Tasers: Friend or Foe?

 
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FROM MY FILES FRIDAY: I first wrote about the increased use of tasers in May 2010. Since then, more and more law enforcement officers are carrying and using them. What is your viewpoint? Are they used too often? Are they saving lives? Have you or someone you love been shot with a taser.
Please sound off.
 
 
TASERS — NOT LETHAL OR DEADLY?
May 3, 2010
 
Sadly, here we go again.
 
Another person with a mental illness from Fairfax County, Virginia, where I live, died in an incident with the police on Friday. This time it was after he was shot with a Taser stun gun.
The police responded at 12:41 a.m. to a report that a man was in “psychiatric distress.”
 
When they arrived, he was naked and “uncooperative.” He ignored officers’ commands and became combative, the police said. At that point, an officer shot him with a Taser to bring him under control. The man stopped breathing and died.
 
After my son was shot by police with a Taser, I received a number of emails from people who were angry about how frequently Tasers were being used, especially when the police encountered someone with a mental illness. Several of these folks said they believed the police relied too heavily on Tasers rather than using de-escalation techniques learned during Crisis Intervention Team Training classes. These techniques can be used to calm down some psychotic persons without force.
 
Part of the reason why the media reported this recent fatality is because another man died in January after being shot by the same police department with a Taser.
 
I’m not certain how I feel about Tasers.
 
Clearly, they can be deadly. However, when I was in Miami doing research for my book, I watched two CIT trained officers use   Tasers to subdue a psychotic man armed with two knives. No one was hurt. The officers told me that before Tasers — this man would have been shot with a handgun. When I spoke to the man in jail, he told me that he was grateful that he had not been killed.
 
The reason why this most recent shooting frustrates me is not because it involved a Taser, but because it was the third incident in my “backyard” where a person with a mental disorder has been critically wounded or has died in an exchange with the police. 
 
Last November, a 52-year-old man with bipolar disorder was shot to death by the Fairfax Police after he took flowers from outside a business and drove away. He didn’t stop or step-out of his truck at a red light as ordered – so a young officer opened fire, killing David Masters, who was unarmed.
 
In February, a 25-year-old man was severely wounded when his parents called the police for help because their son was having a crisis. Ian C. Smith is still in intense care.
Obviously, CIT training can reduce the number of violent and fatal incidents that happen when law enforcement officers are called on to deal with someone who is having a mental breakdown. I am a strong proponent of CIT and am looking forward to attending the International Crisis Intervention Team Training conference in San Antonio, Texas, this coming June where I will give a  speech. But even with good CIT training, people still get hurt. A well-trained CIT officer was at the scene when Ian Smith was critically wounded. 
Over the years, I have heard lots of statistics, such as “1,205 people die from smoking every day.”
 
I wonder how many persons with mental illnesses are wounded or die each year during encounters with the police?
 
I wonder how many officers are injured or die each year because of encounters with persons who are in the midst of a psychotic breakdown?
 
When I hear about an incident such as what happened Friday, I think of my son. I also think about the dozens of parents I’ve met whose loved ones have been injured or died in similar encounters.
 
These incidents make me sad and angry because, I believe, if we had better laws and adequate mental health treatment in our communities, there would be fewer and fewer such stories.
 
Another person with a mental illness has died in my community for no other reason than he became ill. That’s wrong and it is tragic, because it could and should have been prevented.
About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.

  • advocate4treatment

    I agree with your conclusion – we need better laws and adequate mental health treatment in our communities. If there wasn’t so much opposition to providing compassionate, medically-sound treatment through sensible assisted outpatient treatment laws, we would have a more effective mental health system that provided timely treatment, instead of the broken system that now exists. If we used our mental health dollars more effectively, we would provide treatment to those with the most severe mental illnesses as a priority, since they are the individuals who most often end up being shot by a Taser, becoming homeless, or involved in violent acts to themselves or others. We need to reach out and provide treatment to those who are the most vulnerable to prevent some of the tragedies we hear about much too often.

  • Marabe

    My thoughts on weaponry is that its immoral. It unlevels the playing field, giving humans a false sense of power by instilling intimidation and fear.
    It makes sense to develop weapons to protect us from large animal predators, but nowadays, they are mostly endangered or extinct. There is no reason to use weapons on ourselves – we are mostly equal in size and strength, given numbers.Our power and might is in our intelligence. It is the greed, lust for power, money, and the lazy cowardice in our hearts that drives us to invent and use instruments that maim, incompacitate, control, and destroy others. So now we are cursed by our own devices, and as too many absurdly evil people have access to them, we justify that we, too, must utilize them for protection.
    I remember life before tasers – not pleasant incidents I wish to recall, but nevertheless, effective and harmless. As a psychotic teen/young adult, raging out of control similarly to the people mentioned in Pete’s story, six or so adults, or police officers, would physically subdue me. Later, when I trained as an aide, I learned how to do these ‘take down’ maneuvers. It takes skill, practice and discipline, and can be done safely. Of course, its easier to whip out a taser. We are a lazy society, constantly looking for the easier shortcut, the fastest way to the water cooler and how to get the fattest paycheck with minimal effort. With values as rampant as that, in American life, we can say that widespread moral decay, with its resultive negative stress, opens the door to poor mental health.
    If Tasers were a drug, the FDA would have them off the market, for the deaths involved. There is no excuse for assaulting a mentally ill person in a rage who is not armed. It is compassion, a show of dignity and self-worth, to calm a person by using protective words and actions that decrease his/her fear and anger, and helps them into a safer mental state. I don’t think its rocket science. We just want a pill, a gun, a quick fix for everything. We have forgotten that the business of life is work – working together, helping eachother, paving the path for everyone, not just ourselves. The mentally ill are a people of pain, but the public sees danger, nusiance, misunderstood behaviours. Whether we work, raise families, are homeless or in prison, recovered or sick, we live with a deep scarring pain. If our pain was visible, would police officers, doctors, employers, and neighbors treat us with the dignity and respect they give themselves? Would the gov’t find money for treatments and cures to help alleviate the pain of mental illness?
    Or is it easier to buy more Tasers and build more prisons?

  • porsha

    My son was shot with a taser by police after being released from the state hospital. The doctor & case manager said he would be better supervised at a group home so we said ok. Everything was going well until one weekend when he came home he would hardly eat. So I told the group home to watch him because he was hardly eating. They hadn’t noticed because he normally didn’t eat there. At first they argued with me but eventually they had a mental evaluator come and talk to my son. The evaluator could see that he was not well because by this time he was hardly talking. So the evaluator left and said he would check and see if there were any beds available and would be back. No one called me and there was only one person on staff so my son just walked out. This was around 6:00pm. We were looking around the area & making calls trying to find him. Evidently he was walking around the city all night and around 4:00am he was tasered by a police officer. When the police confronted him he probably ignored him or tried to run away since he has paranoid schizophrenia. From what my son remembers he said he was tasered and he thinks that he fell on his back. Then he said that he grabbed & pulled off the prongs attached to him and then he was tasered again. The fact that he could do that just shows how out of it he was. After the police called an ambulance probably because he then saw how he was acting. Then the officer charged him with assault. Seems to me it should have been the other way around. Eventually the charge was dropped. Maybe it was the fact that he was wearing a hoodie, but the fact that he was just walking doing nothing wrong while experiencing a psychotic break and being tasered just doesn’t seem right.

  • Julie

    My son was tasered by police while in a psychotic state. I just remember that he looked like he had been through a very traumatic event when I saw him later, and neither then, or after, did he ever want to talk about it. I think of it as just one more of a very long list of traumatic events in the last five years of life, leading up to his suicide. I don’t know how I feel about tasers. I’m glad it wasn’t a gun, but it’s just another inevitable consequence of the lack of ongoing, effective treatment for those too sick to get help for themselves.

  • Marabe

    Human beings are the only living creatures I know of that torture other humans who are already tortured.
    First there were chains gouging the flesh of the insane.
    Then swaddlings of canvas to mummify and terrorize them.
    Then white coats with scalpels to scrape out their brain matter.
    Then drugs to inject willy-nilly to see what they would do.
    Now taser assaults to inflict such uncomfortable pain upon a person who is already suffering the worst psychological/emotional pain a human can have – mental illness.
    There is something very wrong with the world today. Probably the same thing thats been wrong since the beginning of time.
    Have we all forgotten that love – love in its many many forms – heals?

  • Schizo1988

    Below are 2 articles about an incident that took place in Toronto and a short distance from my home in fact I walked past it earlier today. I am schizophrenic myself and while politically incorrect I choose to identify myself as such, it is part of who I am, and not one I am in any way ashamed of, in fact I do it to fight stigma, if it makes someone uncomfortable when they learn this, that is their problem not mine, and it’s never been one, except with the police and emergency rooms, to complicate matters I am a Licensed Medical Marijuana User.

    I am a Mental Health and Addictions Patient Rights Advocate at a Provincial Level in Ontario, Canada and the Spring Meeting of the Ontario Association of Patient Councils was hosted by the Center for Addiction and Mental Health’s Empowerment Council, and I learned “The E.C. has standing at an inquest that is looking at 3 Deaths in Toronto of people with lived experience and police involvement”. One of our recommendations is going to I assume be issuing more Tasers, what we refer to as “less lethal” and C.I.T. has to be a priority and in most cases something everyone wants. In the confusing case below the officer almost certainly exited his vehicle his his gun already drawn, and from that moment the outcome was already determined in my mind, as it was an act that escalated the situation. I should point out that this is all my personal opinion and in no way should be taken as any official position taken by Organizations I am associated with. I remember when rubber bullets were supposed to be non-lethal when used in riot control. They actually have a military Taser that is all contained in the shell and can be fired from a shotgun, no wires to limit distance you can fire from.

    I was originally misdiagnosed as Manic-Depressive in 1988, new Doctor and a Mood Disorder Specialist ended up changing it to Chronic Paranoid Schizophrenia, I have been on well over 150 meds, 43 Bi-lateral ECT, but I got therapy with the meds and case management, original client of what is now Toronto North Support Services, in 2002, then 10 years later I was on the B.O.D.for 6 years, 2 as V.P. The generation before me fought for us to get a seat at the table, and I recovered enough to get to fill it, one thing that still bother me is in 2004 or so I got an email from whom exactly I don’t recall but they asked me to write a few hundred words on what it is like to have to live as openly suffering from a severe Mental Illness to do the Advocacy work I do, I just replied have to ask someone else I have never hidden it, no shame in having an illness, and I deleted it after, and only weeks later did it hit me that it sounded like I was being compared to the true rights activists who risked their lives by being public. Schizophrenia 1% of population but only time we make the news is when we have killed someone or or now all too frequently someone has killed us. I should mention my recovery and it is on going came with a significant case of survivor guilt, why me, a system that fails so many, part of it is attitude as for the first 7 years I was an in-patient 3-6 months of the year, total of 2 1/2 years, and while the treatments were a nightmare I never felt anything was ever done that was not sincerely felt to be in my best interest.

    SIU investigates after woman shot dead at Yonge and Finch home

    The province’s Special Investigations Unit has been called in after a woman was shot dead, allegedly by police, at a home near Yonge and Finch on Friday morning.

    Officers were responding to a call about a woman allegedly threatening to kill her mother at a bungalow on Wedgewood Drive shortly after 10 a.m., Toronto police say.

    SIU spokesperson Jasbir Brar identified the victim as Sylvia Klibingaitis, 52.

    She allegedly lunged with a knife at an officer who fired three shots. The SIU would only say that a “police firearm was discharged at least once.”

    “Unfortunately we’ve had a serious incident here. It’s a matter that falls under the jurisdiction of the SIU. They have invoked their mandate and because of those regulations, I can’t comment on the details of the incident,” Toronto police Insp. Doug Quan said.

    The woman was taken to Sunnybrook Hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

    Few other details were immediately available, but one man who lives in the area said the victim was earlier threatening her mother with a knife. That hasn’t been confirmed.

    “The woman was shot by the police,” said neighbour Nestor Arellano. “They said that she was weilding a knife in the street. Apparently she was threatening her mom, that was the news that I gathered.”

    The SIU is now at the scene. The arm’s length agency investigates police where there has been death, serious injury or allegations of sexual assault.

    Seven investigators and three forensic investigators have been assigned to the case.Mystery surrounds fatal North York shooting

    The Special Investigations Unit is probing the death of a 52-year-old woman in an altercation with police outside her home.

    LAURA STONE / TORONTO STAR

    Dzeja Klibingaitis, 83, leaves the SIU investigation van after hours of questioning. Her daughter, Sylvia, was shot and killed in an apparent confrontation with police Friday morning.

    When Dzeja Klibingaitis heard two gunshots and a woman’s screams, she had no idea that her daughter was being shot dead during an encounter with police outside their home in the city’s north end.

    “I ran to the room to tell Sylvia that something bad is happening,” said the 83-year-old woman. “I go in her room where she sleeps and she’s not there. I don’t know what’s happening.”

    The Special Investigations Unit, the province’s police watchdog, is probing the shooting, which took place about 9:30 a.m. Friday.

    Police were responding to a call about a person with a knife at 51 Wedgewood Dr., northeast of Yonge St. and Finch Ave. E.

    The SIU said Sylvia Klibingaitis, 52, was shot once in the chest following an interaction with an officer. She was pronounced dead on arrival at Sunnybrook hospital.

    “It’s my understanding that she did pursue the officer with a knife,” said Const. Wendy Drummond.

    The SIU said police fired at least one shot.

    Dzeja Klibingaitis, reached by phone Friday morning, said she was in her bedroom when she heard the shots. They sounded like they were coming from the direction of Yonge St., she said.

    When asked if she thought her daughter was involved in the shooting, the elderly woman said no.

    “It’s terrible,” she said. “I’ve never had this kind of experience in my life.”

    Police had told her to wait on the patio for 15 minutes, she said, but she had already been there for 30. “I’m not supposed to even answer the phone.”

    As police cordoned off the quiet street, an officer took the phone from Dzeja Klibingaitis as she talked to the Toronto Star, saying she was needed to provide testimony.

    The slow-moving senior spent hours in an SIU van as investigators wandered in and out, some of them carrying cups of coffee. A Franciscan priest, dressed in a brown robe, went into the van for a portion of the afternoon. Dzeja Klibingaitis eventually emerged around 5 p.m. and was helped down a set of stairs before being whisked away into another van, without speaking.

    Sylvia Klibingaitis had a history of community activism. She fought the Ontario Municipal Board on a proposed condominium development in 1999, while living in a low-rise apartment at 325 Bogert Ave. with her daughter, Lorelei, then 6.

    Greatwise Development Corp. wanted to demolish the apartment complex and build a highrise condominium, which brought a heated fight from local residents.

    Sylvia Klibingaitis, then vice president of the Bogert Tenants’ Association, became involved in the years-long dispute over the condo building “because what was happening was really outright wrong.”

    Twelve years later, her old apartment complex remains standing.

    “I love the neighbourhood as well as our home,” she told the Star in 1999. “Lorelei goes to a good school. I’ve really been scrounging to carve out a life for us here.”

    But it looks like money problems dogged the 52-year-old as recently as March, when she declared bankruptcy with total liabilities of $119,052 and assets totaling $6,050.

    Neighbours said the mother and daughter were quiet people who mostly kept to themselves. A few added that Sylvia Klibingaitis had moved in with her mother only a couple of months ago.

    “They were nice people,” said Geo Papas, who lives at 53 Wedgewood Dr. “We had no problems (with them). We were not very close but we were okay.”

    Elizabeth Melchiori, 80, lives directly across the street. She said the pair had renters living in the home.

    The Star spoke with two people who live at Sylvia Klibingaitis’s former home on Bogert Ave. and knew her through her work with the tenants’ association. Neither wished to be identified but said Klibingaitis had moved out several years ago.

    Both tenants said Klibingaitis often exhibited “irrational behaviour,” alternately refusing to speak with anyone or expounding at length about random topics.

    “I went to speak to her, say hello, (and she) said she couldn’t talk, it was her week for not talking,” said one neighbour.

    Klibingaitis also frequently mentioned her religion, which always seemed to change, one woman recalled.

    “She went to one church, then the other one,” she said. “She was Catholic and then she was Protestant.”

    “I never really talked to her. She was somebody in another heaven.”

    Another woman who lives near the scene but didn’t want to be identified said she saw emergency responders performing CPR on someone lying on the ground.

    Elaine Levison, who lives around the corner, questioned why Sylvia Klibingaitis was shot in the chest. “Why can’t they shoot in the arm, why can’t they shoot in the leg?”

    Insp. Doug Quan, from 32 division, confirmed there had been a “serious incident” but wouldn’t elaborate, saying the matter fell under the SIU’s jurisdiction.

    SIU spokeswoman Jasbir Brar said seven investigators and three forensics specialists had been assigned to probe the “details and circumstances” of the case.

    The SIU is called in when police officers are involved in incidents involving death or serious injury.

    Pete finding your site was such a relief as so many are anti-psychiatry and that the illnesses are not even real, Whitaker comes to mind.