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Gun or stun gun? Different police responses raise questions

10 October 2016, 16:58

San Diego - When Alfred Olango pulled out an object from his right pocket last month and assumed a shooting stance in a strip mall parking lot in a San Diego suburb, one officer opened fire with his pistol. The other officer simultaneously stunned Olango using his Taser.

Civil rights advocates say the different response by officers facing the same suspect illustrates a breakdown in police training and communication and shows that some officers are too quick to turn to deadly force.

The September 27 shooting death of the 38-year-old Ugandan refugee who turned out to be wielding an electronic cigarette device came 11 days after another unarmed black man, 40-year-old Terence Crutcher, died in Tulsa, Oklahoma after being shot by two officers also simultaneously firing a gun and a Taser.

"I think when one police officer feels it is appropriate to use a less lethal weapon like a Taser, and the other officer feels like the person has to be killed - it suggests a real divergence in training," said Ezekiel Edwards, director of the American Civil Liberty Union's criminal law reform project.

He added: "I think it highlights that we have a serious problem in this country, which has been seen played out over and over again with police using lethal force in circumstances where it is not necessary and not justified."

Law enforcement experts, however, say it's not that simple because different officers don't necessarily have the same reactions for handling potential threats.

The decisions they make, the experts say, can be influenced by factors ranging from what officers see of suspects based on where they are standing, the extent of their police experience and information received from police dispatchers.

'Sympathetic firing'

Officers increasingly work alone in patrol cars without partners and the sharp electric sound made by the Taser when fired could prompt other officers with guns to pull the trigger in what is known as a "sympathetic firing".

And once an officer chooses to use a Taser instead of a gun, there often is no time to switch to a firearm if the dangerous situation escalates quickly, said Tim Dees, a retired police officer and police trainer who writes a column for the PoliceOne.com website.

"If there is a deadly threat to officers, you don't want bring in something less lethal, because by the time you transition you could be dead," Dees said.

Stun guns, like the ones made by Taser, have been credited with saving thousands of lives by giving officers a safer alternative to guns.

But they are not meant for situations officers perceive as life-threatening. The devices send dart-like electrodes into targets to cause "neuromuscular incapacitation". They should be used in police situations where non-deadly force is appropriate, similar to how officers use pepper spray on crowds, said Steve Tuttle, a Taser spokesperson.

People have died after being shot with Tasers, including a 66-year-old man in suburban Los Angeles last week. Officers could not drag him to safety to be treated by paramedics for 14 minutes because they were in a stand-off with his brother, who was threatening police with a gun. Taser says its weapons do not kill.

More training

In potentially violent situations, police often have an officer with a stun gun approach a suspect while other officers stay in the background with their guns drawn, said retired Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank.

"You don't want the officer with the firearm being the one doing the talking, not in the heat of the moment," said Burbank, who retired in 2015 and now works for the Centre for Policing Equity, a law enforcement think tank. "You want the officer who is providing lethal cover to be removed from the situation, not emotionally involved, so they have good judgement."

Burbank agrees with the ACLU that police need more training to learn how to calm down threatening incidents without using any weapons at all.

Videos released by police in the city of El Cajon where Olango was shot show Officer Richard Gonsalves approaching Olango with his weapon drawn.

Olango backs away, moving from side to side and refusing commands to take his hand out of his pocket.

Seconds later, Officer Josh McDaniel arrives with his Taser drawn.

Olango then pulls his hand out of his pocket and wraps both hands around the e-cigarette cylinder, pointing it at Gonsalves. Shots are heard moments later as both officers open fire.

Taser recommends that an officer using the weapon yell "Taser! Taser! Taser!" just before firing so other officers know what is going to happen and don't automatically react by opening fire with their guns when they hear the sound of the Taser firing.

It's not clear from the video if McDaniel shouted "Taser!" before firing.

In the Oklahoma shooting on September 16, Crutcher was killed by gunfire from Officer Betty Jo Shelby, who has been charged with first-degree manslaughter and has pleaded not guilty.

It's unclear whether the simultaneous Taser shooting of Crutcher by another officer will help Shelby's defence.

Her lawyers could argue that the firing of the Taser by the other officer shows that the officers were threatened by Crutcher, but prosecutors could use it to contend her life was not in danger because the other officer felt non-lethal action was the best way to subdue Crutcher.

- AP


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