The New York Civil Liberties Union today filed a lawsuit in state court challenging the Albany Police Department’s refusal to fully disclose public records about its use of Tasers.
“The public has every right to complete information on the Police Department’s use of Tasers,” said Melanie Trimble, director of the NYCLU’s Capital Region Chapter. “While there may be instances where Tasers are appropriate law enforcement tools, they are potentially lethal weapons and they require the same degree of scrutiny and supervision as firearms. No lethal weapon should ever be used without detailed study, and clear and well-vetted guidelines.”
Prompted by numerous reports of Taser misuse by police officers in the state and throughout the country, the NYCLU initiated a statewide study of New York law enforcement agencies’ use of the weapons. Through the state Freedom of Information Law, it asked 10 police departments across the state to provide use-of-force policies regarding their use of Tasers. Eight of the agencies either produced their policies in full or reported that no such policies exist. Only the Albany Police Department and Saratoga Springs Police Department produced policies with redactions.
The NYCLU sued the City of Saratoga Springs seeking full disclosure of the Taser policy, and a judge ruled in May that the city’s redactions had “no basis.” Despite this ruling, the Albany Police Department continues to assert a right to substantially redact its Taser policy.
“Transparency about the use of Tasers is an important public safety issue,” said NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Corey Stoughton. “Records the NYCLU has received from across the state raise serious questions about how police departments are deploying these potentially lethal weapons. The public needs to know what guidelines police are given for their use.”
Tasers fire twin metal barbs that typically deliver a 50,000-volt charge into an individual, causing the person to collapse from loss of muscular control. There have been numerous instances of people being killed or seriously injured by Tasers. In September 2008, a Brooklyn man fell to his death after police shot him with a Taser as he stood on a second-story ledge of an apartment building. In March 2005, a teenager in Guilderland, a town outside Albany, was badly burned after police shot him with a Taser in a mall parking lot.
Moreover, concern has been growing throughout the state that police officers are using Tasers in inappropriate circumstances. In Syracuse, for example, controversy arose last September after police officers fired Tasers on public school students three times in two days, once hitting an innocent bystander during a school fight. In January 2009, an Onondaga County sheriff’s deputy reportedly Tasered a mother twice in front of her children after accusing her of driving while talking on a cell phone.
Lawyers on this case include Stoughton, Staff Attorney Katharine Bodde and Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn.