Court restricts Taser use

A recent ruling by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has caused many police departments around the state to change their policies and retrain officers on the use of Tasers, especially when they are dealing with people with mental health issues who do not pose a risk of immediate danger to themselves or others.

Estate of Armstrong v. Village of Pinehurst et al.
involved a man about to be involuntarily committed for mental health issues. The Pinehurst, NC, officers used a Taser on Armstrong who later died at the scene. The Estate accused the officers of using excessive force when they were executing the involuntary commitment order. The Fourth Circuit Court ruled in the Estate’s favor.

"In light of the decision, Tasers should be used only when there is a serious, imminent threat to the officer, suspect or public," said Todd Williams, public safety loss control consultant with the Municipal Association. "When there is not an imminent threat, officers should focus on de-escalating the situation, not using force."

In Bennettsville, the Armstrong ruling led the police department to change its "force continuum"—the standard that provides guidelines for how much force officers can use against a resisting suspect. "Now it really has to be a life-or-death situation before using the Taser," said Bennettsville Police Chief Larry McNeil.

Even before the ruling, some police department policies already restricted the use of Tasers to situations when a suspect was actively resisting arrest or threatening to harm others.

In Summerville, the police department had already changed its policy to use a Taser only for active resistance, said Lt. Richard Peeples with the Summerville Police Department.

According to Peeples, the Fourth Circuit decision resulted in only a few minor clarifications to the department’s policy. Summerville added a line to its policy that a Taser will be used only when an officer is confronted with a situation that creates an immediate safety risk that could be avoided by using a Taser. Officers also must now take into consideration any mental health condition of the subject.

Peeples said Summerville officers received training on the new procedures, including watching a video by Jack Ryan, an instructor with the Public Agency Training Council.

In the video, Ryan points out that the use of force is different when arresting a criminal suspect versus picking up someone for a mental health commitment. He discusses the need to distinguish between a person who is a danger to himself and one who is a danger to others. He also cautions that not all physical resistance constitutes a threat.

"In light of the court’s ruling, all South Carolina law enforcement agencies should review their policies as well as training related to Taser use and the use of force on people with diminished capacity," reiterated Williams.