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Cotati video spotlights law enforcement's growing Taser use

Published: Thursday, May 16, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 17, 2013 at 7:06 a.m.

The encounter caught on video between Cotati residents and police officers put on view a controversial law enforcement tool: the Taser.

Often with 50,000 volts of electricity in a charge, the electromagnetic weapons cause muscles to seize up, providing officers with a key window to subdue a person.

National studies have shown stun guns cause fewer lasting injuries than batons or fists. But the effect is nonetheless shocking to observe and, in rare cases, people have died after being shot by a Taser.

Some critics say the weapons are overused.

“The bottom line when you use a Taser: it has to be reasonable,” said Richard Lichten, a retired sheriff's lieutenant from Southern California who provides expert testimony on police use of force, including Tasers. “You have to be able to articulate: Was an officer in danger? Was it a credible threat?”

Cotati police officials said they would not comment further on the encounter while both the criminal investigation into those accused of resisting arrest and the internal investigation into the officers' actions are ongoing.

But they provided a copy of the Police Department's Taser guidelines, a four-page document developed by Lexipol, an Orange County company that helps police departments create policies.

The officer must give a verbal warning, unless that would put them in jeopardy, and be able to articulate why other forms of force appeared ineffective, the policy states.

An authorized use includes when: “a subject who by words or action has demonstrated an intention to be violent or to physically resist and who reasonably appears to present the potential to harm officers, him/herself or others.”

The May 10 encounter caught on tape depicts only part of the encounter and from the vantage point of James Wood, an Army reservist who filmed it with his cellphone.

Wood and his wife had been arguing about a broken-down car in the backyard, prompting someone to call 911 to report a domestic disturbance.

Wood and his wife, as well as a roommate, declined to let police into their house when officers arrived.

Police kicked in the door and said that when an officer grabbed Jennifer Wood's arm, her husband moved toward, them, prompting the officer to deploy the Taser.

Wood said that although he was yelling at the officers to stop assaulting his wife, he was not physically aggressive toward them.

“They Tased me, but I had my hands up the entire time,” James Wood, 33, said.

Tasers or similar devices are used by most police agencies in Sonoma County and are rapidly overtaking other force alternatives, federal researchers said.

More than 15,000 law enforcement and military agencies use Tasers or a similar device, according to a 2011 report on police use of force by the U.S. Department of Justice.

“Most agencies do not allow (electromagnetic device) use against a subject who nonviolently refuses to comply with commands,” the report states.

But six in 10 allow for stun gun use against a subject who tenses and pulls when the officer tries to handcuff him or her, according to the report.

“In my opinion, Tasers are overused,” defense attorney Andy Martinez said.

Martinez represented a Petaluma man in a 2008 case in which officers responded to a home after an accidental 911 call. Sean Lent did not let the officers in, prompting the officers to burst into the home, wrestle with the man and use a Taser on him.

“They're not supposed to Tase you unless the situation is beyond the use of normal compliance holds or if the officer is going to be in some kind of danger,” Martinez said.

Yet officers can use force when they have a lawful need to control the actions of a person, Lichten said.

Still, police agency policies vary.

“If someone won't sit on the ground, some departments say you can Tase them, others do not,” Lichten said.

The dangerous mixture of drugs and an electronic charge possibly contributed to the deaths of two Sonoma County men in 2008.

A mentally ill Sonoma County man died Dec. 20, 2008, after a sheriff's deputy shot him with a Taser.

Officials found that Nathan Vaughn had a toxic level of buproprion, an antidepressant, in his system when he was hit by a Taser three times.

Guy James Fernandez, 42, died Nov. 9, 2008, after Rohnert Park officers shot him with a stun gun, and authorities later determined he died from cardiac arrest caused by a toxic level of methamphetamine.

Still, the 2011 DOJ researchers who analyzed nearly 500 use-of-force reports found that Tasers decreased the likelihood of injury for both suspects and officers.

In 2010 in downtown Santa Rosa, officers ordered a transient man, who had been waving what looked like a gun at passers-by, to put his hands on the ground.

The man instead reached for the weapon in his waistband. An officer deployed a Taser, the man fell to the ground and was treated by paramedics. The weapon was later identified as an antique Buck Rogers pop gun.

You can reach Staff Writer JulieJohnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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