The Shocking Truth
It wasn't supposed to end this way: one man dead, almost a dozen shots fired and three officers badly shaken. Tairon Gray was supposed to allow deputies to take him to the county psychiatric center. And if he didn't, well they had a Taser.
But when Gray pulled a butcher knife, the deputy constables whipped out the Taser and fired -- three times.
Gray didn't even seem to feel it. He just kept brandishing the knife.
One officer tried to tackle Gray, says Precinct 1 Chief J.C. Mosier. When that failed, and Gray instead grabbed the officer's gun, the deputies opened fire.
Gray died in a flurry of bullets, four days before his 24th birthday last January. It was the precinct's first death in 26 years of delivering mental health warrants.
Constables in the first precinct handle those warrants for all of Harris County. There's a high potential for violence: Family members will report that their relatives have guns, that they've vowed not to go quietly, that they could do anything, Mosier says. The constables' best defense is often a Taser.
But, as Mosier admits, the Taser's failure in the Gray case "was not that unusual." Investigators determined that deputies didn't miss their target. There weren't dead batteries or equipment malfunctions.
"That Taser was working. It just had no effect," explains Precinct 1 Lieutenant Troy Billings. "Even the company that makes them will tell you they only have an 85 percent take-down rate. The other 10 percent-plus, they just have little to no effect."
The city of Houston is about to spend $4.67 million to buy Tasers. With the purchase, Houston will have twice the number of Tasers of any law enforcement agency in the country.
Police Chief Harold Hurtt brushes off concerns that Tasers are unreliable.
"Maybe when you're talking about 20-year-old technology," he says. "The technology we have today will knock you down."
Houston police have used Tasers 27 times in the last four years. Reports from those incidents, while frequently sketchy, indicate that in nearly 40 percent of the cases, the Taser didn't do the job.
One rape suspect didn't drop his knife even after getting hit with the Taser darts; the officer noted that he was pulling the darts from his stomach when they hit him with a second round. (That one worked.)
In another incident, officers were forced to use chemical spray after the Taser failed twice. In a separate case, the Taser had "no effect" and the officer had to pull out his wooden baton. Again and again, officers had to resort to more traditional weapons, from the beanbag guns that shoot soft projectiles to chemical spray, according to records.
Locally, Tairon Gray is the only person killed after a Taser failed. But last year in Mesa, Arizona, cops twice shot and killed suspects after Tasers didn't do the trick. In Portland, Oregon, the case of 21-year-old Kendra James became a big scandal last winter. James attempted to flee during a traffic stop. According to the Oregonian, the cops tried to use pepper spray. Then she was shot with the Taser, but it didn't work. She was killed when an officer opened fire.
Houston has been using Tasers purchased in 1991, which provides an easy explanation for the astonishing failure rate. But Mesa and Portland police use products developed in the last five years, TASER International's Advanced Taser M-26 and its newer, lighter cousin, the X-26. The constables use the M-26, and Houston plans to buy the X-26.
Police praise the new Tasers as a dramatic improvement in technology. With it, TASER International has gone from a low-profile start-up with few clients to a company with a virtual monopoly on the exploding stun-gun market, with sales to 24 percent of all law enforcement agencies.
In demonstrations, Tasers can be very effective, but it's much different to fire at a man waiting for the shock than to try to hit a struggling suspect.
"There are limits to the technology," concedes TASER International spokesman Steve Tuttle. "If you want it to work, your batteries have to be properly charged. And both probes have to hit the body. If they hit loose clothing, like maybe a jacket, contact is broken, and you may have a problem." For example, investigations on James and Gray concluded that the Tasers were ineffective because one dart failed to make contact.
Even when conditions are perfect, Tasers aren't. The Seattle Police Department did an extensive study after its first year using the M-26s. While it praised the weapons overall, its report noted that police were able to make "verified Taser contact" only 86 percent of the time. Even when contact was confirmed, the Tasers still failed to deliver "a disabling or partially disabling effect" 5 percent of the time.
(While the X-26 is still too new to have received much scrutiny, spokesman Tuttle says its main difference from the M-26 is that it's almost a pound lighter. The voltage is the same, although the X-26 requires a new cartridge after each round fired.)
Billings, the Precinct 1 lieutenant, says Tasers work best on big muscular guys; skinny people, the mentally ill and those high on drugs can be more difficult.
Some law enforcement online chat rooms detail other problems. One officer, identified only as "Stump," wrote in 2002 that not only did the M-26 fail to immobilize one suspect, it ended up shocking the officer who fired it: The officer "was sent to the hospital to treat burns on his hand from his own Taser! No, we were not standing in water, we were in the bedroom of a house." The suspect finally went down "the old-fashioned way, hands on," Stump wrote.
Hurtt was the chief of police in Phoenix when the department purchased 60 Tasers. Amazed by their success, he became the first chief of a major city to purchase a Taser for every officer in 2002. The move paid off: In 2003, the first year that Phoenix put Tasers in wide use, police shootings dropped 31 percent. (Numbers for this year are back up to 2002 levels.)
When Hurtt took over in Houston this year, one of his first priorities was to purchase 3,700 Tasers -- enough for every officer. City Council is expected to approve the funding this week.
At $800 each, the Tasers will cost Houston $4.67 million. It's a sizable sum in a tough financial year: HPD has scaled back hours at some storefront stations, cut the DARE program and disbanded the Police Activities League. Since Houston doesn't have the money for Tasers on hand, it will have to finance the purchase with low-interest bonds.
The biggest criticism of Tasers hasn't been over their effectiveness -- instead, human rights groups have worried that the voltage is too effective. Medical examiners have linked Tasers to at least five deaths.
Hurtt insists those suspects would have died anyway. "The same people were dying in the '80s during the crack epidemic. Adrenaline -- that's what killed them. And they're certainly a lot more likely to die if they're shot with a .45."
Still, Hurtt vows that each instance of Taser use will be taken seriously. Officers will have to file a report, which he indicates he'll personally review: "If you use it, you've got to deal with the chief."
It's a big change in policy. HPD first purchased Tasers in 1991, and began supplying one Taser per beat in 1998, says Sergeant Dwayne Ready. But the department has never required officers to fill out a special report after firing them. The department's "Use of Force" policy makes special note of Tasers, although HPD considers that section closed to the public. In response to the Houston Press's public records request, it released only a heavily redacted version, which notes solely that "at least one officer in every patrol beat will be assigned a Taser." That's it.
Department records indicate that half of the Taser incidents involved mentally impaired people, so HPD declined to release any details. In ten of the 11 other incidents, those hit by Tasers were African-American males. Only three of them were armed; weapons ranged from a paring knife to a metal pipe and a screwdriver.
The men clearly were resisting arrest. Hurtt notes that if cops didn't have Tasers, they'd have to use something else, perhaps even a nightstick, "and that never looks good." Tasers, he says, work quickly, with no permanent damage.
"It's not a magic bullet, but there is no such thing as a magic bullet," says spokesman Tuttle. "It's as close as you can get today. The other methods aren't even in our class."
Indeed, despite the shooting last January, even Precinct 1 isn't giving up on the Tasers. Billings says it's truly terrifying for an officer if he's firing his Taser and nothing happens. But he'd still like to get funding to buy more.
"Eighty percent of the time, it is very effective, and it keeps us from having to go physical," he says. "That's an option I'd like to take a chance on."
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