As police confront protesters across the US, some are using a weapon that has potential to kill: the Taser. When those encounters have turned fatal, Reuters has found black people make up a disproportionate share of those who die.
Reuters documented more than 1,000 cases through the end of 2018 in which people died after being shocked by police with a Taser, nearly all since the early 2000s. At least 32 percent of those who died were black, and at least 29 percent were white. African-Americans make up 14 percent of the US population, and non-Hispanic whites 60 percent.
Reuters was unable to document the race in 13 percent of the deaths involving people of Hispanic ethnicity. The race was also unknown in the remaining 26 percent of the cases.
The deaths illustrate a challenge for US law enforcement at a time when protests over police killings have thrown a spotlight on their tactics.
In a May 30th incident that went viral, two black college students were stunned with a Taser by Atlanta police officers. The students say they had gone out to get food when they got stuck in traffic due to protests over the death of George Floyd.
Bodycam video shows officers firing their Tasers at the couple and dragging them out of the car. Young was treated in the hospital and required stitches.
Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields apologized at a news conference the next day. Shields resigned on Saturday after the Friday night death of Rayshard Brooks. A police officer shot the 27-year-old with his handgun after Brooks ran away with an officer’s Taser and pointed it at police following a scuffle, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said
Six police officers involved in the May 30th incident -- five of them black, one white -- were charged for using excessive force. Four of the officers have been fired. An attorney for two of the fired officers who have sued the police chief and mayor seeking their jobs back says the criminal charges against the officers were rushed for political reasons.
And as thousands of people marched in Washington, D.C. on June 6th to protest police violence, authorities in neighboring Virginia released video showing a white officer repeatedly deploying a Taser on a black man.
Bodycam video shows the officer firing the stun gun into the man’s neck. As officers tried to subdue him, he could be heard crying out for help. Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin Roessler condemned the officer’s actions saying the use of force was unacceptable. “We have a problem in our profession. We do disproportionately use force in the African-American community, and we need to understand why,” Roessler said.
Officer Tyler Timberlake, an 8-year veteran of the force, was charged with three counts of assault and battery. He faces up to three years in prison if convicted. Timberlake’s attorney says the officer thought the man he was subduing was someone else who had an extensive criminal record.
While most people shocked by Tasers do not die, some confrontations involving the weapon end in death. 58-year-old Eurie Martin of Georgia was stunned repeatedly by Washington County sheriff’s deputies in July of 2017. Martin, who suffered from schizophrenia, was walking to visit relatives for his birthday when he stopped to ask a homeowner for a drink of water. The homeowner called police to check out Martin, “a black man.”
When deputies arrived, they fired their Tasers 15 times, according to court documents. An autopsy ruled he died of cardiac arrhythmia due to police restraint.
“What’s going on with the country, you know with George Floyd, that happens more often than we know if these small towns and we don’t hear about it,” said Tiffiney Hodge, an attorney representing Martin’s family. Last November, a judge granted the three deputies - all white - immunity from prosecution just weeks before they were to go to trial on murder charges in Martin’s death. The deputies had pleaded not guilty.
The judge ruled the deputies acted in self-defense and that their use of the Taser was justified and reasonable. The district attorney appealed the ruling and the case is scheduled to be heard before the state Supreme Court on August 20.