Use of Taser on Disruptive Store Customer Questioned
It happened last month when a Daytona Beach police officer stunned a yoga instructor. The officer used her Taser when the teacher refused to pipe down inside the Best Buy store on West International Speedway Boulevard.
Some human rights and civil liberties experts say a Taser, and the 50,000 volts its twin projectile probes deliver, should never be used in a situation like that. But Daytona Beach's police chief said the verbal lashing his officer got and the way her commands were ignored gave his officer every right to use her weapon.
The incident reflects a growing international debate over Taser use. Last month, after six people who were stunned died in the United States and Canada, a United Nations committee said the use of Tasers can be a form of torture. Law enforcement advocates counter that stun guns are safe, essential tools that save officer lives and protect the public.
It was Nov. 26 when 35-year-old Elizabeth Beeland of Ormond Beach stopped at the store to purchase a CD player for her father, she told The Daytona Beach News-Journal before refusing to speak more about the incident.
Beeland's shopping trip ended up with a ride to the Volusia County Branch Jail, charged with two misdemeanors -- one for disorderly conduct and the other for resisting a police officer without violence.
Beeland's attorney entered a plea of not guilty in the case and now it will be up to the State Attorney's Office to determine whether to prosecute.
In a report police are required to prepare after deploying their Tasers, Officer Claudia Wright said she used her weapon on Beeland because the woman was "verbally profane, abusive, loud and irate." Beeland pointed her finger "towards my face" and was waving her arms, the officer wrote.
But is that against the law? And is yelling at a cop considered enough resistance to merit the use of a Taser?
According to an American Civil Liberties Union representative in Orlando, yelling at a police officer and even cussing one out is constitutionally protected speech. And both the ACLU and Amnesty International USA say this incident likely could have been handled differently, adding that Taser use has become too casual and too common among police officers.
Police Chief Mike Chitwood said if a Taser had not been available, his officer likely would have used other weapons to subdue Beeland.
"I was never raised on Tasers," the chief said. "I used nightsticks and slapjacks."
The chief said Wright initially approached Beeland under the assumption a credit card had been stolen. In the end, it was determined Beeland was using her own card and had committed no crime.
But according to Wright's report -- the officer declined comment for this story -- Beeland yelled to the point of disrupting business at the Best Buy and she would not comply with the officer's commands. Wright warned Beeland she could be arrested and ultimately, could be shot with the Taser, unless she calmed down, the report shows.
Wright, at the store investigating another matter, was called over by a Best Buy cashier that afternoon after Beeland -- who was about to pay for her item with a credit card -- suddenly left her transaction unfinished and walked outside.
The cashier apparently thought the card was stolen because of Beeland's sudden exit, the report indicates. When Wright caught up with Beeland just outside the glass doors, Wright said, Beeland began yelling at her, even at one point using the "F" word.
The officer said she asked Beeland to calm down. She then asked Beeland to step inside the store so it could be determined whether the credit card left with the cashier was hers.
Once inside, Wright states Beeland kept yelling at her and causing a disruption. She says Beeland's screaming drew a crowd of patrons. Wright said she told Beeland if she didn't calm down, she would be arrested.
Finally, Wright warned Beeland if she didn't quit the commotion, she would have to deploy her Taser.
A tape from the store's surveillance camera shows Beeland motioning with her hands and talking to Wright. She is seen slowly backing away from Wright as the officer advances.
Then, in one fell swoop, the tape shows Wright reaching for the Taser gun and shooting Beeland in the abdomen. She crumpled to the floor.
The entire confrontation inside the store took less than a minute, the tape shows.
Police Department policy states an officer can deploy his or her Taser "for the purpose of subduing a violent, noncompliant or combative subject."
Another section titled "Use of Force," says the Taser may be deployed when an officer believes the person presents a threat to the officer or to others "in the event that lesser force options are ineffective." The Taser also should be deployed to prevent the escape of a "criminal suspect," and when a "subject actively resists arrest or detention by violence or threat of violence."
Beeland, although not compliant, was not acting violently, according to the officer's report. However, Chitwood said his officer had been flagged down under the assumption Beeland may have stolen a credit card.
The fact Wright said Beeland refused to comply only further fueled the situation, Chitwood said.
"The fact that she (Beeland) was resisting and not following commands being given by a uniformed officer, that means that officer eventually was going to get hurt," Chitwood said. "Claudia Wright did not wake up that morning and say, 'I think I want to tase someone today.'
"The woman's actions caused this to happen," the chief said.
A News-Journal review of all Taser incidents by Daytona Beach police in November shows officers used the weapons 10 times. Beeland's was the only incident that did not involve violence or a fleeing criminal suspect.
Officials with the ACLU and Amnesty International USA say other tactics should have been used, especially because Beeland was not acting violently or threatening the officer in any way.
"In my view, a Taser should be used only as an alternative to a gun," said Glenn Katon, director of the Central Region of the ACLU in Orlando. "Is yelling (at an officer) enough resistance to cause someone to be Tasered?
"People are getting killed with Tasers," he said.
Taser use has become so commonplace, Katon said, that officers no longer employ other training tactics they've learned to subdue people.
"I certainly don't want to see an officer get hurt, but a cop should have enough training to be able to use something other than a Taser to calm someone down," Katon said.
Jason Disterhoft, a human rights campaigner with Amnesty International USA, said a Taser should be used when lethal force is the only alternative, "not just when somebody refuses to comply with an order.
"The force used should be proportionate with the threat posed," Disterhoft said.
Chitwood said Taser critics don't understand the types of situations police encounter.
"Everybody has their opinion, but at the end of the day none of the people who have an opinion walk in that officer's shoes," Chitwood said.
That afternoon when Beeland suddenly walked away from her transaction, leaving her credit card behind at the cash register, she had received an upsetting telephone call from her husband about their child, said Beeland's attorney, William Chanfrau Jr.
Distraught, she walked outside to speak to him more privately, forgetting for that moment about her card and her purchase, he said.
"She fully intended to go back inside and finish making her purchase," Chanfrau said.
© 2007 Daytona Beach News-Journal