A Stunning Toll
Taser-related deaths and questionable uses of the weapon are mounting in Texas.
Sitting in the back of a police cruiser, his green eyes burning and massive body convulsing, Barney Lee Green was certain that he was about to die.
Police in the Houston suburb of Pasadena had pulled Green over on that day last November for what might have been a routine traffic stop. But neither the big man’s behavior nor the officers’ reactions were routine. Records show that as the officer who made the stop approached Green’s car, he saw that the driver was “chewing vigorously” and trying to wash down what he was chewing with a drink of water. The officer told him to spit it out; Green refused.
Pasadena police carry pepper spray and Taser stun guns, so-called non-lethal weapons that law enforcement agencies across the country have issued, to give their officers in tough situations options other than drawing their firearms.
Only a few weeks earlier, Green had been released from prison after serving a sentence for drug possession. Before that, prison officials say, the 38-year-old carpenter had also done time for aggravated assault. But nothing in the reports from that day that have been made public suggest that Green threatened the officer or had a weapon. He simply appears to have been a 6’ 3,’’ 300-pound man who wasn’t following police orders.
The patrolman ordered Green to place his hands on the steering wheel. When he repeatedly refused, the officer sprayed him in the face with pepper spray, then stunned him twice in the shoulder with a Taser.
Those initial electrical jolts apparently allowed the officer to get Green out of his car and cuff him. But the officer still wanted whatever was in his mouth. As Green lay flat on his stomach beside his vehicle, the patrolman, by this time joined by another officer, ordered him to spit out whatever he was chewing. He refused, and they stunned him again. The Taser may have subdued the big man, but it couldn’t make him spit.
Police eventually handcuffed and loaded Green — and whatever he still had in his mouth —into a patrol car. Then, records show, as they were driving to the jail with the situation seemingly under control, Smith matter-of-factly announced, “I’m going to die” and began shaking and convulsing.
The officer driving told officials he was only seconds away from the jail when Green made his announcement. Instead of changing course and heading to a hospital, the officer radioed for an ambulance to meet them at the jail. By the time they arrived at the jail, Green was “slumped over the seat and became unconscious,’’ records show. The ambulance got him to the hospital. He was placed on life support and died later that day.
Green’s death fits into several disturbing patterns regarding the electrical pulse weapons that have come into wide use in this country in the last several years. Despite being labeled non-lethal, the weapons are being involved repeatedly in deaths, frequently in cases where the tasered person was on drugs. And records show that the deaths and questionable usages of the weapon are happening more frequently in Texas than in all but a couple of places on this continent. Texas is tied for third among all U.S. states as the location of the most Taser-related deaths. This state accounts for 12 of the approximately 170 known Taser-related deaths in the last five years. In three other Texas cases, suspects died after being both tasered and shot. The locale where the largest number of those Texas deaths have occurred: Tarrant County, where four people died in Fort Worth police custody, plus a fifth death that occurred in Euless.
What’s more, documents obtained under the Texas Public Information Act, along with interviews with police and those arrested, reveal that in many of the state’s law enforcement agencies, officers aren’t waiting for a possible life-or-death crisis before they unholster the Taser. Many law enforcement officers are using the yellow-and-black, pistol-gripped weapon as a first-choice persuader — like a high-tech baton. The president of TASER International told Fort Worth Weekly last month that the stun weapons his company manufactures are “not a disciplinary tool” and shouldn’t be used that way. Nonetheless, records reveal that the weapons, marketed as an alternative to lethal force, are being used in situations where lethal force would almost never be used — as a routine way of gaining compliance from people who are offering no violence or threat.
The process of gathering records for this story also revealed another problematic statistic about Texas sheriff’s departments: Many of them don’t appear to be following the law regarding public records. About a fourth of the state’s 254 sheriff’s offices failed to respond at all to the records requests mailed by the college journalism students who helped research and report this story. Many sheriff’s offices complied promptly and helpfully with the student’s requests. But others said they could not find the records requested, or they demanded hundreds or thousands of dollars for records that other law enforcement officials provided free of charge.
Randy Sanders of Lubbock, president of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, which helped fund the research for this story, said his understanding is that if a government agency does not respond to an open-records request, it means the records are open. “The fact that some of the counties have requested large amounts of money, on the surface, seems very inappropriate,” he said. “To use a procedure that is so expensive ... actually seals [the records] from public inspection.”
In the meantime, Taser use continues to grow among the state’s law enforcement agencies. Small-town deputy sheriffs are packing Tasers along with big-city cops across the state. Policies that govern the use of the weapon are all over the map — but almost all the agencies continue to maintain that the weapon is safe, as does TASER International. The company contends that the vast majority of deaths that occur after the use of one of their weapons are due totally or in large part to other factors, such as drug use.
“Police departments have stuck to the line that they’re not lethal,” said Debbie Russell, who runs the Taser hotline for the American Civil Liberties Union in Central Texas. “They are training them to use them liberally. One officer used it 18 times” in about 18 months, she said. “If they were using their guns half that much, people would be screaming about that.”
Barney Green’s family doesn’t understand why Green wasn’t taken straight to the hospital. And they’ve waited more than three month even to get a report about what, officially, caused his convulsions in the back of that patrol car and, ultimately, his death.
“The cops are trained, highly trained,’’ said Green’s sister, Bonnie Tengg. “They should know the difference between a real ‘I’m going to die’ and a not real “I’m going to die’,” she said. “And it’s common sense to take him straight to the hospital if he looked so bad.”
A 66-year-old in Kansas who probably had a weak heart
Was tasered for honking her horn, trying to park
By the way, in her own driveway
Such a dangerous charge —
Beware there’s grannies at large.
Trevor Goodchild had just turned 22 and was feeling good about life. That was before he got tasered for playing the guitar.
Sixth Street in Austin is the live-music center of the self-described Live Music Capital of the World, so there are guitars pretty much all over the place. Most are a lot louder than Goodchild’s, an unamplified classical model that had been his friend through his childhood time in foster care and his beginning adulthood.
While others in his age group might have been bar-hopping and ducking into alleys to puke, Goodchild — a vegetarian for 11 years who walks with a limp left from a run-in with a truck when he was a teen-ager — chose a spot on that evening in February 2005 and began to play in celebration of his birthday a couple of days earlier.
That’s when the cops came up — three or four, he recalls — and one offered what Goodchild first thought was just free and friendly advice: You need a permit to play live music on an Austin street.
Goodchild said he asked where and how he could get one.
“If you don’t have a permit,” he recalled one officer saying, “we’re going to send you to jail.”
“You can’t send me to jail for playing guitar.”
“I bet I can.”
He thought it was a joke, Goodchild said, until an officer grabbed his guitar, saying it could be used — think of El Kabong cartoons — as a weapon. Goodchild held onto his cherished instrument, but the officers jerked him to his feet, he said, and two played tug-of-war with his arms. One jumped onto his left side and slammed him to the concrete on his right arm, busting open his right cheek.
The officers ordered him to get his right arm behind his back, he said, but it was pinned under him, and they wouldn’t let him up. That’s when he felt electricity throttling his nervous system, “like touching a live wire or putting my hand in a socket.”
It’s not clear from records how many times the young guitarist was tasered. But Goodchild says he was hit seven to eight times, at least twice while he was on the ground, and that the shocks caused him to have convulsions due in part to an existing seizure disorder.
Asked about Goodchild’s case, Austin police spokesperson Toni Chovanetz referred a reporter to the department’s use-of-force policy, which says the amount of force used “must be the minimum amount which is reasonable.’’
Goodchild was taken to the Austin city jail, where he was charged with resisting arrest. The officers who arrested him, police records show, also accused him of violating city ordinances forbidding blocking the sidewalk and playing guitar on a city street without a permit. Goodchild said he was sentenced to six hours of community service for the ordinance violation. The resisting-arrest case has not yet been tried.
But he wonders now whether he might just as easily have wound up in the county morgue. “If Tasers are supposed to replace guns,” he asked, then if the officers hadn’t had the Tasers, “would I have been shot for playing classical guitar?”
A good question, it would seem, since the company line on Tasers is that they keep deranged, drug-crazed, or violent offenders from being shot dead. With a Taser, company officials say, such dangerous criminals can be rendered docile and then easily handcuffed. It’s an argument that portrays the Taser as a humane, even a merciful weapon.
“Saving lives every day” is the motto on TASER International’s web site. But in practice, records show that Texas law enforcement officers are routinely using Tasers against people who don’t appear to represent any kind of serious threat against an officer or the public — situations in which police would almost certainly never have used a gun, but in which the perpetrators of inconsequential crimes — or no crime at all — have ended up dead or seriously harmed.
In Fort Worth, one person who died after being tasered multiple times had done nothing more serious than briefly trespass on a parking lot, then run from an officer. Another man died after being tasered because he hid in a closet and wouldn’t come out when police came to arrest him for allegedly stealing electricity. A prostitute died after she approached police asking for help and then got in a tussle with an officer because he saw that she had a crack pipe and arrested her.
Trevor Goodchild found reports of many such situations when his own experience led him to research what was happening around the country with Tasers. He wrote a rap song about it, including the lines quoted above.
The lyrics also include references to pregnant women being tasered while in jail for refusing to follow jailers’ order. The rap isn’t far off the mark from what is happening in some Texas jails, where Tasers seem to be the latest thing in compliance equipment.
If you ever end up in Texas’ Wichita County jail, watch out for the bean hole.
That’s what jailers and prisoners alike call the slot in cell doors through which inmates get their meal trays. Some inmates like to stand with their arms sticking out of the slot, a violation of the rules. So they get tasered.
Last August, a woman old enough to be Goodchild’s grandmother was mad because jailers had denied her phone privileges, punishment for aggressive behavior earlier that day, records show. The 63-year-old was kicking and hitting her cell door and jamming her arm through the bean hole. When she refused to remove her arm from the slot, records show she got a three-second jolt from a Taser.
In fact, Wichita County has found Tasers so useful for such purposes that it has stopped using nightsticks. “It’s our opinion on the Taser that they are certainly a much safer and much preferred intermediate weapon than a baton anyway,” Chief Deputy Cecil Yoder said. “We feel it protects our officer and protects the public. It’s certainly uncomfortable for five seconds, but after that they can stand up and walk and talk ... and neither one of them are hurt.”
When the Taser is used in his jail to enforce a jailer’s order, Yoder said, the Taser is used directly against the inmate’s body “in the very same way as the old-type stun guns were used.”
The difference between today’s Tasers and the “old-type stun guns,” however, is the current Tasers are far more powerful. And each new generation of the weapon packs more wallop.
In the McLennan County jail in Waco, 14 inmates have gotten the treatment during the last five years, according to sheriff’s office records. McClennan County officials refused to release their use-of-force policy. But based on incident reports, it appears that Tasers are used only after an inmate repeatedly refuses to obey an order and ignores a warning that the Taser is the next step. A special detail team that transfers unruly inmates takes over: one officer with the Taser, one with the pepper-ball gun as a backup, one with the “jammer” that keeps the cell door half-closed, one with a video camera, and two with handcuffs.
Typically, after the inmate has been tasered and cuffed, he or she is moved to another cell, placed in a restraint chair, and put on a watch.
Not all the inmates who have been shocked were being violent, the reports show. Some were just refusing to comply with orders.
In one instance, an inmate was hearing voices and kicking the walls. Officers had been able to get him to sit quietly on the bed for short periods but hadn’t convinced him to come to the door to be handcuffed. Rather than entering the cell during one of his quiet, lucid times, they waited until the special detail team arrived, then tasered the man and placed him in restraints, records show.
And yet, according to Tom Smith, the president of TASER International, his company’s shock weapons aren’t intended for such uses. A Taser “is not a disciplinary tool,” he said at a recent Dallas press conference. The purpose of the event was to promote the use of a new line of Tasers to be sold to civilians.
In fact, the jail officers who use Tasers to get inmates to follow orders are not necessarily violating their own departments’ guidelines. Use-of-force policies denote what level of force, from verbal commands to guns, should be used in various situations — and the place of Tasers in that ranking varies greatly from county to county.
In some places, Tasers are ranked right below firearms and are to be used only when someone’s life or physical safety is threatened. In Parker County, where the sheriff’s office handed out Tasers to its deputies in 2004, the stun weapons are on the same level as a baton or chemical spray. In Ector County, they are ranked even lower on the use-of-force scale. Officers there are permitted to use Tasers as the next step after verbal commands, before any kind of hand-to-hand force, if suspects fail to comply.
Journalism students used the Texas Public Information Act to request records from Texas sheriffs documenting how their departments have used non-lethal weapons such as stun guns, deaths associated with such weapons, and use-of-force policies. They also reviewed 4,100 pages of custodial death reports that sheriffs and other law enforcement agencies are required to file with the Texas attorney general when someone dies in their custody for whatever reason.
About 90 sheriff’s departments released records with little fuss. Another 50 responded by saying their officers didn’t use Tasers. About three dozen others asked permission from the attorney general to withhold some of the records or demanded payment that far outstripped this project’s ability to pay.
Although state law requires governmental agencies to respond to such requests in writing within 10 days, students have yet to receive responses from more than 70 sheriff’s departments.
Joel White, immediate past president of the Freedom of Information Foundation and an attorney who helped students draft their request for records, said he was disturbed to learn that students have not received responses from that many sheriffs.
“Those kinds of sheriff’s departments are giving other sheriff’s departments a bad name, because there’s no excuse for not knowing the basic open-records requirement,’’ he said. “They need to be sent to school.’’
Many Texas sheriffs released records for free or for a small fee. Others, however, refused to waive fees and asked for thousands of dollars in copying and research costs. For example, the Harris County Sheriff’s Department refused to waive fees, failed to specify what the fees for records would be, and further stated “it is not possible to estimate when the copies sought by your request will be available.’’
Guadalupe County demanded a $5,000 deposit before beginning work to locate the records and said it expected to be reimbursed for the time it took a deputy to locate the documents. At the $14.71-per-hour rate for the three-month minimum period, the sheriff figured the search would require, the estimated bill topped $7,000. El Paso County similarly demanded $1,836.
The human-rights group Amnesty International, which counts prisoner treatment as a high priority, has called for a moratorium on all Taser use until experts decide if they’re really safe.
But the group isn’t necessarily against Tasers, spokesperson Edward Jackson noted; in fact, international human-rights laws mandate the development of non-lethal weapons.
“There are times when they need to be used,” he said. “How much sense does it make to think police should use their guns instead of a non-lethal, incapacitating weapon?”
The concern, Jackson said, is whether they’re used properly and whether police have all the information and guidance they need to use them wisely.
“There are a whole lot of people that are contacting us who’ve had seizures,” he said. One person who was shocked multiple times reported having seizures for three months. Another reported going blind in one eye.
Others, including TASER International officials, say long experience has already shown Tasers to be safe. Smith said autopsies listed the Taser as a contributing factor in only 20 of the 167 deaths noted nationwide — and as the cause of death in only one case. And in many of those cases, Smith said, the stress from a violent struggle with police, heart problems, or serious drug abuse also were factors in the deaths.
“Anybody who has suffered any long-lasting or fatal effects after the use of a Taser has all been proven [to have been harmed] by some other input other than just a Taser,” said Yoder, the Wichita County chief deputy.
The growing debate over the stun weapons’ use hasn’t helped TASER International’s fortunes, which in recent months have turned downward as rapidly and dramatically as they once rose. TASER stock, which debuted in an initial public offering in 2001 at $13 a share, peaked at close to $148 in 2004 but is now selling for about $6.
The company has other problems as well. Investors and others have filed a series of lawsuits against TASER International, alleging that the company misled the public about its products’ safety and the company’s financial prospects and that key company officials engaged in a questionable sell-off of TASER stock for personal gain. In documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company pledged to “defend these lawsuits vigorously.” And investors weren’t the only ones going to court. Nationwide, the company faces another 45 lawsuits alleging wrongful death or injuries — including some sustained by law enforcement officers during training, according to a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Smith predicted that the company will prevail in all the litigation. “A lot of people see TASER as a company with a lot of money and expect us to settle, but we’re not that kind of company,’’ he said.
Last year, the SEC initiated an inquiry into some of those matters. In December, SEC staffers advised the company that it wouldn’t recommend enforcement proceedings on some allegations — but that its inquiry into insider trading has become a formal investigation.
If only real-life experience is going to prove or disprove the Taser’s safety in the public’s mind, the scale of the experiment is expanding. The company now sells a personal Taser for civilian use.
Texas legislators grappled with the issue of private Tasers last year. Police and human-rights advocates warned them that personal shocking devices were a very bad idea. Sgt. Chris Jones, a 26-year Houston Police Department veteran, testified on behalf of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas. He was worried that untrained Taser-toters would use them on innocent fellow citizens, police, or themselves.
“They’re kind of a finicky device,” Sgt. Jones said. “If you don’t know what you’re doing, you could discharge them accidentally.” He classified personal Tasers with “[brass] knuckles, switchblades, or a chemical dispensing device.”
Debbie Russell of the ACLU said cops could be in danger because the 2-inch electric dart could penetrate a bullet-proof vest.
The original bill, sponsored by Rep. Elvira Reyna, a Dallas Democrat, put personal Tasers on a list of banned weapons, along with machine guns, explosive weapons, short-barrel firearms, firearm silencers, armor-piercing ammunition, and zip guns.
By the time Gov. Rick Perry signed the final version into law on June 18, however, the legislation only made it illegal to try to take a cop’s Taser — but left it legal for Texans to carry them on their own.
Barney Green’s family said they languished for months hearing nothing more from officials about his death beyond what they were told the night he died — that he had been taken to the hospital and it “didn’t look good.’’ His sister said she’s been calling the Harris County Medical Examiner, trying to learn what killed her brother. Until this week, after reporters started making inquiries, all she heard was, “No we don’t have anything yet.”
On Monday, more than three months after Green died, a staffer in the medical examiner’s office told a reporter that Green’s death had been ruled an accident due to acute cocaine toxicity. As in many other cases, it is not clear whether the Taser contributed to the death.
Pasadena police officials said they could not answer questions about the case until they received a request under the Texas Public Information Act. (Nothing under state law requires that a records request be filed before officials in a government agency can talk to reporters. The act refers to records, not to interviews.) Even after they received a request, however, they still wouldn’t talk.
“I’m afraid the case is still under investigation,’’ said Pasadena police spokesman Vance Mitchell. The department, he said, could release no information “until the case is completely closed.”
That’s news to Bonnie Tengg, who heard about the findings in her brother’s death from a reporter. “I’m a little shocked,” she said. “I didn’t know the case was open. I didn’t know they were still investigating.”
In Trevor Goodchild’s case, he suffered back pains for months from the Taser shocks he received. But the incident’s effect on his life is larger even than that. He’s become an anti-Taser activist, working closely with the ACLU.
“Hi, everyone,” his song opens. “I’m here representing T.D.M.T.H.B.T. We’re “Those Disgruntled Motherfuckers That Have Been Tased.” From there on, the lyrics sound more like an Amnesty report told in cadence than a typical lament. “I’m piecing together facts that would get Mother Teresa screaming,” he says. And he talks about the Florida woman, “12 weeks pregnant/ wouldn’t strip naked in jail/So she got jolted/ with high voltage.” And it goes on (and on): “Piss-poor trained two-year rookies in the field/ shocking you mama/because she didn’t hear them yell ‘Yield.’” Then the chorus: “Disrespecting cops/non-stop/will taser all of y’all ... we don’t need no more damage.”
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