Civil rights group wants Taser ban, calls abuse "electrocution without prosecution"

11/05/09 Lisa Marzilli
WMNF Drive-Time News Thursday | Listen to this entire show:


In the wake of the two most recent Taser-related deaths in Florida, a prominent civil rights group has called on Governor Charlie Crist to ‘stop the madness’. Florida is second only to California in the number of Taser deaths, and last week the Southern Christian Leadership Conference met with Crist to ask him to temporarily ban their use until a stricter, more uniform policy can be put in place.

Taser Intl. markets their high-voltage stun guns as a product that “protects life” but these so “non-lethal” devices have killed over 400 US citizens since 2001. And according to the website “Electronic Village” which has been tracking the numbers for years, 40% of the victims are black men. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) calls Taser abuse “electrocution without prosecution” and they’re demanding that it stop. Charles Smith is president of the Manatee Chapter of the SCLC. ”These Tasers are the biggest threat to the people of Florida, mainly because they can be used on anyone. You don’t have to break the law for them to use it on you, it can just be a dispute over a traffic stop, a dispute with someone you’re talking to. We cannot allow the local authorities to arbitrarily decide when a person can use a Taser and when they can’t. This is not a black and white issue; this is a right and wrong issue.”

Last Tuesday’s meeting between the Governor and the SCLC came after weeks of protest over the Pensacola killing of a black teen on October 3rd. Police say 17-year-old Victor Steen was fleeing on his bicycle from a construction site when they tried to tase him from inside their patrol car. The Taser reportedly missed Steen but he lost control of his bike and fell into the path of the car and was dragged to his death.

A week before Steen’s death, 38-year-old Derrick Humbert died within 30 minutes of being tased in the back for not stopping when ordered to by Bradenton Police Officer Del Shiflett. His crime was operating a bicycle without a headlight. WMNF asked Bradenton Police Deputy Chief William Tokajer if Shiflett had acted within department policy. “You can tase the back of the person, you can tase the front of the person, the Taser policy basically states that it can be utilized when the person who you want to arrest starts to evade you or starts to fight the officer or resists in any manner, which could be anything from running to a physical fight. This gentleman ran from the officers and basically the facts are the facts, if you don’t want to get tased, don’t run from the police.”

Charles Smith of the SCLC said he was shocked to learn that Shiflett was back on the street a day after Humbert was killed and said that action has intimidated witnesses from coming forward. “…and the Chief has the audacity to say he’s doing a thorough investigation – he’s already made up his mind by putting him back out there the next day. Who’s going to come forward? The families fear for their lives, I met with them Wednesday. The same individual that allegedly shot their brother with a stun gun – witnesses have told me different accounts that they want to come forward. But they’re afraid because Mr. Shiflett is still patrolling their neighborhood."

In the Steen case, Pensacola Police Officer Jerald Ard was placed on paid leave after the killing and could face criminal charges. WMNF asked Bradenton Deputy Chief Tokajer why Shiflett was not placed on administrative leave pending the results of the Humbert investigation. “The Chief made a decision that Officer Shiflett is allowed to go back to work and that’s the administrative decision that was made. It’s not the same as a shooting and the death was not initially attributed to the Taser incident itself. We’re waiting on the toxicology report to actually indicate if there were some underlying factors that caused the death.”

Smith said it’s that attitude that has led his group to petition the Governor to launch an independent investigation into Humbert’s death. “We have an arrogant Chief of Police in Bradenton, Florida. I’ve met with him, he has the old mentality of back in the 1950’s and 60’s and since we cannot change his tone, we’ve asked the Governor to come in here and change the tone with an independent investigation and take the investigation out of his hands.”

Deputy Chief Tokajer said his agency has never been questioned in its ability and said the facts that are uncovered in the case will be made public record. “We have no intention of having an independent agency come in and do an investigation when we are confident in the personnel that we have here to conduct that investigation in a proper manner.”

But that response didn’t sit well with SCLC Chairman of the Board, Art Rocker. “We’re not concerned about what the autopsy says, what was the reason, all we know is that Steen, a Taser was utilized, a vehicle ran over him and dragged him 25 feet and that is vehicular homicide. We know that Humbert was tasered and he’s dead and there was no reason for that.”

On October 12th, Taser Intl. issued a bulletin warning police to avoid shooting suspects in the chest, saying it could pose an extremely low risk of an “adverse cardiac event”. It’s the first time the manufacturer has suggested there is any kind of risk associated with its product. But the SCLC’s Art Rocker says he’s not sure there are any circumstances that justify the use of Tasers. “We’re asking the Governor to do a moratorium on Tasers until a board has been put together and research has been done and probably ban the use of Tasers on a state level until we’re able to determine exactly what Tasers actually do and whether or not they should be utilized here at all.”

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference will hold a Taser Summit in Pensacola on Dec. 5th where they will release a report documenting the more than 400 Taser related deaths. The summit will be simulcast on C-SPAN.

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The main selling point when they were introduced to the public was that they would ONLY be used in leiu of "deadly force". I heard this said many times by police officials. Then, gradually, they became used more and more on people who were verbally combative. This seems to cross into the area of retribution against someone who simply offended the sensibilities of an officer...punishment without conviction...DEADLY punishment in some cases.