ACLU of Oregon Investigates Taser Use by Ashland Police -- and Issues a Call for Reform

Sept. 12, 2007 -- For more than a decade, the American Civil Liberties Union, at the national and affiliate level, has been concerned about the potential abuse and misuse of conducted energy devices (CEDs, also known as Tasers or stun-guns) by law enforcement.

In Oregon, community outrage and discussion regarding the Jan. 22, 2006, death of Nicholas Ryan Hanson, a 24-year-old Southern Oregon student, following Taser use by Ashland police officers, prompted an investigation by the ACLU of Oregon and its Southern Oregon Chapter into police Taser use in Ashland.

The ACLU of Oregon and its Southern Oregon Chapter have concluded our investigation and present our report today, along with several key recommendations. Our report, “Taser Use by Ashland Police Officers and Recommendations for Reform,” finds that in only one of six documented incidents of Taser use by Ashland police in the past three years was use of a CED justified.

“There is no federal regulation of the Taser industry, and there is no medical consensus regarding either the short- or long-term medical effects of CEDs,” said David Fidanque, Executive Director of the ACLU of Oregon. “Given the risk of unintended fatalities, we believe the use of Tasers needs to be limited to situations that most likely would otherwise lead to the use of deadly force.”

Our first recommendation -- that the Ashland Police Department adopt standards, restrictions and guidelines set out in our report -- already has been accepted. Ashland Police Chief Terry Holderness has just issued a Taser policy that conforms to our recommendations.

In addition, we strongly urge that:

  • Ashland police use Tasers only under limited, monitored and supervised use for a three-year trial period;
  • All Ashland police officers undergo extensive training in techniques of crisis intervention and de-escalation of potentially violent situations, with particular focus on those who are mentally disturbed or under the influence of drugs or alcohol, in order to further reduce the need for Tasers; and
  • Full reports of all instances of Taser use be made public.
  • At the end of the three-year trial period, we ask the Ashland City Council to review the record of police Taser use and decide whether to permit continued use of CEDs by the Ashland Police Department.

In addition, in light of unresolved doubts in the Ashland community, the ACLU of Oregon and its Southern Oregon Chapter call for an independent investigation, including an independent medical review, regarding police and medical support actions surrounding the death of Nicholas Ryan Hanson.

“Our review of Taser use in Ashland indicates that police officers have used Tasers to coerce compliance in situations where there was no likely threat of significant injury or death to the officer or to others,” said Ralph Temple, member of the state and Southern Oregon Chapter boards of the ACLU of Oregon. “The threshold has been far too low, and we are pleased that Chief Holderness agrees this must change.”

The ACLU of Oregon, in conjunction with its Lane County Chapter, has submitted almost identical recommendations regarding Taser use to the Eugene Police Commission. The Eugene Police Department is planning to launch a pilot project for the use of Tasers this fall.

Our report calls for a two-part standard in determining when an officer should consider Taser use. CEDs should be used only by authorized trained personnel to subdue or control a person whom the officer reasonably believes:

  1. Creates an immediate, credible threat to the physical safety of the officer, another person, or the individual himself/herself; and
  2. Unless prompt action is taken to immobilize the person, there is a substantial likelihood the situation could lead to the death or physical injury of the officer, another person, or the individual himself/herself. (ORS 161.015(7) provides that “‘Physical injury’ means impairment of physical condition or substantial pain.”)

In any case of Taser use, both standards must be met. (For a complete explanation of this two-part standard, please read the full report, as well as our general statement on tasers.)