The shocking truth: A new report finds inappropriate Taser use behind bars

AP Photo/Michael Conroy, File

As Americans engage in conversations about police brutality, one publication is working to highlight a form of misconduct that is often overlooked.

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Earlier this year, a young man named Jordan Elias Norris found himself in police custody in Cheatham County, Tenn. after being charged with drug possession and theft. When Norris finally returned home, his stepfather, William Chapman, counted about 40 burns from a Taser device on his body.

“I was actually giving the police benefit of the doubt over my own child because I was thinking he must have been fighting back, he must have been resisting,” Chapman said.

Then he saw the videos.

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Surveillance video from the county jail showed at least three deputies tasing Norris while he was strapped to a chair. In one incident, the officers held the Taser to his body for 50 seconds.

“I’ll keep on doing that until I run out of batteries,” threatened one of the deputies, Mark Bryant, on camera.

The family believed that the issue was not inherently the use of a Taser, but the fact that officers did not appear to have proper justification for several of the incidents. They also debated the use of the Taser while Norris was already restrained.

A lawsuit filed by Norris argued:

Most of the Taser burns sustained by Plaintiff Norris are not accounted for by the Use of Force Reports and video clips received from the Cheatham County Sheriff’s Office, raising further questions and creating a reasonable belief that Plaintiff Norris was also repeatedly tased on other occasions without proper justification.

While Norris survived his experience, a shocking report from Reuters indicates Tasers have contributed to the deaths of at least 104 inmates:

Reuters identified 104 deaths involving Tasers behind bars, nearly all since 2000 – 10 percent of a larger universe of more than 1,000 fatal law enforcement encounters in which the weapons were used. Some of the in-custody deaths were deemed “multi-factorial,” with no distinct cause, and some were attributed to pre-existing health problems. But the Taser was listed as a cause or contributing factor in more than a quarter of the 84 inmate deaths in which the news agency obtained autopsy findings.

Of the 104 inmates who died, just two were armed. A third were in handcuffs or other restraints when stunned. In more than two-thirds of the 70 cases in which Reuters was able to gather full details, the inmate already was immobilized when shocked – pinned to the ground or held by officers.

U.S. Justice Department consultant Steve Martin said that there is a “high potential for abuse” when it comes to Tasers and inmates. Martin has inspected hundreds of correctional facilities in the country.

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“When you inflict pain, serious pain, for the singular purpose of inflicting pain, not to accomplish a tactical objective, what is that? It meets the definition of the legal standard of excessive force, but it’s also torturous,” he observed.

Reuters interviewed Martini Smith, who is featured in the video below.

When she was 20 years old, a pregnant Smith stood partially naked in a Franklin County jail in Columbus, Ohio. She was charged with stabbing the boyfriend she said beat her.

Corporal Matthew Stice instructed her to remove her tongue ring. She said that it was slippery and asked for a paper towel to help her remove it. Her request was denied and Stice and another officer threatened to Tase her. Smith pleaded with them, saying she just wanted to go to sleep.

Security video shows her gasping and falling to the floor after the officers tased her.

“I wasn’t harming nobody. I can’t just take it out,” she said after asking why they tased her.

She suffered a miscarriage five days later.

Smith’s story is just one of the hundreds Reuters identified for their series, which can be read in full here.

What do you think?

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