WHEN TO TASE: Video prompts questions about Aurora police’s Taser use
AURORA | With his hands in the air and his back to police officers, Darsean Kelley refused to sit down until police would tell him why he was being detained.
Then, there’s a loud pop and a buzzing sound as an Aurora police officer fires a Taser at Kelley’s back. Kelly falls backward and screams in pain.
“I didn’t f***ing do anything,” Kelley says after a few seconds.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado released the video earlier this month of the altercation from February, along with news that city prosecutors had dropped charges against Kelley.
The video — which has been viewed on Facebook more than 830,000 times as of this week — shows something that happens close to 100 times a year in Aurora. It also raises questions about how often Aurora police use Tasers and the department’s rules surrounding the devices — rules civil rights activists say aren’t strong enough.
According to the department’s figures, police used a Taser in 90 different incidents in 2014, 84 incidents in 2015, and 90 so far this year.
In many of those cases, officers used the Taser more than once, bringing the total number of Taser uses since 2014 to 299, according to data police provided to the Aurora Sentinel this month.
Often, the Taser was used in conjunction with other force, including a baton eight times and a carotid control hold seven times.
The use of a Taser doesn’t always subdue the person officers are trying to take into custody. Since 2014, there have been 78 times an officer fired a Taser at someone only to have them continue to resist, according to the department’s figures.
But when should officers deploy their Taser?
Aurora police Officer Grant Heyneman, who teaches Aurora cops how to use Tasers at the department’s academy, said the department encourages officers to use their own discretion when deciding whether to use their Taser or another tool when trying to get a suspect under control.
The key words they try to drill into new officers’ heads when it comes to Taser use are “reasonable and appropriate,” he said.
“There’s not a black and white answer as to when you can use a Taser,” he said.
But Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado, said APD needs black and white rules regarding how they use Tasers.
“Most police departments now understand that a Taser should not be used simply to overcome passive noncompliance,” Silverstein said.
Those words — “passive noncompliance” — or something to that effect, should appear in the department’s directive, he said.
APD’s directive spells out several rules for Taser use, including that officers must carry a yellow Taser to distinguish the device from their firearms and that they should not use a Taser on a subject more than three times. But the directive doesn’t spell out when the device can be deployed other than in the general terms used to explain when Tasers, pepper spray and other methods can be used.
“Use of less lethal weapons is justified in those proper and lawful situations requiring a degree of force greater than that provided with weaponless control techniques,” the directive says.
Silverstein said Aurora’s rules for Taser use should be more detailed like the directive Denver police use. Denver’s rules detail specifically when officers can use Tasers, and when they can’t. DPD’s rules also say the use of a Taser should be limited in many cases to a suspect who displays “active aggression.”
A phrase like that is crucial, Silverstein said. Otherwise, vague rules for when a Taser can be used can lead to problems, he said.
“That is the wrong approach,” he said. “It’s an approach that’s going to lead to unnecessary injuries, excessive force, civil rights violations and lawsuits.”
In Kelley’s case, the officer who used a Taser was cleared of wrongdoing after the department’s initial investigation. After the ACLU released the video, APD said the incident will be reviewed again.
Heyneman, who spoke generally about the department’s use of Taser and not about Kelley’s case specifically, said that while officers aren’t required to carry a Taser, most opt to. Patrol officers must carry either a Taser or pepper spray, he said.
“Some carry both, some carry one,” he said.
To carry a Taser, officers undergo six hours of training at the academy and have to undergo further training each year, he said.
At the academy, the department encourages cadets to allow themselves to be shot with a Taser, but they aren’t required to, Heyneman said. Most, however, opt to.
That’s an important part of the training, he said, because it helps the new officers better understand the effects of the device.
“It makes it not impossible but very difficult to move when being Tased,” he said.
Tasers are especially useful, Heyneman said, because they allow officers to get a subject under control without having to get too close. The cartridges fire up to 25 feet and he said in some cases that distance is crucial for officer safety.