Shocking Failure

The M26 Taser: Was it the cold weather or the winter coat that rendered it useless?
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On March 10, when Minneapolis City Councilman Dean Zimmermann heard about the shooting of Abu Kassim Jeilani by Minneapolis police, he had the same question as a lot of people: Why couldn't the cops subdue the disturbed, machete-wielding man by some means short of a deadly barrage of gunfire? Zimmermann knew that the police had twice fired on Jeilani with M26 Tasers, the high-tech electric stun guns the department acquired following the outcry over three earlier fatal shootings of mentally ill people.

But when the tasers failed, Zimmermann says, the police should have had other options. "It just seems to me that in our technological society, the police should have a whole range of instruments at their disposal," he offers. "Spiderman uses a net. I don't understand why they don't."

That question isn't as fanciful as it sounds. In fact, there is already such a product on the market--the Webshot Capture Net. The Kevlar mesh net--fired from a launcher that resembles a sawed-off shotgun--is designed to control people armed with weapons other than firearms. In other words, for situations much like the cops' encounter with Jeilani.

Effective from ranges of up to 30 feet, the capture net is only sparingly used by U.S. police agencies, says Dave Alvirez, CEO of the Arkansas-based ALS Technologies, which manufactures the net. In large part, Alvirez explains, it is a straight-up cost issue. At $125 per use, most police agencies and city councils don't yet regard the capture net as a wise investment.

But while the Webshot Capture Net has yet to catch on, law enforcement agencies nationwide have increasingly invested in other "less lethal" technologies. "There's been a very rapid growth in our industry," observes Alvirez. "We're seeing 15 to 20 percent a year."

Chemical irritants such as pepper spray remain the mainstay, followed by so-called special impact munitions: rubber bullets, beanbags, and the like. And then there are tasers, which stun suspects into submission with an immobilizing high voltage electrical shock. In use by police agencies like the Los Angeles Police Department since the mid-Seventies, tasers have a mixed performance record. According to LAPD spokesman Jack Richter, department statistics show a success rate hovering around 64 percent. But, Richter adds, many of the failures--including a notoriously ineffective application in the Rodney King case--occurred when the department was using an earlier generation of lower-powered tasers. In December, the LAPD bought 500 M26 Tasers--the same model Minneapolis police now use. The new tasers pack more wallop than older models and come equipped with such high-tech features as laser sights.

Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for Taser International, the manufacturer, says the M26 is effective 94 percent of the time. "Nobody in the field can touch us," Tuttle says. "But we're not at 100 percent yet. And that forces us to look at what happens in the 6 percent."

Some of that 6 percent has made headlines. In a case with remarkable similarities to the Jeilani shooting, Seattle police shot a knife-wielding man to death in November after two blasts from an M26 Taser failed to subdue him. Just as in Minneapolis, the Seattle police purchased the tasers in response to the killing of a mentally ill man the previous year.

According to Tuttle, there are several possible explanations for the failure of the M26 in the Jeilani case. The device shoots two darts that are connected to a thin strand of copper wire. In order to deliver a shock, both darts must strike the subject and remain within two inches of the body. Perhaps, Tuttle speculates, one of the darts struck Jeilani in the coat, and, as he fell, the coat swung away from his body, breaking the circuit. Or perhaps one of the wires simply broke loose.

Another possibility is temperature. The M26 Tasers employed by the MPD derive their shocking power from eight AA alkaline batteries. In temperatures below 40 degrees, alkaline batteries weaken, says Tuttle. As a result, the company is now recommending that police replace the alkaline batteries with better-performing nickel hydride metal rechargeable batteries.

According to Minneapolis Sgt. Ron Bellendier, Minneapolis officers used the new stun guns 15 times before their encounter with Jeilani and have generally been satisfied with their performance. "They've got a good track record," says Bellendier. "That's why we went with them. The effectiveness has been what we expected." Currently the department has 35 tasers and expects to acquire another 50 in the near future.

The most common questions raised in the wake of Jeilani's shooting have nothing to do with taser failure. Rather, people ask why the cops who shot Jeilani didn't aim for his leg or arm. The short answer: Such tactics run contrary to a fundamental mantra of police training. Once cops decide to use deadly force, they are instructed to aim for the center of mass, which typically means the torso.

"No legitimate police practitioner would suggest you try and hit a part of the body that's small and moves very fast," says David Grossi, a retired police instructor who now works as a trial consultant in Florida, where he specializes in use-of-force issues. In "live, dynamic street situations" officers have an average "hit rate" of about 20 percent, he explains. "If you wind up shooting at the leg, you're going to have a hit rate in the single digits," Grossi says. "If you're missing 90 percent of the time, you've got to think about what happens to all those rounds. That's dangerous to the public."

Such explanations don't entirely satisfy critics like Sixth Ward's Dean Zimmermann. "Olson was quoted as saying, 'Everything was done by the book,'" notes Zimmermann, making reference to remarks from Minneapolis Police Chief Robert Olson in the wake of the Jeilani shooting. "If that's true, we may need to rewrite the book."

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