Tased ’n‘ Confused
Seaside PD installs Taser cameras; fatality court date set for next year.
Thursday, August 7, 2008
Seaside Police Officer Uriah Allen puts on his game face– jaw set, eyes trained ahead– and prepares to get tased.
Allen’s jolt comes at a turning point in the Seaside Police Department’s relationship with Taser stun guns. Last month the department finished equipping its force with cameras that automatically record audio and video whenever an officer activates a Taser. While the new technology may hold cops more accountable, it also re-affirms the department’s commitment to stun guns as it heads to court over a Taser fatality.
In August 2004 Seaside police tased Michael Robert Rosa, who had allegedly been disturbing his Del Rey Oaks neighborhood while high on drugs. The 38-year-old man died 30 hours later.
Rosa’s family sued the city of Seaside, the Seaside Police Department, the two responding officers and Taser International. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California has scheduled the hearing for July 17, 2009.
The Rosa family’s attorney, John Burton, contends Seaside officers Matthew Doza and Nick Borges tased Rosa 10 times while he was in a “psychologically altered state,” causing him to fall down a bank. The officers then threw their weight on his body, Burton says, impairing his breathing.
Seaside Police Chief Steve Cercone declines to discuss the details of the case, saying only “the city of Seaside was not responsible for the suspect’s death.”
Two other men have died after multiple tasings by local police: Robert Heston, tased by Salinas cops in 2005; and Jaime Coronel, tased by county sheriff’s deputies in Castroville in 2006. A jury recently cleared the Salinas police of wrongdoing but held Taser International 15 percent liable for Heston’s death.
But critics, including the NAACP and the League of United Latin American Citizens, allege that police too often abuse the weapons.
Monterey County Branch NAACP President William Zeigler accepts the use of Tasers as a last resort for physically aggressive suspects, but he worries that rookie cops can be too eager to zap in less threatening situations. “Sometimes the Taser becomes a shortcut to good police work,” he says. “I think some of the police officers look at it as, ‘It’s a new toy. When can I deploy it?’ ”
In January 2003, the Seaside Police Department became the first law enforcement agency in Monterey County to acquire Tasers. Since then, Seaside officers have deployed the stun guns 52 times– an average of once every 38 days of patrol work, according to Cercone’s records. Officers stunned suspects multiple times in 15 incidents.
Three suspects have sustained minor injuries that required medical treatments as a result of the tasings. In all three cases, Cercone says, the suspects got hurt from hitting the ground and not from the electricity.
The department bought Taser cams early this year, on the civil grand jury’s 2006 recommendation, and finished installing them last month.
Zeigler, for one, is glad to hear about the cameras. “At least you can see who they’re tasing, when they’re tasing, that sort of thing,” he says. “If they don’t use it properly, we have evidence.”
Most officers volunteer to take a jolt during their five-hour Taser instruction, Kimball says. Today, that includes Officer Uriah Allen, a fresh-faced Police Academy graduate who was sworn into the department last week.
Allen stands stoic, one Taser dart taped to his upper hip and another to his side. Two colleagues grip his elbows. Kimball, standing a few feet behind him, activates the stun gun.
Clickclickclickclickclick. The rookie officer stiffens, throws back his head and closes his eyes. When it’s over he lets out a sigh and grins strangely. “Muscles were locked,” he says. “You could feel them spasming.”
Next up is Ryan Miller, another new hire. As the jolt hits, his torso arches forward and his face contorts. He lets out a long grunt: “Mmmmmmm!”
It might look like a frat hazing, but Kimball says it’s important for officers to learn how a tasing feels: “It adds to the training.”