Metropolis: Wednesday, March 29, 2006
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Hill: ‘I don’t know what a school kid could do that would warrant being shot with a Taser.’
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Too Cruel for School?

Tasers are coming soon to a campus near you.

By PETER GORMAN

If schools are places for learning, some folks are worried about just how painful the lessons might be when Fort Worth police start carrying Tasers to class, as early as next month.

Despite a rash of Taser-related deaths of people in Fort Worth police custody last year, the department has decided to allow the officers who work in Fort Worth public high schools to carry the 50,000-volt weapons as they patrol the hallways and parking lots.

That makes Fort Worth the fourth of the 10 school districts in Tarrant County in which police officers are authorized to carry the controversial weapons. In Azle, the district’s single school resource officer, or SRO, carries one but has never used it. In the Birdville district, which draws its school resource officers from the Watauga, North Richland Hills, and Haltom City police departments, only the two Haltom City officers carry them — but have never used them. In Lake Worth, the district’s only SRO is authorized to carry one but chooses not to.

Rules for the use of the X-26 model Taser—a Buck Rogers-looking yellow and black pistol that delivers its electric charge either from a distance, with twin fish-hook-like prongs, or in direct contact with clothing or skin — will be different from the rules that guide the use of the weapons by officers on the street, said Fort Worth Police Lt. Jon Grady, head of the Fort Worth district’s School Security Initiative.

“There is a big difference between being out on the street handling a situation that can deteriorate very quickly and being in a closed environment like a school, where the officers know many of the kids by name” he said. “I don’t want to say it would be a last resort, but there would have to be a set of extraordinary circumstances before an officer would utilize a Taser on a student.”

Grady, who has been on the Fort Worth police force for 25 years, took over the School Security Initiative in January. He would not be specific about what exact rules would permit the in-school use of a Taser — “because if kids knew them they’d maybe be tempted to come right up to the line” — but did say that at minimum a student would have to weigh 100 pounds to be a candidate for tasering. “That 100-pound thing comes from TASER International, the company that makes the weapon, so that’s what we’ll go with,” he said.

TASER International also says that no death has ever resulted from a Taser, but in recent months two medical examiners — in Chicago and South Carolina — have returned rulings in which they listed shocks from Tasers as the primary cause of death. In more than 20 other deaths following Taser use, the electric-shock weapons have been listed by medical examiners as contributing factors.

Additionally, the company is facing numerous lawsuits from people who’ve been tasered, including officers who were seriously injured during training classes. One major lawsuit the company is trying to fend off involves 21-year-old Patrick Lee, who was shocked between 12 and 19 times last September outside a nightclub in Nashville; a second involves Eric Hammock, who was hit with Tasers by Fort Worth police 25 times — and subsequently died — last April 5.

Grady added that he couldn’t foresee any circumstance in which a kid as small as 100 pounds would be shocked with a Taser. “There will be a lot of common sense applied before they’re used,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean they will never be used. They’ll be one more tool on the [officer’s] belt. The key factor will be size. In high school you might have a situation where a student who is six-foot-two and 220 pounds is facing an officer who’s five-foot-three and 140. We think — and this new policy was approved by Chief Mendoza himself — that in a circumstance like that it would be beneficial for the officer to have this weapon.”

Some of the officers who’ll be carrying the weapons also patrol middle schools, but Grady said he couldn’t imagine a situation in which the Tasers would be used on those students. “We have never had a situation in which the use of a Taser weapon would have been appropriate in the middle schools,” Grady said. “I can’t say that’s true for high school students.”

Fort Worth school board member Juan Rangel was unaware of the new policy. “We as a board have never been told about this. If we have relinquished the right to make the decision to use Tasers on campus, I don’t think we did that knowingly. I don’t even think the board has been made aware of that policy,” he said. “I’m telling you we don’t have a policy that says that any child of 100 pounds can be tasered. We’ve never even discussed that once.”

Police spokesman Lt. Dean Sullivan said that the decision to have high school SROs begin carrying Tasers was “simple department policy,” not the result of any particular incident or incidents.

In Lake Worth, the district’s lone school resource officer was not available to explain his reasons for deciding not to carry a Taser, but they may have something to do with a meeting last May, in which the Tasers were introduced to the Lake Worth Police Department. The meeting was open to the public, and one of the people in attendance was former police officer and SWAT team leader Alan Hill. “I saw a notice that the public was invited to a Taser class, and I’d never been to one, so I decided to go,” he told Fort Worth Weekly.

Among the attendees were Lake Worth’s mayor, police chief, and city manager, as well as members of the town’s police department, many of whom Hill knew. Hill, who is now in the National Guard and scheduled to deploy to Iraq in July, said that after a demonstration in which Lake Worth City Manager Joey Highfill and the SRO, Jim Stevens, among others, got two-second shocks, the audience was asked if they had any questions.

“So I asked if the school resource officers were going to carry them in school. The answer was yes, so I asked under what circumstances and against whom could they be used. I was told they’d been utilized on children as young as 10 years old with no harm.”

Hill, whose children both attend Lake Worth schools, said he was stunned to hear that. “My jaw just dropped. I asked if they were going to stand there and tell me they were going to authorize the use of these weapons on 10-year-old students. Well, the chief of police just sort of looked at me and turned away — it was one of those ‘you’re either with us or against us’ things. So I asked the mayor: ‘If that’s your grandchild, Mr. Mayor, what could your grandson possibly do to need that weapon pointed at him?’

“I mean, I had just seen the city manager and the school resource officer get a little two-second jolt while they were prepared and standing on rubber mats with people ready to catch them if they fell, and they squealed like pigs — that may be harsh, but you get my point — and here they are telling everyone there that they can somehow justify using those weapons on children.”

Hill, who was a paramedic and a fireman before becoming a cop, makes it clear that he is all for law and order. “In 1999 as a member of the North Richland Hills SWAT team, I shot and killed a man. I know about getting hurt and hurting people. But I don’t know what a school kid could do that would warrant being shot with a Taser — short of bringing his father’s .357 to school and threatening people.”

The problem, as Hill sees it, is that many people, including police officers, rely on their weapons rather than on other means to defuse situations. “What if an officer, confronted with a difficult situation in a school, opts for the Taser rather than calling for a teacher to help him control things? What if one of those prongs winds up in some kid’s eye?”

Several local school resource officers either declined to comment on the Taser issue or weren’t available for questions. But in nearby Burleson, one of the city’s four SROs was willing to answer questions, although the veteran officer asked not to be identified. “None of us carry the Taser, even though we’re authorized to,” he said.

Why not?

“Because I’m not going to be the headline cop who shot a school kid.”

He said that he felt the other equipment he carries is sufficient. “They give us a baton, pepper spray, a gun ... how many weapons do we need? And how are you later going to justify that split-second decision where you went for one instead of the other?”

The truth is, he said, “you’re supposed to be able to handle any situation empty-handed. Not everybody can. And if you’re in a situation that deteriorates very quickly, you’re going to go for the weapon you’re most comfortable with. The only one you don’t go to quickly is your gun, so that and the pepper spray, which won’t hurt anybody but will get their attention, are the only ones I like to carry.”

Hill agreed. “When I train soldiers, I ask them to imagine themselves naked and facing an enemy who’s armed to the teeth. Do they still feel in control? If not, they’re not warriors. Too many people, including police officers, are not warriors. All they have is their weaponry and their gadgets. And when they have that moment when they have to make a decision, those officers will be thinking of what weapon to use, rather than thinking like a warrior and trying to disarm the situation in the least harm-producing manner.”

Lt. Grady disagreed emphatically. “The officers in schools have all met the requirements of policing. And the reality is that every officer, including every SRO, is already armed with a deadly weapon. So to me the question is whether you want to give the officer a tool that is considerably less forceful than that deadly weapon. In my opinion, that’s a no-brainer.

“The Taser is a tool to be used with extreme caution. I know some parents and teachers will be concerned with them, but I believe that if it all goes the way it should, these things will prevent high-schoolers and officers from getting seriously hurt. And if for some reason we’re wrong, I have no doubt that Chief Mendoza will take them out of our schools. We’re not going to run wild and start tasering every kid who creates a disturbance.” He paused. “You know, if the person who is fighting or resisting the SRO would simply stop whatever they’re doing when commanded to by the officer, then a Taser will never be used in a school. It’s really that simple.”

“I think that’s the wrong attitude,” said Hill. “The real question should be: How would the officer who is going to use that Taser have handled the identical situation had he or she not been armed with that Taser?”

The Burleson officer was asked why he didn’t even carry a baton. His answer could have easily applied to a Taser.

“I don’t like to. I might be tempted to use it,” he said.


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