Records show Taser usage during the past five years has fallen in at least two law enforcement departments — Alachua County Sheriff’s Office and Ocala Police Department — and appears to be trending upward in another in Marion County.
That upward spike in 2017 is likely due to a policy change in how Taser usage instances are counted.
Last year, Gainesville police officers used Tasers four more times than in 2014, according to the department. Having been tased three times during training, GPD Assistant Chief Terrence Pierce said the Taser is a better non-lethal weapon than the pepper spray because the effect doesn’t spread like the gas.
He said 22 instances of Taser usage last year aren’t so high because it was the same number in 2008 when GPD first used them. But having worked for Maryland law enforcement for 26 years, Pierce saw a difference.
Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) is not a prerequisite before a GPD officer can carry a Taser.
“We’re aware the use of the Taser, in some rare circumstances, could result in death,” Pierce said. “Officers especially dealing with the Baker Acted individuals — it’s definitely a benefit to be CIT-certified.”
Out of 280 working officers, there are only 107 CIT-certified officers, according to the department.
Florida’s Baker Act allows for involuntary examinations and control measures, including the use of a Taser, when there is evidence that the person has a mental illness.
“All too often, the role of police is to violently repress dissent,” said James Schmidt, a member of the Alachua Committee Against Brutality, “when the training language is so focused on ‘control’ and ‘compliance.’”
The committee isn’t currently active. Schmidt said his watchdog group isn’t entirely about monitoring and nitpicking decisions of law enforcement, but one occasion does stand out in his memory.
Schmidt was standing alongside his friend Ryan Clarey during a 2009 protest in front of the Alachua County Courthouse. A noise complaint about the Fest party, a Gainesville hard rock festival, was followed by a confrontation between police officers and the partygoers.
Clarey was accused of punching an officer and faced charges of battery and disorderly conduct. He was later acquitted of two charges, and another was dismissed.
Schmidt said that wasn’t much of miracle compared to how Clarey could survive the use of force with an existing lung condition. Court records from his trial show Clarey claimed to have a pneumothorax and walked on a cane for one week after the incident.
“Mr. Clarey was tased four times and sat on by an officer much bigger than he… This was completely draining emotionally, financially, logistically,” Schmidt said. Schmidt also said Clarey couldn’t travel out of Alachua County for seasonal labor until he finished the trial. He said the incident was also one of the reasons Clarey left the county.
“The policy doesn’t permit that anymore. There are no multiple contact tasers after two,” said Pierce, who was still in Montgomery County in 2010. Pierce said he was surprised when he heard about the incident involving four Taser usages in Clarey’s situation.
Pierce said since he started with GPD, he has been working on a new Use of Force policy that will address procedural justice and multiple Taser deployments like that 2009 case. He said he even recommended writing a separate policy for Tasers and other defensive weapons.
The Marion County Sheriff’s Office also reported an increase from 2016 to 2017. It was the highest increase of Taser deployments among five local agencies.
MCSO spokesman Paul Bloom explains because of a policy change last October, every time a deputy removes his Taser out of the holster, it now counts as a Taser deployment in use of force report.
He says efforts toward increasing transparency also includes a function that turns on the body camera whenever a deputy removes his Taser. As GPD is purchasing more tasers and body cameras, GPD spokesman Ben Tobias said the department’s new batch of Taser units will likewise be synced with body cameras.
Still, Schmidt said he remains skeptical and continues to advocate for an independent civilian council that could review the use of force.
The GPD Police Advisory Council was created in 2010 by an association of black law enforcement professionals. Pierce also participates in the council’s monthly meetings. He said although Florida laws don’t allow a citizen review board to take over an open investigation, there are already multiple layers of internal and external review, such as the involvement of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Pierce said a new policy addresses officers who forget or intentionally choose not to turn on body cameras.