City officials to change Taser policy

Ashland police officers will no longer be required to write a report if they unholster their Tasers after Police Chief Terry Holderness voiced his concerns that the reporting requirement might cause officers to feel inhibited about having the non-lethal weapons at the ready.

Officers will still write reports if they actually use their Tasers, which deliver an electric shock.

APD purchased Tasers for all officers and issued the weapons in April 2008.

Back then, the Ashland City Council asked that the department track the number of times Tasers were unholstered in a field situation and when they were used.

Officers have unholstered their Tasers eight times since April 2008 but have not used them, Holderness reported to the City Council on Tuesday.

In one case, an officer went to the hospital with an injury when using a Taser may have been appropriate, he said.

Holderness said research consistently shows that Tasers are one of the safest ways that officers can use physical force. He said they are safer than other non-lethal weapons like batons.

City Councilor Greg Lemhouse, an officer with the Medford Police Department, said an officer or an offender could be hurt if an officer feels reluctant to unholster a Taser because of the reporting requirement.

"It could have a chilling effect," he said.

Holderness said a California Highway Patrol officer once entered a firefight with an unloaded shotgun. The officer had grown used to never loading his shotgun because officers had to write a report if they put a round in the weapon.

City Councilors agreed to leave it to Holderness to decide if Ashland officers will have to write a report for unholstering a Taser. Holderness said his choice will be to not require such reports.

While Ashland police officers were required by the City Council to write reports if they unholstered their Tasers, they were not required to write reports about unholstering their guns or pulling out their batons.

Holderness said as part of maintaining police department accreditation, departments are required to prepare annual use-of-force reports that record instances when force was used. Those reports do not require information about unholstering.

Although the City Council will no longer ask for a report on Taser unholstering, Holderness said he can pass information on to the council from the annual use-of-force report to keep councilors informed.

Most of APD's use-of-force incidents involve control holds, he said.

He said in many cases, Ashland officers will still be writing reports that will include information about whether they unholstered their Tasers.

For example, an officer responding to a fight who unholsters a Taser and arrests people will write about the unholstering when he or she prepares a report about the fight.

But if an officer responded to a call about a fight, heard yelling and unholstered a Taser as a precaution, the officer would not have to write a report if it turned out that there was no fight, Holderness said.

In all cases where officers have pulled out their Tasers since April 2008, they ended up writing reports that included information about the unholstering because the incidents were serious enough to require reports, he said.

In the two most recent cases, one situation involved a suicidal person with a knife and another involved a wanted person who was intoxicated and had a knife, Holderness said.

In 2004, a Southern Oregon University student died after overdosing on prescription drugs and being shocked by a Taser. A coroner's report ruled the death was a suicide.

APD's standard at that time was to allow Taser use if a suspect put up "active resistance." The police department later adopted more restrictive rules on Taser use.

Holderness said the standard now is that a person must be creating an actual risk of physical injury.

The next step up is to allow Taser use only when there is a risk of death, but very few police departments use that standard, he said.

In 2007, the American Civil Liberties Union said Ashland police erred in using Tasers in five out of six cases dating back to 2004, including the case involving the SOU student.

On Tuesday night, ACLU member David Berger appeared before the City Council to thank councilors and Holderness for their responses to the ACLU's input on an outside consulting firm's report that APD should adopt a more community-oriented policing strategy.

APD changes included adopting the more restrictive policy on when to use a Taser and opening a downtown police substation.

"I commend the chief and the council for the way they've dealt with this issue," Berger said.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 479-8199 or

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