ACLU Documents Troubling Use of Tasers in Michigan

February 20, 2013


The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan today urged law enforcement agencies in Michigan to adopt uniform policies that regulate the use of tasers to comply with federal laws and safety standards.

The ACLU of Michigan’s recommendations were published today in a report entitled Standards for Stun Guns: A Call for Uniform Regulations for Tasers in Michigan.

“The patchwork of guidelines, training and practices in our state means that when, why and how tasers are used can vary not only by department, but also by officer,” said Mark P. Fancher, ACLU of Michigan Racial Justice Staff Attorney and principal author of the report. “The lack of clarity and standards should worry even the most ardent supporter of taser use.”

Unlike other reports that have focused on the effect of tasers on the human body, Standards for Stun Guns examines the extent to which police comply with laws and standards governing the use of the devices. The report includes a careful review of documents provided through public records requests to the ACLU of Michigan by more than forty law enforcement agencies over the past two years.

The report finds that some departments are at risk of not complying with federal court rulings and state guidelines, manufacturer safety standards or, in some cases, the departments own written policies.

For instance, the Genesee County Sheriff’s Department prohibits the use of tasers on subjects engaged in “passive resistance” and defines passive resistance as “a relaxed or ‘dead weight’ posture intended to make the officer lift, pull or muscle the subject to establish control, as in a sit-down strike.” Nonetheless, documents provided by the Sheriff’s department report that an inmate was tased after hiding under her bed.

In addition, the ACLU explains that federal court rulings clearly prohibit tasers from being used to force an already subdued suspect to comply with police orders. However, the report documents three incidents involving the East Lansing Police Department in which individuals were already handcuffed before they were tased.

Similarly, the manufacturer warns against the use of the device on high risk populations such as small children, pregnant women and the elderly. Yet, the report details several incidents in Battle Creek, Mich. in which tasers were deployed on teenagers, with no indication that an assessment was first made of whether they fall into a high risk group.

“Without uniform policies that take into account federal law and safety standards, police risk misusing the weapons while alienating the communities they were sworn to serve,” said Fancher. “Communities need some assurance that police officers are complying with the law.”

While the ACLU of Michigan asks law enforcement agencies to discontinue the use of tasers altogether, it urges agencies unwilling to do so to limit the use of these devices to occasions when officers encounter “active aggression.”

In addition, the ACLU recommends, among other things, that agencies:

  • Train officers in federal and institutional guidelines and safety standards;
  • Establish policies that prohibit the use of taser devices on higher risk populations such as pregnant women, the infirm, the elderly, small children, and persons with low body mass index (‘BMI’);
  • And monitor the racial identities of individuals who are tased for racial patterns and address discrimination when it is identified.