Lawsuit Has Police Rethinking Use Of Stun Guns

PERRY TOWNSHIP, OH – The use of a stun gun that left a man brain-damaged five years ago also left a scar on the Perry Township Police Department.

“I think it took a toll,” said township Trustee Chet Chaney. “Our officers and residents are very close. This is something that he (Officer Shawn Bean) felt, and we felt, the right thing was done. And yet we were getting hammered.”

They also got sued. And now the department is phasing out its Tasers.

Bean stunned Matthew T. Hook, now 29, as Hook was scaling an 8-foot fence behind Dick’s Sporting Goods, 6111 Sawmill Rd, on Aug. 8, 2010. Hook fled after being stopped for driving a suspected stolen van. The immobilizing electrical current caused Hook to fall headfirst to the ground.

A federal lawsuit alleged that Bean used “deadly excessive force,” which resulted in a $2.25 million judgment against the township in northwestern Franklin County. Although insurance covered the award, township officials — and officers — have become more wary of the use of stun guns.

“Most people don’t want to do it. Everybody’s afraid of getting sued,” said Chief Robert Oppenheimer. “If you’re running from me and I ‘taze’ you, and you fall and hurt yourself, I’m getting sued. It’s not worth the lawsuits.”

Chaney said four of the department’s 21 officers (11 are full-time) remain certified to use Tasers, but the devices probably will be phased out as the officers leave or retire.

“We don’t have a lot of officers clamoring for them,” he said. “Across the board, it’s become a lot less popular.”

The head of the largest police union in Franklin County said that might be a mistake.

“That’s unfortunate,” said Jason Pappas, president of Fraternal Order of Police Capital City Lodge No. 9. “Anytime you can implement a less-than-lethal use-of-force option, that’s an asset.”

Stun guns, he said, fall between the use of a baton, flashlight or fists and shooting someone.

The national FOP agrees.

“The potential for death is far, far higher with a firearm. If a community is worried about liability, they ought to worry about the ultimate use of force,” said Jim Pasco, executive director of the national FOP in Washington, D.C.

“Following their convoluted logic, why not disarm the officers altogether?”

But Hook’s attorney, Alphonse Gerhardstein, said the cost and complexity of using stun guns are not worth the dangers.

“It’s a rational choice” to stop using them, he said. Hook’s lawsuit and others against police almost always result in improved policy, Gerhardstein said.

Hook’s family declined to comment.

Some law-enforcement agencies have put programs on hold so that officers can be retrained after injuries occur, but “I can’t remember any that have discontinued their use for litigation reasons,” said Steve Tuttle, a 20-year spokesman for Arizona-based Taser International.

Agencies including the Columbus Police Division train officers not to stun suspects known to be covered in an accelerant such as gasoline, and to be cautious when suspects are off the ground, Tuttle said.

Neither Gerhardstein nor Pappas was aware of any other community cutting back on stun-gun use.

Township Trustee Chaney said the phaseout might be reconsidered, depending on officer input.

“We will always listen to our officers because they are on the front lines, and we need feedback from them,” Chaney said.

From The Columbus Dispatch