Crime & Justice

LA police expand Taser use, even though it's effective only half the time

LAPD's plans to equip all officers with a Taser is on hold at Los Angeles city council. Taser International's X2 two-shot Taser for law enforcement is displayed at the National Shooting Sports Foundation in January 2012.
LAPD's plans to equip all officers with a Taser is on hold at Los Angeles city council. Taser International's X2 two-shot Taser for law enforcement is displayed at the National Shooting Sports Foundation in January 2012.
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Los Angeles Police Department officers ramped up their use of Tasers by 35 percent last year, but the weapon was only effective half the time, according to a department report released this week.

According to the annual use-of-force report, officers activated their Tasers 1,101 times in 2015, without its desired effect in 516 cases.

The report comes just as LAPD is pushing to equip all officers with the weapon, which fires electrode darts to temporarily disrupt muscle control and subdue a suspect.

LAPD leaders hope expanding the use of Tasers could reduce the need to shoot people, said Deputy Chief Bill Murphy.

"We want [the Taser] available — readily available — in any situation an officer may face," Murphy said, adding no tool will work 100 percent of the time.

Murphy, who oversees the training division, said officers practicing more could improve the effectiveness rate. The department is planing a 10-hour use-of-force refresher for all its officers over the course of the next year.

The Los Angeles City Council has yet to vote on the proposal to buy an additional 4,400 Tasers, boosting LAPD's supply to more than 7,000.

Tasers cost upwards of $850 apiece, and the proposal bundles the purchase with body cameras under a $31 million contract with Taser International. 

The weapon has raised controversies in the past, notably after a string deaths in Southern California that were not directly attributed to the weapon. In one case, Carlos Ocana, a homeless man who suffered from mental illness, fell off a billboard to his death after LAPD officers shot him with a Taser in 2014. 

Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for Taser International, said Tasers are safer than other uses of force—and deaths are extremely rare. 

"This has been proven safer than tackling someone to the ground," Tuttle said. 

Eric Ares, a community organizer with LA Community Action Network, an organization critical of police use of force, said Tasers, though called less lethal, "still resort in violence." 

Ares pointed to an incident last July in which 10 LAPD officers surrounded an aggravated homeless man in a wheelchair with a pole before firing bean bags and a taser darts at him. The man, Christopher Zareck, was hospitalized and later booked for alleged assault with a deadly weapon, according to CBS Los Angeles.

Other Taser incidents ended in a death after a Taser deployed to no effect. In 2012, Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies shot and killed Jazmyne Eng, a woman in a mental health crisis and carrying a hammer, after a taser dart caught in her sweater and failed to make contact.

"Why are we engaging in use of force at all in situations that shouldn't get to that point," Ares said, "There are other interventions."

According to LAPD's 2015 use of force report, released Tuesday, officers used less lethal force —batons, bean bags, physical force and tasers, among others— on 455 people perceived to have a mental illness.

Among the 1,894 people on whom LAPD used less lethal force, 427 were reported to be homeless.

LAPD's taser statistics would be more useful, according to Tuttle, if they based effectiveness calculations on the number of suspects, rather than number of deployments, since an incident may call for multiple activations. The company boasts a  standard success rate between 86 to 94 percent.

"These are not magic bullets - there are no magic bullets," Tuttle said.