NORTH LIBERTY — When a law enforcement officer uses a Taser, gun, or nearly any level of force on a suspect, headlines and misconceptions often follow.
A July incident at an Iowa City Pancheros restaurant– during which two men were fighting and one was subdued with a police taser– was captured on a witness’ phone camera and uploaded to the Internet for all to view and submit comments.
And comment they did.
While such incidents may be sensationalized in the media and make for dramatic Internet entertainment, in reality, they are– fortunately– quite rare.
Using force, be it non-lethal or lethal, puts a heavy responsibility on the officer. The possibility of injury or even death of the officer, the perpetrator, or innocent bystanders is always in the forefront of his or her mind. The Use of Force policy adopted by the North Liberty Police Department (NLPD) recognizes this possibility.
“The NLPD respects and values each human life. When vesting an officer with the lawful authority to use force to protect the public welfare, a careful balance of all humane interest is required,” the policy states. And its bottom line?
“The officers of this agency will use any force which is reasonable and necessary to effectively stop a threat, or bring an incident under control.”
“Use of force” refers to a range of tools available to the officer, from officer presence to empty-hand maneuvers, to use of an extending baton, pepper spray, the Taser or firearms (including a hand gun or tactical rifle). The department’s policy states the officer “shall select the force option they feel is best suited for the situation.”
“The officer’s perception is key,” said NLPD Chief Jim Warkentin. “Is the suspect complying? Not complying? Are they making any threats?” Warkentin explained that officers used to follow a “stair-step” protocol for escalation. Now, however, “it’s more of an elevator.” Chief Warkentin explained that an officer can, if the situation dictates, go from officer presence direct to deadly force.
The acquisition of Tasers by the department in February 2008 has added a potent but non-lethal weapon to the officers’ arsenal. The Taser, shaped and sized similar to a semi-automatic pistol, uses an electrical discharge to temporarily disrupt a subject’s central nervous system. A massive wave of muscle contractions and the loss of muscle function renders the person incapacitated for a brief period of time. The current is delivered by a pair of prongs connected to the gun by electrodes, and administered for up to five seconds. If necessary, additional current may be delivered to bring about compliance.
The Taser the NLPD uses has a laser sight which projects an illuminated red dot for aiming. The officers are trained to aim for the abdomen, away from the heart. When the Taser fires, the prongs launch in a v-shaped pattern. The uppermost prong hits the torso, the bottom ideally attaches into the upper thigh. The prongs are able to penetrate most clothing, and have a barb much like a fish hook to deter unintended removal.
If a Taser has been administered and the subject is safely in custody, he is evaluated on-scene by EMTs and paramedics. The subject is then transported to a hospital emergency room for further evaluation by a physician before heading off to jail.
The NLPD’s Tasers have a second mode, known as “Drive Stun” where the Taser is held directly against the person while a small arc delivers a much smaller burst of energy. This is the mode that was used during a University of Iowa football game incident this past fall.
To date, the NLPD has only used its Tasers 10 times. Common circumstances prompting use have included “a potential for the situation getting out of hand quickly” the chief said, as well as drug and alcohol use which he said has played a role in many cases.
There is no hard and fast rule for when to use the Taser, according to Warkentin.
“It’s really hard to say ‘in this situation we wouldn’t use the Taser.’” He noted, however, that two recent cases in which deploying the Taser brought about what officers call a “positive resolution,” where the subject was placed into custody without injury to themselves or the officers. In one case, a person was threatening suicide with a knife, and threatening to harm anybody who came near. The Taser was used, the person dropped the knife, and was safely transported to the hospital for evaluation and treatment. That person later returned to apologize to the officers.
In another incident, a known felon with outstanding warrants, including several from out-of-state, was hiding in an apartment. The subject had a history of resisting arrest and threatening officers as well, making the situation particularly dangerous for the officers.
He was found hiding in a closet. As the closet door was opened, the red light of the Taser became visible to the offender. Chief Warkentin said the suspect quickly surrendered peacefully to the officers. “The mere presence of the Taser brought about a positive resolution,” the Chief said.
The department has an officer certified to train fellow officers in the use of the Taser, and NLPD officers train annually with the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office on the device. The chief said the officers and deputies review scenarios when they would or would not use the Taser. Departmental policies are also reviewed. By contrast, officers are only required to train on the use of pepper spray or the ASP every two years.
Tasers and use of force are also in the curriculum of the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy. There, new recruits undergo an intense 14-week course covering a wide range of topics from the Iowa Code and laws, traffic stops, Hazardous Materials awareness, search and seizure, juvenile law, domestic abuse, elder abuse, how to write and execute a search warrant, defensive techniques, building searches and report writing.
New officers joining the NLPD then undergo an additional 60 working days under the mentorship of a Field Training Officer. The chief said the ideal personality type he looks for in an officer is someone who is generally outgoing, and neither overly aggressive nor overly passive.
“You try to do the best training possible, to give them as many situations as possible. But you never know how they’ll react in reality.”
Anytime an officer uses force, a supervisor must be notified and a full written report filed documenting the incident completely. Again, Warkentin noted, use of force incidents are the exception, not the rule. If the average citizen is having an encounter with law enforcement, it is likely the result of a traffic stop, they are the victim of a crime, or they’ve been involved in an accident.
“The vast majority of citizens have positive encounters with law enforcement,” the police chief said. However, in police work, he added, there is no such thing as a “routine” traffic stop. Warkentin told of cases where officers have been gunned down.
In general, he advised, when dealing with an officer it is always best to stay calm and try to be respectful. Every traffic stop is recorded with video and audio equipment. If a person feels he wrongly received a ticket, he can fight it in the courts. If one believes he or she was mistreated, complaints can be filed against the officer. The chief noted that is a rare occurrence for the NLPD.
“A lot of this job comes down to basic common sense,” he pointed out; on the part of the officer, and the citizen.