PHOENIX -- The American Civil Liberties Union wants police agencies in Arizona to train their officers to use their Tasers and similar devices less frequently.
A study by the group's Arizona chapter, released Tuesday, contends that officers too often use the electronic stun device when a lesser response, like pepper spray or use of a baton, would suffice. Annie Lai, the group's staff attorney, said police departments should have policies in place which allow use of these weapons "only when there's an imminent threat to life or safety of the officer or another person."
To back up the contention of overuse of Tasers, the group cited what it said was its study of 20 different police agencies around the state and the circumstances under which officers would be allowed to use them. And in many cases, the report said the departments' policies were silent.
Frances Bernat, a criminology and criminal justice professor at Arizona State University, said that lack of policies suggests that officers are not adequately training on when a Taser should -- and should not -- be used.
But officers from several agencies told Capitol Media Services they had never been contacted by the ACLU. More to the point, they said their agencies do have very detailed policies.
For example, Deputy Dawn Barkman of the Pima County Sheriff's Department said her agency prohibits the use of a Taser on women known to be pregnant, any in danger of falling from a significant height or solely for escorting or prodding individuals.
Kevin Treadway, deputy police chief in Flagstaff, detailed similar specific policies. And Sgt. Diana Lopez of Tucson Police Department, said her agency's policies spell out exactly when officers can use such force.
"Of course, we're not going to be so specific you can only use it on a fleeing subject," Lopez explained. She said officers need to be able to use some discretion based on individual circumstances.
That's also the belief of Lt. Justin Griffin of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department who at one time actually was a Taser training officer.
"How can any agency say you can use a Taser specifically in this situation but not in this situation?" he said.
Griffin said his department does require its deputies to consider issues like the possibility of someone falling, being pregnant, intoxicated or even someone covered in alcohol or gasoline, considerations he said are necessary because "there's been so many weird, freakish things that have happened across the U.S. because of Tasers."
That still leaves the ACLU's contention that officers are using the Taser far more than necessary.
Bernat, who conducted the study for the ACLU, said the whole idea of the Taser was that it would be an alternative to police using deadly force. But she said records of several agencies shows that the number of police-involved shootings has remained constant even after police officers were issued Tasers. She said that suggests officers are using the weapon not as a substitute for a gun but as an option instead of chemical sprays.
All that, Bernat said, shows that Tasers are being deployed in situations she believes are inappropriate.
But Silverio Ontiveros, a retired commander with Phoenix Police Department who worked with the ACLU on the issue, said he believes the restrictions the organization wants to put on Taser use may be inappropriate.
He said each police department trains its officers. But Ontiveros said it is up to each officer to interpret that training in the light of the situation that presents itself.
"So you do have to give them some ability to logically take their training and use it in a way that benefits the community and allows him or her to get home safely at the end of the shift," he said.
Lai said her organization is not trying to be overly restrictive. She said the ACLU would permit the use of Tasers not only in life-threatening situations but also cases of "active aggression" against a police officer.
"We're not trying to handcuff officers," Lai said, but to try to ensure that these devices are used only when appropriate.
"In many cases, officers go for the Taser as a first instinct rather than being trained in a situation to de-escalate a situation or using alternative, less-severe uses of force," she said.