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O.C. Grand Jury calls for limits on Taser use

Two inmates died after being shocked. Report says stun guns should not be used if other means are available.

June 05, 2008|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

Alarmed by the recent deaths of two jail inmates who had been shocked with Taser electronic stun weapons, the Orange County Grand Jury on Wednesday recommended that deputies no longer use the weapon if other means to control inmates are available.

In its annual report, the State of the Orange County Jails, the grand jury said the recent inmate deaths were a "cause of alarm."

The report noted that jail staff used Tasers on 437 inmates between 2004 and 2007.

"There is major debate amongst experts as to whether the use of the Taser may cause heart failure and death," the grand jury wrote.

The grand jury recommended that the department prohibit deputies from using Tasers in situations where an "alternative form of control can be effectively used," and that it prohibit use of the Taser on people who are handcuffed.

The grand jury also suggested that a panel of experts review instances in which individuals die after deputies used Tasers on them.

Jason Jesus Gomez died April 1, six days after deputies used a Taser while restraining him at the Intake Release Center in Santa Ana.

Interim Sheriff Jack Anderson suspended several employees after reviewing Gomez's death, and the district attorney's office opened an investigation, which is ongoing. An attorney for the Gomez family has contended that Gomez died from blunt-force trauma, but no cause of death has been released by the sheriff or coroner.

Gomez had been sentenced March 20 to 90 days in jail for violating terms of his probation, the result of a 2006 conviction for displaying a firearm and cultivating marijuana, court records show.

He pointed the gun at a neighbor in Anaheim during an argument about a fence, according to the records.

In October, Michael Patrick Lass died after deputies used a Taser while trying to restrain him at the Central Men's Jail in Santa Ana.

He had been jailed for drinking in public.

A Sheriff's Department spokesman said the department's policies already prohibit the use of the Taser unless other less intrusive options are ineffective or would create a greater danger to the deputy or the inmate.

"We'll look at it, but the concerns raised by the grand jury would appear to have been addressed by our latest revisions to the Taser-use policy, which were issued in April," said sheriff's spokesman John McDonald.

Taser International Inc. issued a statement defending its product as safe and effective if used properly.

"While we respect the Orange County Grand Jury findings and welcome the review of an independent panel of experts to examine the use of Taser conducted energy devices as it relates to deaths after their use, we question the call for a suspension of use," Steve Tuttle, vice president of communications, said in a prepared statement.

In addition to concerns about the Taser use, the grand jury echoed concerns of lax deputy supervision, first raised by the district attorney's office in April in response to the 2006 killing of inmate John Derek Chamberlain at Theo Lacy Jail in Orange.

The grand jury also recommended that the department prohibit inmate "shot-callers" in its jails.

During the investigation of the Chamberlain death, deputies testified that it was common in at least one part of Theo Lacy for handpicked inmates to be used as "shot-callers" to enforce violations of jail policy.

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stuart.pfeifer@latimes.com

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