Charged Debate | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Charged Debate

Stun guns were supposed to make both police and citizens safer. But critics in Pittsburgh and elsewhere say they are dangerous -- and that police are too quick to use them.

In the YouTube video, De'Anna Caligiuri writhes on her back. She kicks and arches, seemingly trying to sit up. She screams briefly, and tries to grab at the twin wires that are attached to her leg through a pair of metal barbs. For several seconds, she recalls, she felt "a stabbing, burning pain in my thigh, and a stream of intense, excruciating pain throughout my entire body that left me unable to control my movements."

De'Anna Caligiuri was being Tasered.

The YouTube video ( was being shot by protesters at an Aug. 20, 2005 demonstration outside the Oakland military recruitment center on Forbes Avenue. Seconds earlier, Caligiuri had been holding onto Idris Robinson, a protester whom police were trying to arrest. A local TV cameraman had told police Robinson struck him as he filmed the protest -- a story that would fall apart later in court. Police grabbed Caligiuri away from Robinson and into the street.

"As I was falling to the ground with a cop on top of me," Caligiuri, of Bloomfield, recalls in an e-mail interview, "another cop lifted my glasses and pepper-sprayed me directly in the eyes." She appears shortly after that on the YouTube video, at 1:41 on the counter, already prone on her back on Forbes Avenue.

"All I remember is an intense urge to wipe the burning pepper spray off my face," Caligiuri recalls, "but I don't remember consciously attempting to move." In the video, she is moving slightly, with only her knees raised off the pavement, as one police officer holds both her arms above her and another holds his hand over her face.

Seconds later, officer Samuel Muoio can be seen rushing in, and then firing a Taser at Caligiuri. Caligiuri's resistance, if that's what it was, had ended; she was taken into custody and would later be given a routine exam at the hospital (a common practice with people who have been Tasered). But Muoio wasn't finished: Shortly after Caligiuri was handcuffed, he used the Taser on another protester, Justin Krane of Mount Washington. Beginning at 2:20 on the Youtube counter, Krane can be seen falling (the police said), or being pulled by police (protesters said), into the street behind a large sign. Muoio appears to pull a protester off the back of the sign and charges into the retreating group, following them onto the sidewalk.

"He was entering the crowd with the Taser in front of him, and you could see the electricity traveling between the two ends," Krane recalls. "He was driving people back and using the Taser as the means to do that." When Krane was hit with the device, "It felt like volts of current going through you."

Neither Muoio nor George Specter, the city's acting solicitor, responded to several requests for comment. But this past August, Caligiuri and Krane sued Muoio and the city in federal court, alleging the Taser use was "excessive force." (A third plaintiff makes similar allegations against a K-9 officer whose dog bit her during the protest.)

The suit seeks $150,000 in damages, an injunction against the police bureau "restraining [them] from exercising excessive force against arrestees," and new training for the use of dogs and Tasers. But for her part, Caliguri would prefer to see Tasers scrapped altogether: "[T]he police are unwilling or incapable of using [Tasers] as a weapon of last resort," she says.

A number of activists and civil libertarians have similar misgivings. Tasers have long been touted as a form of protection for both police and protesters. By using electrical current to stun arrestees, the argument goes, the device makes it less likely that police would use more lethal force. But as Taser use has become more widespread, reports of scattered deaths and police abuse are beginning to accumulate. Some suspect that the device may have more health effects than previously reported.

In fact, Krane says he's noticed at least one side effect of his Tasering already: "The overlying after-effect is a mistrust of the police."

The Taser devices used by Pittsburgh police are standard models. They feature two wires, each of which ends in a barb that can be propelled up to 21 feet by compressed nitrogen. The barbs lodge in the skin and can transmit a current of electricity through 2 inches of clothing. The current is 50,000 volts, but it's powered by a very low amperage: The result is a jolt that causes temporary nerve and muscle incapacitation, usually rendering a suspect all but immobile.

A Taser can also be used in "drive stun" mode, in which barb and wires are not used; it is wielded as a hand weapon instead, and delivers a painful shock on contact.

The Taser is just one of many so-called "less-lethal" weapons -- a designation which can include everything from bean-bags shot at high speeds to electromagnetic waves that suddenly heat the skin. Together, "less-lethal" devices are promoted as life-saving tools that can defuse police confrontations before firearms come into play.

"I think the Taser has made the police job safer without a doubt, and it has also made it safer on the resisting actor," says officer David Wright, lead use-of-force instructor for the Pittsburgh Police. "It's not a substitute for deadly force [but] it prevents many of these incidents from escalating to the use of deadly force."

And in fact, the Taser, with its promise of force with minimal harm, was originally touted by community groups. Aram James, a retired public defender and criminal defense attorney from Palo Alto, Calif., who now campaigns against the Taser, helped found the Coalition for Justice and Accountability in 2003 to advocate for their use. The turning point came when a Vietnamese woman in nearby San Jose was shot and killed by police who mistook her vegetable peeler for a knife.

"We called for Tasers," he says. "We were told that, by introducing Tasers, there would be a reduction in officer-involved shootings."

Partly as a result of such backing, Tasers have been adopted by police departments all over the country. TASER International, the Scottsdale, Ariz., company that has captured the market for such "conducted electricity devices" (CEDs), says 12,000 of the nation's approximately 17,500 law-enforcement agencies use the devices . (Another 157,000 less-powerful consumer models have also been sold. While some states outlaw personal Tasers, Pennsylvania began allowing civilian sales last year, except for convicted felons and others banned from owning guns.)

Pittsburgh Police spokesperson Diane Richard says the introduction of Tasers in 2003 has reduced the use of firearms by city police. Between 2005 and 2006, Taser use jumped from 274 incidents to 332 -- but department statistics show the number of times firearms were used against "resistant subjects" dropped from 14 to 6. Use of pepper spray also declined during the period. (There were, however, sizable increases in the use of batons and other "personal weapons" like an officer's flashlight.)

Across the nation, and increasingly the world, Tasers have become so common that the brand-name is morphing into a generic noun, like Kleenex or Scotch tape. It's also a verb, thanks to University of Florida student Andrew Meyer's now-famous cry of "Don't Tase me, bro!," as he was dragged by UF police from the microphone at a John Kerry speech on Sept. 17.

But as Taser use has spread, so have misgivings.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice released a three-year national study of arrest-related deaths through 2005, which counted 36 deaths in which a Taser or other conducted electricity device was "involved." That's just a fraction of the 2,002 total arrest-related deaths noted in the Department's study. But the number of reported CED-related deaths has nearly tripled in each of the years studied. In 2003, Tasers were involved in less than one-half of 1 percent of arrests that ended in custody deaths; by 2005, the proportion was nearly 3.5 percent.

The Justice Department relied on data sent from police and crime agencies; in roughly half of those cases -- 17 -- the agency cited the Taser as "the weapon that caused the death." The report neither confirms nor rejects that diagnosis, noting that "the ability of CEDs to cause a death is a subject of debate."

In 2001, the anti-torture group Amnesty International began tracking the number of people in the United States and Canada who died after being Tasered; as of October, it had logged 290 such incidents.

Assuming that tally is correct, those deaths would represent only a miniscule fraction of Taser subjects. No one tracks total Taser use, though Steve Tuttle, a spokesman with TASER International, says Tasers are deployed "hundreds of times a day" by police around the world. Andy Mazzara, director of Penn State's Institute for Non-Lethal Defense Technologies' Applied Research Laboratory, estimates that Tasers have been used "hundreds of thousands of times."

But doubts remain, especially as police rely on the devices more heavily. Civil libertarians are questioning whether the Taser has become a too-easy substitute for other methods of resolving conflicts or gaining control of people, particularly unarmed individuals, before or after arrest.

Taser advocates often pose a false question, says Gan Golan of Los Angeles, a recent MIT grad who did his master's thesis on the increasing use of "less-lethal" weaponry. The choice communities are given is "What would you have us use -- guns or less lethal weapons?" But in reality, he says, "police are still using their lethal weapons when they should be using their less-lethal weapons, and they are using their less-lethal weapons when they should be using nothing at all."

Vic Walczak, legal director of ACLU Pennsylvania, agrees: "We see Tasers used for what we call 'contempt of cop' violations -- swearing, questioning their authority. Tasers are a way to exact street justice. It's disconcerting to see police officers using Tasers in circumstances where essentially no force can be justified. De'Anna is, what, 5-foot-2, 110 pounds? And to my knowledge [she] is not a black-belt martial-arts expert. The police are much larger and have training in hand-to-hand combat. You can't tell me that police couldn't bring her under control without a Taser. ... If the [city's] policy says under these circumstances it's appropriate to use the Taser, I think there's a huge problem with that."

Nor is the 2005 protest the only local controversy involving Tasers.

On July 28 of this year, Shawn Hicks made headlines when North Braddock police allegedly Tasered him while he slept on his own apartment couch. The officers had responded to a 2 a.m. silent alarm, which Hicks had set off himself and failed to disarm upon entering; apparently police suspected him of being an intruder. But Hicks alleges the officers Tasered him again, after he showed them ID proving he lived there. While county police ruled recently that the North Braddock officers did nothing wrong, Hicks reportedly plans a lawsuit.

Less than a month later, Chad Cekas, who had a long history of arrests for drugs and other crimes, was found crawling through traffic in front of the Fort Pitt Tunnel, begging alternately for help or to die, according to witnesses who spoke to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. After fighting with city police officers, he was unresponsive following two Taserings. He was pronounced dead soon after.

October 2007 was a banner month for Taser usage, with the weapon employed in at least 53 headline-grabbing arrests from Pennsylvania to New Zealand. In some cases -- like those involving weapons-wielding men barricaded in their homes after violent crimes in North Carolina, Texas and New Hampshire -- the Taser arguably might have prevented a deadly standoff. But elsewhere its use is harder to understand. In Katy, Texas, a 15-year-old student was Tasered inside school after reportedly "taking an aggressive stance" while refusing to relinquish a cell phone. In Dayton, Ohio, police Tasered a man for trying to re-enter his burning home to save a pet, and in Chicago police assigned to do a "well-being" check on a diminutive 82-year-old woman ended up Tasering her instead: She was suffering from dementia and schizophrenia, wouldn't let them in and grabbed a hammer.

Police departments and the manufacturer urge people not to overreact to such headlines, even in seemingly egregious cases of Taser use. Take the recent story about a 14-year-old trick-or-treater in Georgia, who an officer says he was "forced" to Taser this Halloween. (The girl allegedly tried to punch him after he told her to stop swearing.) "Do we have all the facts?" asks Tuttle. "Was this a small officer? Was the girl 250 pounds?"

Backers of the Taser say the device is being punished for its popularity. (And in fact, in the month of October, TASER International reported third-quarter earnings of $6.2 million, almost triple its take in the same quarter last year.)

"I believe unfortunately you're going to have in-custody deaths every so often," says Wright. "[A]ny use-of-force encounter, however slight, causes a risk of death." The Taser is catching the blame, he believes, "because the Taser is so popular. The pepper spray, the punching, all these tools of force the officers are using -- the Taser is getting the press because it is hot."

In response to Caliguiri and Krane's lawsuit, the company issued a statement that asked, "When controversy strikes, citizens need to ask themselves, 'If not the use of TASER systems, then what do they find acceptable for use of force [for] compliance?'"

Even so, some of the same civic groups that hailed the Taser as a way to avoid police shootings are now agitating against the Taser, claiming its use makes even low-level police encounters more violent.

In supporting Tasers "we had bought the big lie," says James of the Coalition for Justice and Accountability. "We hadn't done our homework.

"Every time we put a weapon in our officers' belts," James concludes, "we take away another opportunity to talk to citizens."

The Pittsburgh Police Bureau is by far the region's biggest Taser customer, with 300 in use among its roughly 800 officers. County police give Tasers only to SWAT team members, while state police are just about to begin carrying them. Neither the University of Pittsburgh nor Pittsburgh Public Schools police carry the weapon.

Wright has trained a dozen other Taser instructors on the city force. He is also paid by TASER International to teach the weapon's use in other cities.

While city police would not release the department's written Taser policy, Wright described its place on the department's "use-of-force continuum" -- which give officers guidelines for how much force can be applied, and when, during a police encounter. If police presence or verbal commands don't work, Pittsburgh guidelines call for the use of either a Taser, pepper spray or "empty-hand" control.

"It moves up the ladder according to probability of injury," Wright explains.

The Taser is particularly useful, Wright says, because it "gives the officer a window of opportunity to go in and make the arrest. If I deploy the Taser on you ... my back-up officers should go in and secure the body and put the cuffs on."

Tasering someone already under arrest in handcuffs is "generally not something we want officers to do, but in some circumstances you might have to."

The standard Taser shock is five seconds, and city guidelines recommend that period of time. The guidelines don't indicate whether repeated shocks should be used, says Wright, but if the shock doesn't work, "I don't want any officer to go on using it and using it. I want any officer to go on to something that will do the job" -- something farther up the continuum, which runs next from batons to firearms.

Andy Mazzara, of Penn State's non-lethal defense lab, says some experts would differ with the Taser's placement on the continuum. "Personally," he says via e-mail, "I might see Taser positioned slightly above the employment of pepper spray because the secondary effects [of the Taser] may be somewhat more severe (i.e., falling and hitting head, barb penetration of skin, and the potential for Taser-associated injuries/fatalities." Such injuries, he says, are rarer when pepper spray is used.

But Pittsburgh's policy is broadly similar to that of those used across the nation.

TASER International makes no recommendations about where to put the device on the use-of-force continuum, says Steve Tuttle. But 86 percent of law enforcement agencies deploy the Taser "on a par with pepper spray," he says. "[The Taser] is designed to be used at a lower level -- at the baton level, at the pepper spray-level ... Ninety-nine percent of the people aren't armed when a Taser is deployed" against them. "The Taser is not a replacement for deadly force."

Tuttle would not comment on Caligiuri and Krane's federal lawsuit, and Wright said he was unfamiliar with the 2005 incident. But in general, Wright says, "Officers are taught to use the most reasonable force option." A large man cocking his fist? "That's assault. The officer doesn't need to wait to be punched," Wright explains. But an elderly woman confronting a young officer? Force such as the Taser "would not be a reasonable option."

The Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, D.C. organization whose board of directors is composed of police chiefs from around the nation, released Taser recommendations which advise "CEDs should only be used against persons who are actively resisting or exhibiting active aggression, or to prevent individuals from harming themselves or others. CEDs should not be used against a passive suspect. [...] Severity of offense and other circumstances should be considered before officers' use of a CED on the fleeing subject."

But these rules are often applied in highly contentious situations, and officers must decide whether to use the TASER in an instant. Police need to have discretion in the field, says Christine M. Cole, executive director of the Program for Criminal Justice Policy and Management at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "But we know that sometimes when you have discretion you have abuse of discretion."

And even reasonable police decisions could result in tragedy. If she were pepper-sprayed, Cole says, how could an officer know of her potentially fatal allergy to the substance? But compliance should still mean "stop hurting someone," not "give me your license sooner," she says. "You've got to exhaust other forms of force, like conversation, long before you get to Tasers."

So far, there is at least one situation in which officers are growing less likely to use Tasers: when facing other officers. Pittsburgh and other police departments used to allow officers to be Tasered (voluntarily) while being trained to use the weapon. But Pittsburgh has halted the practice -- largely because the Taser cartridges are expensive, Wright says -- and some other departments have done the same for reasons of safety.

Phoenix police, for instance, once offered voluntary Taser exposure to officers, reports Lt. David M. Kelly, coordinator of Phoenix's Taser program. At first, the officer being shocked would be supported by two other students, who caught him as he fell. But "We found that the subjects seemed to 'get away' from the students and we were having problems with fall-related injuries," Kelly wrote in an e-mail. "We shortened the exposure to around a second and brought the subjects closer to the ground. About that time, we had a couple people hurt, one with a back injury and one with a jaw injury." There were, in total, between 10 and 12 officer injuries in the training, and while Kelly says pre-existing conditions may be responsible for some of those, "We no longer allow any exposure during training."

In neighboring Scottsdale, too, "we stopped just because [of] the potential for injury to officers," says Scottsdale Sgt. Mark Clark.

Neither department, however, changed polices for using Taser use on civilians. Explains Clark: "[In] the situations out in the field, the Tasers have proven very effective as a less lethal alternative to shooting somebody," Clark says.

"Would the police really have brought out their sidearms and shot De'Anna and Justin?" scoffs David Meieran, who was present at the Aug. 20 march and uploaded the YouTube video of Caligiuri and Krane's Tasering (shot by indie filmmaker/activist Roger Hill, of Athens, Ohio).

Meieran, of Squirrel Hill, is about to launch Stop Taser Abuse Today ( with other activists across the country, including Gan Golan, the Los Angeles activist.

Outrage over the shooting deaths of four protesters at Kent State University in 1970 forced law enforcement agencies into dialog with protest organizers for "negotiated management" into the 1980s and 1990s, Golan says. "It became incumbent on police departments to learn more skills" toward negotiations. "Now, with these weapons, all of that stuff is being tossed out the window. ... We're seeing a resurgence of violence against peaceful protesters in the community due to less-lethal weapons. They're definitely changing the rights of protesters -- the media and public just haven't caught on."

Meieran's STAT group, says co-founder Debbie Russell, will be "a clearinghouse of resources and information ... to fight [Tasers] in your locale." Russell, now president of the ACLU's Central Texas chapter, helped put together the Austin Spokescouncil of activist groups and its anti-Taser campaign prior to 2005. The group helped prompt Austin to add strictures on how the Taser may be used in non-violent encounters, and on certain vulnerable groups.

Part of the Taser debate, and the motivation for a group like STAT, involves figuring out just who those groups are.

A recent report by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, a program of Stanford University's School of Law, posits that there are a handful of situations which could "cause concern regarding the possibility of a [T]aser delivering a fatal shock." One such scenario is "that a shock could occur during the 'vulnerable period' of a heart beat cycle" -- 3 percent of the cycle -- "during which an electro-shock is highly likely to cause ventricular fibrillation," a fatal heart spasm. Such a risk would increase with multiple or lengthy Taserings. The report also notes that children, the elderly and drug users "are naturally more susceptible to ventricular fibrillation than healthy young adults."

Pittsburgh's Taser guidelines tell officers to avoid using the device on several categories of people, such as pregnant women (because the resultant muscle contractions or fall might hurt the fetus) and those older than 70 or younger than 7 -- "unless you were justified in using deadly force," Wright says.

But while the Stanford report warns of the susceptibility of drug users to Tasering, Pittsburgh doesn't restrict Taser use on such suspects at all. In fact, Wright says, "The Taser is actually a great tool when dealing with somebody who is really out there on drugs or highly disturbed." Other departments apparently agree. TASER International itself says that, of those Tasered between 1998-2006, 35 percent have been on drugs and more than 40 percent on alcohol -- sometimes both.

TASER's Steve Tuttle points to those statistics as a principal cause for deaths following Taser use. He also cites multiple rulings of "excited delirium" -- a diagnosis that is sometimes associated with drug use but that critics decry as a meaningless catch-all or cover-up. Still, TASER International has been publicizing the designation, sending pamphlets to medical examiners and holding seminars for police officers.

"It's just now getting the attention it deserves," Tuttle says. "I think we're at the forefront of trying to warn agencies that excited delirium is real."

Allegheny County Medical Examiner Dr. Karl Williams has found excited delirium in one non-drug case in his first year in office. That case that did not involve a Taser, and Williams has not identified the Taser as a cause of death in any deaths so far. A cause of death has not been determined in the August death of Chad Cekas, who was Tasered outside of the Fort Pitt Tunnel.

Coroners and medical examiners, says Gan Golan, "keep assigning all these [post-Taser] deaths to extenuating circumstances. How much of the population would fit into one of these categories? ... The relevant question from a public safety point of view is, would these people have died if they hadn't been Tasered?"

"In most cases, yes," Tuttle asserts.

"In our medical research, we have not found a way in which you can employ the Taser on the streets in a way you can kill somebody from the electricity," he adds. "You'd have to find a mechanism by which the Taser can cause a death, and no one has been able to show us a mechanism" that might cause ventricular fibrillation.

This June, Dr. Saul D. Levine (no relation to this reporter) of the University of California-San Diego Medical Center found no cardiac dysrhythmias after Taser shock on 105 volunteers. Evidence of serious Taser-inflicted harm was similarly scanty in an October report by Dr. William P. Bozeman of Wake Forest University Health Sciences. After collecting data from a dozen law-enforcement agencies of varying sizes and locales, Bozeman found that only 0.3 percent of 962 recorded Taser incidents resulted in any injury great than scrapes or bruises, plus punctures from the Taser's barbs. (The study was funded by the U.S. Justice Department, without TASER company input, though Bozeman based his findings on self-reported data filed by doctors working for each department.)

Bozeman also sits on a federal panel examining the most contentious of the 290 deaths Amnesty International claims followed a Taser's use. "We have yet to see" clear evidence of any Taser-caused death, he says. In some cases, he says, the group has found that the Taser is "obviously unrelated" to the cause of death.

But the panel is months from releasing its interim report, and Bozeman worries about a possible emotional component to experiencing the Taser, which he calls "a very violent and painful and uncomfortable thing." (Bozeman tested the Taser on himself once.) He points to the death of a Polish national in the Vancouver airport last month, who died shortly after airport police Tasered him during an outburst. The man was found to have no alcohol or drugs in his system.

"It's cases like that that are really concerning ...that perhaps the Taser is the cause."

The Stanford report's first recommendation? Use Tasers only in "circumstances under which the use of lethal force would also be permitted."

For De'Anna Caligiuri, happily, these questions are mostly abstract -- at least for now. Aside from feeling "pretty numb" and having two spots on her leg burned from the Taser barbs, "I had no long-term medical effects that I'm aware of." She adds, however, that since she has no health insurance, she hasn't been able to have her heart checked, as she recalls the hospital ER recommending that day.

Was the Taser necessary to make her comply with police orders? "After having already been pepper-sprayed and unable to see, and already being attacked and surrounded by several cops," she says, "I don't think I was physically capable of making a decision about whether or not I wanted to avoid being handcuffed."

Her lawsuit is a long way from being resolved, but Tasers will no doubt be making headlines until then. Just this month, the Brattleboro, Vt., police chief was fired for Tasering two unarmed protesters chained to a barrel last summer, and a lawsuit was filed over a post-Tasering death in East St. Louis. Meanwhile, two candidates for sheriff of Sussex County, Va., made campaign pledges to be Tasered (one, win or lose).

TASER International's Web site boasts about how future Tasers will be mounted on a robot vehicle and as a six-shooter (ordered by the U.S. military for Iraq but applicable for big jobs here, Tuttle explains). And in early 2008, the company plans to test a new wireless rifle-shot Taser that may reach up to 100 feet.

"This is the next step toward the phaser stage," Tuttle says, invoking the handheld weapon of Star Trek fame. "We've got to get rid of those wires."

Hands off Rafah protest in East Liberty
21 images

Hands off Rafah protest in East Liberty

By Mars Johnson