HPD argues Taser use reduces officer injury
Houston police say there is a beneficial side effect of officers using Tasers on unruly suspects — the stun guns are saving taxpayers millions by reducing injuries to officers.
The Houston Police Department has invested heavily in arming officers with "conducted energy devices," commonly known as Tasers, as part of a strategy to reduce deadly confrontations. Since 2004, HPD has purchased nearly 5,000 stun guns from Taser International, based in Arizona, at a cost of $4.7 million.
With the wide deployment of Tasers to virtually all officers on Houston streets, workers' compensation costs related to police confrontations have plummeted, according to the latest HPD report on Tasers and their usage.
The report shows that in fiscal year 2004, workers' compensation claims related to officers involved in physical confrontations totaled $2.2 million. Tasers were introduced at HPD in the last month of the 2004 fiscal year. By fiscal year 2010, the costs had dropped to $328,231.
Police Chief Charles McClelland, in a statement released last week, said the use of Tasers had not only reduced injuries to HPD officers but lowered the number of instances in which officers used deadly force to subdue suspects.
McClelland said of the 120,000 suspect arrests each year by HPD, less than one half of 1 percent have involved the deployment of a Taser by an officer. And he noted 103 documented incidents where the use of deadly force against a suspect would have been justified, but the arresting HPD officer managed to subdue the suspect with a Taser instead.
"I am convinced that since the Houston Police Department's utilization of CED's, officers and citizen injuries have decreased drastically," McClelland said.
Shootings have gone up
Local civil rights advocates are skeptical and note that HPD shootings have increased over the last three years. In 2009, HPD officers shot 32 residents, up from 21 shootings the year before and 19 in 2007. So far in 2010, HPD officers have been involved in 17 of the 35 officer-related shootings in Harris County, the district attorney's office said. On Wednesday, HPD was involved in its 18th shooting this year, when an officer shot an unarmed man who ran from police after an alleged attack on his ex-girlfriend in Fort Bend county.
Michael Solar, the attorney who represented the family of slain special education student Eli Escobar, 14, said he would like to see the raw data that Chief McClelland based his report on.
"It's a non-sequitur, an oxymoron. If the Tasers were working, why would police shootings go up?" Solar said. "You have to remember the chief is the yell leader for his department. But the Houston City Council is now on notice there are substantial deficiencies in the recruitment, training and subsequent supervision of its personnel, and it's incumbent on them to take measures to remediate it."
A $1.5 million settlement in 2008 between the city and the youth's family resulted in the Escobar rule, which tightened HPD shooting procedures. Esobar was killed in November 2003 by a rookie HPD officer whose weapon fired as he attempted to subdue the unarmed boy.
HPD's findings on reduced workers' compensation costs were backed by the Houston Police Officer's Union president, Gary Blankinship, who said Tasers enable officers to quickly arrest suspects incapacitated by the devices.
"When you start rolling around and fighting with people, you increase your chance of getting injured," Blankinship said. "If you're standing back and asking someone to comply and then you Taser them, you just walk over and arrest them. You get a lot less injuries."
'Less lethal option'
HPD reported from December 2004 to July 2010 officers used their Tasers 2,570 times, and the device successfully incapacitated suspects 76 percent of the time.
The Harris County Sheriff's Office began issuing Tasers in August 2004 but does not separate workers' compensation claims related to confrontations. The department has 1,273 Tasers and has deployed the devices 1,456 times with an effectiveness rate of around 95 percent.
Sheriff's deputies used their Tasers 75 percent of the time in situations of "combative resistance," 20 percent on suspects who made physical gestures or were verbally aggressive, and 5 percent of the time when officers were threatened with a knife.
"We use electronic incapacitation devices as a less lethal option," said Sgt. Al Blendermann, director of the sheriff's Taser Control Unit. "It's not only another valuable tool in the ladder of force options, but the implementation of this device has been a successful effort on our part to safely reduce officer and suspect injury."
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