Commentary: Taser-related deaths aside, in Cottonwood the show must go on

There is no argument that Tasers are one of the very best tools available to law enforcement officers.

The voltage from a Taser will drop a criminal in a heartbeat. It definitely beats getting shot.

“Any police practitioner will tell you (the Taser) is a life-saving tool that has saved countless lives and dramatically reduced injuries throughout the country,” explains Cottonwood Police Chief Steve Gesell.

That’s part of the Taser demonstration sales pitch Chief Gessell gives during the Cottonwood Police Department’s annual National Night Out event. To prove the point, Cottonwood PD traditionally does a Taser demonstration using citizen volunteers. “Officers are obviously very familiar with the tool and the fact that it doesn’t harm the volunteers … the Taser is simply a tool in a challenging occupation and it’s important we share how harmless and humane it actually is,” the chief explains.

What is not mentioned in all of the above is that the use of Tasers also, on occasion, results in death. That makes the use of citizen volunteers for such demonstrations suspect at best, and reckless in a worst-case scenario.

As for worst-case scenarios, just last week in Oakland, California, police launched an investigation concerning the in-custody death of a criminal suspect after an officer deployed a Taser on him, according to the Mercury News.

Further, according to a study by the San Francisco Bar Association’s Task Force on Criminal Justice Reform, there were seven prior incidents this year of “Needless Death by Taser.”

Reuters’ Database of Taser Deaths, published in August of this year, documents court records that showed “150 autopsy reports citing Tasers as a cause or contributor to deaths.” Those deaths, Reuters reported, “were disproportionately inflicted on ‘society’s vulnerable – unarmed, in psychological distress and seeking help.’” In all, Reuters’ Database of Taser Deaths uncovered 1,005 deaths in which Tasers were implicated and that Taser deaths have produced at least 442 lawsuits against police.

Such statistics have been enough reason for other police agencies in the Verde Valley to avoid using citizen volunteers for Taser demonstrations. Clarkdale Police Chief Randy Taylor discontinued the practice on citizens about six years ago, largely because “Taser, at that time, stopped encouraging those types of demonstrations.”

Jerome Chief Allen Muma says the risk of using citizen volunteers for such demonstrations is not worth the risk: “I’m not really against the idea, just for risk-management purposes why risk a citizen injury, as there have been injuries with voluntary exposures. Even Taser has gone away from mandatory exposure for instructors to ‘voluntary’ exposure based on the instructor’s own department policy.  Everybody wants to shift the risk.”

Camp Verde Town Marshal Nancy Gardner is adamant in her opposition to the practice of using citizen volunteers for Taser demonstrations. “We have done K9 demos … if we did a (Taser) demo it would never be on a citizen … liability is written all over that.”

Chief Gesell justifies his department’s practice for the educational value it provides the citizenry, and “the demo is a highlight for most that attend our NNO; which is the largest in the state.”

But a video from the event (viewed online with this commentary) shows these demonstrations also have entertainment value, for both the police and audience alike. Officers laugh, even joke, before, during and after the Taser demonstration. Laughter and wisecracks follow from those watching the demonstration.

All of which sends the message that Cottonwood police officers think it’s funny when they deploy a Taser on a criminal.

You would think that in itself would want to make the chief stay as far away as possible from this practice. Cops have enough of an image problem in this country without adding fuel to the fire by having police show they find humor in deploying a Taser on a human being, criminal or otherwise.

But in Cottonwood, there is entertainment value to be had with these demonstrations.

It’s National Night Out. The show must go on.

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