Eric Kurhi| San Jose Mercury News| Link to Article
Santa Clara County’s sheriff is pushing to acquire 40 Tasers for a pilot program that would add the electric submission devices to the tools available for use on uncooperative inmates at county jails.
But Sheriff Laurie Smith’s $45,000 pitch caused some friction at a recent budget meeting, where a supervisor said it was a “non-starter” to move forward with such a plan when the sheriff doesn’t have a use policy in place.
“I can’t tell you if I am supportive of them being used if I don’t know when, where, why and how and by whom and under what circumstances they would be used,” said Supervisor Joe Simitian at at the meeting.
That’s a difference that will need to be ironed out before the matter returns to the board for final budget consideration next month — while Simitian wants policy before getting the Tasers, Smith says they need to know what they’re working with before drafting policy.
“We want to be familiar with the device based on our own experiences,” said sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Richard Glennon. “The hang up here is whether the policy needs to be written before we are even able to acquire the devices.”
He said they’ve solicited 20 policies from other agencies but need to test various aspects such as how effective a Taser is on the uniforms worn by Santa Clara County inmates.
Glennon said that the idea is to have the Tasers for testing in a controlled environment before writing the policy, after which the devices would be put into use. He added that crafting a policy is not an overnight process, and involves discussion with labor unions.
Sheriff Smith said that while Tasers could be used by patrol deputies, she specifically pointed to incidents that have happened within correctional facilities.
“Last year there have been a total of 528 assaults in the jail,” she said, “and what is really important is that 33 involved attacks on the staff by inmates where a Taser could have been really, really valuable.”
Taser use among patrol officers is very common, said jails consultant Jeffrey Schwartz, who has been working with the sheriff’s office on its use-of-force policy. And in jails they are “less common but not rare.”
He said they have proven to be effective alternatives to physically wrestling an uncooperative inmate into submission.
“If I had a brother who was involved in a physical altercation in jail, would I rather that a group of deputies punched and wrestled him, or used pepper spray or a Taser?” he hypothesised. “I’d rather the Taser or pepper spray, and if my brother had asthma I’d go with the Taser.”
However, he said it’s not a tool to be taken lightly.
“I can’t speak to whether the department should have a policy first or budget first,” he said. “But they will need a very detailed policy in place before it’s actually given to officers in jails and on the streets.”
Martin Horn, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said that while Tasers in jails is still the exception rather than the norm, they have recently become more viable after getting a bad reputation in the 1980s and 90s.
“They were being abused,” he said. “There was an iconic case out of New York in which a precinct used them in a way that was Taser torture.”
But now, the devices have evolved with built-in video cameras and computer chips that record when they are used, how often and for how long.
But Horn said a “well-thought-out use of force policy in place before distribution is imperative.”
“There are major liability issues,” he added.
Simitian also alluded to such a possibility, that the county could be on the hook in the event of “another tragic incident” in the jails.
Sheriff Smith said it would not be reasonable to expect a policy to be drafted before the budget is finalized next month, and Supervisor Mike Wasserman proposed a middle ground: Funds could be approved on condition of a policy be in place and brought before the board before Tasers are actually deployed.
“I don’t think this is rocket science,” Wasserman said.
Ron Hansen of the People Acting in Community Together advocacy group said he’s opposed to Tasers in jails because it doesn’t address the underlying need to alter the atmosphere between guards and inmates within the facilities.
“The commitment is to change from a warrior to a guardian culture,” he said. “Every decision should be viewed from the lens of respect and humanity on both sides and on that, inclusion of Tasers is not consistent with this idea.”
But Schwartz said that while he understood the sentiment, he didn’t think it was accurate.
“It’s true that culture has to change, and the department is working very hard on that,” he said. “But I believe the more you can make officers feel safe, and comfortable, the less those officers are inclined to take extraordinary and maybe poorly considered course of action.”