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Police clarify use of nonlethal force

Spokane police unveiled on Monday a half-hour public presentation explaining the Police Department’s policy on use of nonlethal force, including the controversial Taser stun gun.

Deputy Police Chief Al Odenthal told City Council members that officers will be giving the presentation to community groups. The presentation was given to the council at Monday night’s meeting.

It includes videotaped incidents in which Tasers have been deployed to subdue uncooperative or combative suspects, including one large man who re-fused to get out of the middle of a busy street in another U.S. city and was dropped to the ground after being hit by a Taser.

Odenthal said the presentation was developed at the urging of the Spokane Police Advisory Committee and not necessarily as a response to the death in March of 35-year-old Otto Zehm, who was struck twice by a police-fired Taser as officers were subduing him at a convenience store on north Division Street. Police later said officers used appropriate force.

During the arrest, Zehm developed medical problems and died two days later of what the medical examiner ruled was heart failure while being restrained on his stomach.

A store security videotape of the incident has been ordered sealed as evidence by Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney Steve Tucker.

The Taser carries a jolt of 50,000 volts, but because the amperage is very low, it disables only a person’s outer muscles. The feeling is described as being hit in the funny bone with a sledgehammer, Odenthal told the City Council.

Officers who are issued Tasers must experience the shock for themselves before they are allowed to use it on suspects.

“This is not a pleasant experience,” Odenthal said.

Police have been using Tasers for the past three years, and Odenthal said officer injuries have dropped by half since the devices were deployed.

Odenthal said medical investigators have not attributed any deaths to Tasers, but an Amnesty International report blames one death in 2004 and two deaths in 2005 on Taser use.

Under state law, police are allowed to match force with the level of resistance being put up by a suspect. Officers are taught to distinguish levels of resistance, beginning with passive resistance and progressing to active resistance, assaultive behavior and lethal force.

Tasers are used to gain compliance at lower levels of resistance but not in cases in which weapons are pulled on officers. Each use of the Taser is recorded automatically, and officers who use Tasers must file a “use of force” report.

The shock can be administered in five-second bursts and usually only once or twice, Odenthal said.

The Taser shock is administered through a wire about 21 feet long, which allows officers to keep their distance from suspects. The device’s two probes can penetrate 2 inches of clothing, and their fishhooklike needles stick into the skin. Police call medics to remove the probes.

Injuries can occur to suspects who fall immediately after being hit by a Taser. Officers are trained not to use Tasers on elderly persons or pregnant women because of the risk of injuries, Odenthal said.

Police also are trained to shoot at the body. “The hands, face and eyes are off-limits targets to officers deploying a Taser,” Odenthal said.

The Taser can be used to administer a painful shock by touching it to a suspect rather than firing from a short distance.

Pepper spray and batons are used to stop lower levels of resistance. Officers are not allowed to strike a suspect on the head with a baton unless deadly force is required. Pepper spray cannot be used against children, older persons and persons suffering apparent delirium, Odenthal said.