Stun-gun ruling a jolt for law enforcement

New policies are starting to restrict Taser use among Charleston-area police departments.

The days when law enforcement policies in the Charleston area let officers use Tasers to catch fleeing suspects are numbered.

A federal court decision that declared such uses of stun guns cruel and unusual punishment is prompting local police departments to make changes. At least eight agencies are drafting adjustments or considering them, and some, including Mount Pleasant’s force, already have. In North Charleston, where patrolman Michael Slager fired a Taser to stop a running Walter Scott before resorting to his pistol, authorities are still looking over a policy that says officers can use the device to take people into custody.

Civil rights advocates have praised the changes as vital to avoiding unjust uses of force and other confrontations that could turn violent, such as Scott’s shooting death. But police advocates fear the new procedures might create greater risks to all. Their only hope of upending the decision rests in a possible appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

John Blackmon, president of the Tri-County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 3, said Tasers had slashed the rate of injuries to officers and suspects. The new policies could undo that, he said.

“Nobody wants to be outside the law, so (police) are going to comply,” he said. “But in this situation, it seems to hurt the agencies and the officers. ... It’s a bad ruling.”

Last month’s opinion by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declared it unconstitutional for Pinehurst, N.C., officers to use Tasers on a mentally ill man clinging to a post. He was shocked five times, and he died. The judges said they wanted to put other officers on notice that it is illegal to use stun guns on people resisting capture but not posing a danger to others.

The precedent applies to five states in the appeals district, so it pushed the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy to issue a memo recommending that all law agencies here tweak their policies. Many local policies had allowed officers to use the devices while facing someone who is actively resisting arrest without harming or threatening anyone.

Mount Pleasant police spokesman Chip Googe said his department amended its procedures to say officers must also see an immediate safety risk “that is reasonably likely to be cured by using the Taser.”

At the Dorchester County Sheriff’s Office, officials are revising a policy that permits broad Taser use. The device can be employed to prevent an escape, subdue someone resisting arrest and as a means of “physical restraint or control,” the current policy says.

That language might shift, but Sheriff L.C. Knight said his deputies had always tried to follow the concepts laid out in the court ruling. That’s why he thinks it will have little effect on his agency, he said.

Knight expressed concern, though, with a portion of the ruling that called into question the use of Tasers to shock people threatening to harm themselves.

Mount Pleasant removed a provision from its policy that allowed officers to use the devices on potentially suicidal suspects. Other agencies could follow suit.

In West Ashley in May, a Charleston officer possibly spared a woman’s life by shooting her with a Taser as she pointed a pistol at her own head.

“The officers are in control of their situations, and I’d rather see them use a Taser than a pistol,” Knight said. “And I’d rather take a chance of a legal situation later than having to notify the family that we stood there and watched someone die.”

The sheriff also sees the Taser as an important tool that could be banned for correctional officers in some confrontations. Sometimes, he noted, an inmate at the county jail will refuse to follow orders at all costs, and the officers are left with no choice but to use one. Without stun guns, Knight said, they’ll be forced to use more physical means, putting everyone in greater danger.

Chief Deputy Mike Cochran of the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office extended that concern to officers in the field. His agency’s policy, though, had already prohibited Taser use against people who are not an “imminent threat” to the public, so it won’t change, he said.

The Taser’s manufacturer boasts that stun guns have spared 161,000 people from death or serious injuries. In a statement, the company said the ruling had made “sweeping pronouncements” that have bred confusion among officers. One Virginia department took all of its Tasers off the streets.

“This decision actually promotes the notion that officers should go hands-on with nonviolent physically resisting subjects rather than utilize the Taser,” the company said.

But civil rights advocates said Tasers also can escalate encounters that end badly for officers and suspects.

The police in North Charleston said Slager used his stun gun to stop Scott, who had run from an April 4 traffic stop. The officer might have been drawing from a department policy that lets the police use Tasers to “take a person into custody” on a charge. Spokesman Spencer Pryor said the city was reviewing the policy.

Slager and Scott wound up fighting. After Scott separated himself and again started running, Slager fatally shot him in the back. A video of the shooting later surfaced, and the officer was charged with murder.

“Clearly, Slager used his Taser for the sole purpose of stopping (Scott) from running away,” said Justin Bamberg, an attorney for Scott’s family. “That’s where everything kick-started. ... This should put us back in a place where the No. 1 goal before using force is to de-escalate situations with words rather than actions.”

Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.