Shooting prompts review of Taser training and equipment

07/12/2014 4:23 PM

07/13/2014 9:24 AM

Wichita Police Chief Norman Williams has ordered a review of Taser training and equipment after the second shooting death in less than three months involving law enforcement officers whose Tasers failed to subdue someone charging at them with a knife.

Icarus Randolph, 26, was shot to death by a Wichita police officer on July 4 as Randolph charged him while brandishing a knife, police have said. The officer fired shots after his Taser failed to stop Randolph in the front yard of a house at 7815 E. Clay in southeast Wichita.

In an earlier case, David Zehring, 30, died after being shot several times by a Wichita police officer on April 10 as Zehring came at a Sedgwick County sheriff’s deputy with a knife on Mount Carmel in west Wichita. Two deputies had fired Tasers at Zehring without success before he was shot to death, authorities said.

“I’ve asked the training academy to look into why the Taser wasn’t effective,” Williams said. “If it’s equipment, we may look at replacing the equipment.”

The review may also prompt adjustments in training, he said.

Statistics provided by the department indicate a sharp decline in the percentage of Taser deployments that were rated “effective,” from 70 percent in 2011 to 54 percent so far this year. The devices are designed to administer an electrical jolt that leaves the target immobilized for five seconds.

Officers reported the Tasers were of limited effect 7 percent of the time in 2012 and 24 percent of the time in 2014. They had no effect 28 percent of the time in 2011 and 22 percent in 2014. Combining the effective and limited effectiveness categories puts this year’s rate at 76 percent, Capt. Brent Allred said.

The Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office reported that Tasers were effective 82 percent of time when they have been deployed so far in 2014, the only year for which the data has been collected. Combining effective and limited effect boosted the rate to 87 percent.

“It’s been viewed as the miracle tool,” Sedgwick County sheriff’s Lt. David Mattingly said. “It’s not perfect. There’s no perfect tool.”

Still, he said, “It’s very, very effective.”

Steve Tuttle, vice president of communications for Taser, said the effectiveness rate nationally for Tasers is about 94 percent. If Tasers were routinely effective only about half the time, he said, “Those weapons would be put in the trunk forever.”

Training is key

Police officials say there is a great deal of confusion about how Tasers work.

While officers are taught to shoot for a person’s torso or “center mass” with a handgun, they’re taught to aim a Taser so one probe lodges above the waist and the other below the waist if the target is facing them.

If one probe lodges but the other misses, the Taser won’t work. If the probes are too close to each other – within four inches – chances are they won’t work.

If the target is wearing a thick coat or loose clothing, there’s a chance the electrical charge that locks up muscles won’t fire because the probes need to be within an inch of the skin.

“Taser devices are not magic weapons,” Tuttle said. “There is no such thing as a magic bullet.

“That’s why training is so key to the success of technology. You need to have certain things happen for a Taser to be effective.

“I’m very confident in our technology. Sometimes the suspects do not give you the opportunity to get all those things to happen.”

Sgt. Robert Bolin, who oversees Taser training at the police academy for both cadets and active duty officers, said Tasers are extremely effective when deployed properly.

“The problem is you’re under stress,” Bolin said of most real-time scenarios. “You don’t always have time to make a perfect aim point. At some point you’re just trying to point and shoot and hope it gets in there and gets him.”

Authorities have said Zehring’s thick coat was likely the reason why Tasers did not immobilize him as he came at law enforcement officers with a knife last April.

Allred said police “don’t know the exact reason why it didn’t work” in the confrontation involving Randolph earlier this month.

“It could be a number of things,” he said. “We’re researching that and looking at that.”

Officers are under no obligation to use a Taser first when facing someone with a deadly weapon such as a knife or gun, Bolin said. Officers are taught to meet deadly weapons such as knives and guns with deadly force. Tasers are not considered lethal weapons.

“Any deadly weapon, a Taser … is not our first choice,” he said. “You don’t want any ties. You don’t want a partial effectiveness.

“You’ve got to stop the threat because it’s deadly. They start cutting you, they can do enough damage fast enough you’re going to have a real problem.”

New equipment

Allred, who oversees the training department, said he doesn’t expect sweeping changes to emerge from the Taser review. The seemingly low effectiveness rate could be more a reflection of how officers are filling out the questionnaires than anything else, he said.

If the Taser locked up a suspect with the electrical charge, for instance, but the suspect continued to resist after the five seconds ended, did the officer mark the Taser as having only a limited effect?

“It’s not like the movies where you see somebody gets hit with a Taser, and they’re stunned for the next 20 minutes,” Bolin said. “When that five-second cycle is done, they’re 100 percent ready to go.”

And most suspects stunned with a Taser continue to resist once the electrical cycle has ended, Bolin said. With the X26 Tasers Wichita officers have used until recently, officers could activate another five-second cycle as long as the probes were still connected, he said.

With the new X2 Tasers, which all officers now use, the second cycle can extend beyond five seconds. Officers are trained to go in and handcuff someone while they’re immobilized by the Taser.

“We don’t rely on it as a compliance tool,” Bolin said. “We rely on it as an arrest tool.”

The new X2 Taser can fire two cartridges, rather than the one of its predecessor. If the first cartridge’s probes do not successfully activate a charge, the second cartridge’s probes can be aimed at another part of the body and work in tandem with the first set of probes, Bolin said.

That capability has Allred and Bolin anticipating a higher effectiveness rate moving forward.

Sheriff’s deputies will be transitioning to the X2s when their current Tasers need to be replaced, Mattingly said.

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