has effectively managed them, there is definitely room for improvement. We also found clear patterns of racial, ethnic, and gender effects in CED deployment. We did not analyze potential medical or health impacts from a CED shock.
According to documentation supplied to city council, statements by Police Chief Harold Hurtt and information provided to police cadets in training sessions, CEDs were meant to be an alternative to deadly force. The audit team, however, found nothing to indicate a reduction in the number of officer-involved shootings since the introduction of CEDs. In addition, HPD’s written internal policies indicate CEDs are an intermediate weapon and not a substitute for deadly force except in very limited circumstances.
I am concerned that the public may believe CEDs are to be used only as an alternative to deadly force. This is why it’s so important that productive public dialogue and education occur. Moving forward, we need everyone to have a clear understanding that CEDs are meant to be an additional intermediate weapon for securing and controlling combative individuals.
In his official response to the audit, Police Chief Harold Hurtt writes that the TASER program “has been extremely successful in accomplishing our goals” of providing officers with additional force options, reducing injuries to officers and suspects, reducing the potential for litigation, and, in limited situations, providing an alternative to deadly force.
The audit includes 30 recommendations for additional and enhanced training, policy changes, and improvements in reporting, data management, and equipment accounting at HPD. It also identified the following additional patterns:
The audit showed, for example, that African-American suspects are more likely to be involved in a CED incident with Houston police officers than Latinos, Anglos, and other ethnic groups. Males are tased more than females. And African-American officers use their CEDs less than other officers.
The audit includes this graph:
|Race/Ethnicity||Houston 2006||HPD*||Total Incident
|TASER Incident Reports|
* Average population January 1, 2005, through June 30, 2007
If some officers have different coping skills that allow them to diffuse situations without deploying CEDs as often as other officers, those skills must be emphasized in the training process. This audit should lead to discussions with the minority community and within HPD about how and when CEDs should be used. I hope HPD follows the recommendations and makes changes before we do a follow-up audit in a year.
HPD provided complete and accurate data to the extent it was feasible. We all share a common goal to keep our city safe while ensuring fair treatment for everyone. That includes residents, visitors and our police officers.
The audit encompassed 1,417 TASER deployments between December 2004 and June 30, 2007. The analysis was conducted by a team of experts from Mir•Fox & Rodriguez, P.C; the University of Houston, Center for Public Policy; Sam Houston State University, College of Criminal Justice; Prototype, Fusion & Modeling, LLC; Rice University; and the University of San Francisco.
Annise D. Parker is Houston’s third-term city controller and one of the highest-ranking openly GLBT-elected municipal officials in any of the 10 largest U.S. cities. Her website is www.houstoncontroller.org. The City Controller’s webpage is www.houstontx.gov/controller/index.html. To receive the controller’s newsletter, send an e-mail to [email protected] houston.net.