Black Americans disproportionately die in police Taser confrontations

By Linda So

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As police confront protesters across the United States, they’re turning to rubber bullets, pepper spray, tear gas and other weapons meant to minimize fatalities.

But some are using a weapon that has potential to kill: the Taser. When those encounters have turned fatal, black people make up a disproportionate share of those who die, according to a Reuters analysis.

Reuters documented 1,081 cases through the end of 2018 in which people died after being shocked by police with a Taser, the vast majority of them after 2000. At least 32% of those who died were black, and at least 29% were white. African-Americans make up 14% of the U.S. population, and non-Hispanic whites 60%.

To explore the Reuters database of deaths involving police and Tasers, click here:

“These racial disparities in Taser deaths are horrifying but unsurprising,” said Carl Takei, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union. “Police violence is a leading cause of death for black people in America, in large part because over-policing of black and brown communities results in unnecessary police contacts and unnecessary use of force.”

In 13% of the deaths identified in police reports, autopsies or other records as involving people of Hispanic ethnicity, Reuters was unable to document race. The race of the person who died was also unknown in the remaining 26% of the cases.

The deaths illustrate a challenge for U.S. law enforcement at a time when protests over police killings have thrown a spotlight on their tactics. Tasers, which deliver a pulsed electrical current meant to give police several seconds to restrain a subject, have been nearly universally embraced since the early 2000s as a less lethal alternative to firearms. About 94% of America’s roughly 18,000 police agencies now issue Tasers.

Tasers drew fresh attention over the weekend 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. A lawyer for the Brooks family, L. Chris Stewart, said Brooks’ wielding of the Taser didn’t justify his shooting, noting that police routinely argue in court that the devices are non-lethal weapons.

In a series of reports in 2017, however, Reuters identified more than a thousand cases since 2000 in which people died after being shocked by police with the weapons, typically in combination with other forms of force.

Most independent researchers who have studied Tasers say deaths are rare when they are used properly. But the Reuters investigation found that many police officers are not trained properly on the risks, and the weapons are often misused. Tasers fire a pair of barbed darts that deliver a paralyzing electrical charge or can be pressed directly against the body – the “drive stun” mode – causing intense pain.

Some recent examples of Taser misuse highlight the risks and confusion surrounding the weapon.

On May 30, during nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, two college students, Taniyah Pilgrim, 20, and Messiah Young, 22, had gone out to get food and were stuck in traffic due to the demonstrations in Atlanta.

In a confrontation with police caught on bodycam video, one officer repeatedly struck the driver’s side window with a baton as a second officer stunned Pilgrim with a Taser. A third officer used a Taser on Young, as the police dragged the black students out of the car.

Video footage of the officers shocking them drew criticism around the country. Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields apologized at a news conference the next day. “How we behaved as an agency, as individuals was unacceptable,” she said. Young was treated in the hospital and required stitches. Shields resigned on Saturday after the Brooks killing.

After the May 30 incident, one officer wrote in a police report that he used his Taser because he was unsure whether the students were armed. The Taser’s manufacturer, Axon Enterprise Inc, warns in guidelines distributed to police departments that the weapon should not be used on people who are driving or restrained. And law enforcement experts say Tasers generally shouldn’t be used on anyone who is already immobilized, such as in a car.

Six police officers involved in the incident — five of them black, one white — were charged for using excessive force. Four have been fired. Two have sued the mayor and police chief seeking their jobs back. An attorney representing the two officers says he believes the firings were politically motivated.

“The question police should be asking is not: ‘Can I use the Taser?’ but ‘Should I?’” said Michael Leonesio, a retired police officer who ran the Oakland Police Department’s Taser program and has served as an expert witness in wrongful death lawsuits against Axon. “This is a dangerous weapon,” Leonesio said. “The more it’s used, the more people are going to die.”

Axon says its weapons are not risk-free but are safer than batons, fists, tackles and impact munitions. “Any loss of life is a tragedy regardless of the circumstance, which is why we remain committed to developing technology and training to protect both officers and the community,” the company said in an email to Reuters.

“TASE HIS ASS”

On a hot July day in 2017, Eurie Martin, 58, wanted a drink of water. After walking more than 12 miles to visit relatives for his birthday, he stopped to ask a homeowner for water in Deepstep, a town of about 130 people in central Georgia. The homeowner refused and called police to check out Martin, “a black man,” according to the district attorney.

Martin was walking on the side of the road when a Washington County Sheriff’s deputy arrived and tried to speak with him. Martin, who suffered from schizophrenia, ignored him and kept walking. The deputy called for backup.

The officers said Martin got “defensive” and “clinched his fists,” ignoring commands to place his hands behind his back, the district attorney said. One deputy told another to “Tase his ass,” according to the officers’ dashboard camera video.

When the deputy fired the Taser, Martin fell to the ground, removed the Taser prong from his arm, and walked away. A third deputy arrived and fired his stun gun at Martin’s back, causing him to fall.

The deputies surrounded Martin as he lay face down, applying the weight of their bodies and deployed their Tasers 15 times. Martin could be heard crying out in pain saying, “they killing me.” He died of cardiac arrhythmia during police restraint, according to an autopsy.

“He was a victim of walking while black,” said Mawuli Davis, an attorney representing Martin’s family. The deputies, who were fired after they were indicted, said they followed their training on use of the stun gun.

Last November, a judge granted the three deputies – all white – immunity from prosecution just weeks before they were to go trial on murder charges in Martin’s death.

In its guidelines distributed to police departments, Axon warns against using multiple Tasers at the same time. Law enforcement experts say repeated applications and continuous use of stun guns can increase the risk of death and should be avoided.

The sheriff’s office declined to respond to multiple requests for comment.

The judge ruled the deputies acted in self-defense and that their use of the Taser was “justified” and “reasonable under the circumstances.” Citing Georgia’s Stand Your Ground Law, the judge wrote all people have the right to use reasonable force to protect themselves against “death or great bodily injury.”

The district attorney appealed the ruling, and the case is scheduled to be heard before the state Supreme Court in August. If the high court overturns the lower court’s ruling, the murder charges against the deputies will be reinstated.

Martin died “for daring to ask for a drink of water in the Georgia sun,” said his sister Helen Gilbert. “Every person of common sense knows he did nothing to deserve his death. I will not rest until this long walk to justice is complete.”

SCRUTINY

Deaths involving Tasers typically draw little public scrutiny – no government agency tracks how often they’re used or how many of those deployments prove fatal. Coroners and medical examiners use varying standards to assess a Taser’s role in a death. And there are no uniform national standards governing police use of Tasers.

Late in 2009, as evidence of cardiac risks from Tasers mounted, the manufacturer made a crucial change: It warned police to avoid firing its stun gun’s electrified darts at a person’s chest.

But on March 3 in Tacoma, Washington, that warning wasn’t heeded.

Newly released video and audio recordings show Tacoma police officers using a Taser and beating a black man as he shouted, “I can’t breathe” — similar to George Floyd’s desperate cry when a white police officer in Minneapolis pressed a knee into his neck on May 25.

Police said they found Manuel Ellis, 33, trying to open doors of unoccupied cars and that he attacked a police vehicle and two officers. An attorney for his family said he was walking home from a convenience store when the confrontation with police took place.

Police handcuffed Ellis and bound his legs with a canvas strap after firing a Taser into his chest, according to an autopsy report. He lost consciousness, and efforts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful. The medical examiner ruled his death a homicide. An autopsy listed his cause of death as respiratory arrest due to hypoxia as a result of physical restraint.

His death sparked protests in Tacoma on June 5 after video of the incident surfaced. The governor called for a new investigation, and the city’s mayor demanded the four officers involved be fired and prosecuted. Two officers are white, one is black and the other is Asian. They have been placed on administrative leave, but have not been charged.

One of the officers, Christopher Burbank, declined to comment. Attempts by Reuters to reach the other three were unsuccessful. The Tacoma Police Department said it was cooperating with county and state investigators.

(Additional reporting by Grant Smith. Editing by Jason Szep)

Hong Kong set to enact emergency laws as it struggles to contain violence

By Clare Jim and Felix Tam

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s government is expected to discuss sweeping emergency laws on Friday that would include banning face masks at protests, two sources told Reuters, as the Chinese-ruled territory grapples with an escalating cycle of violence.

Authorities have already loosened guidelines on the use of force by police, according to documents seen by Reuters on Thursday, as they struggle to stamp out anti-government protests that have rocked Hong Kong for nearly four months.

The loosening of restrictions on the use of force by police came into effect just before some of the most violent turmoil yet at protests on Tuesday, when a teenaged secondary school student was shot by an officer in the chest and wounded – the first time a demonstrator had been hit by live fire.

More than 100 people were wounded, after police fired about 1,400 rounds of tear gas, 900 rubber bullets and six live rounds as protesters threw petrol bombs and wielded sticks.

The Beijing-backed local government was set to hold a meeting on Friday morning where it was likely to enact a colonial-era emergency law that has not been used in half a century, two sources with knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

Media reports earlier on Thursday of an expected ban on face masks – which hundreds of thousands of protesters wear to conceal their identities and shield themselves from tear gas – sent Hong Kong’s stock market up to a one-week high.

Growing opposition to the former British colony’s government has plunged the financial hub into its biggest political crisis in decades and poses the gravest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power.

Protesters are angry about what they see as creeping interference by Beijing in their city’s affairs despite a promise of autonomy in the “one country, two systems” formula under which Hong Kong returned to China in 1997.

China dismisses accusations it is meddling and has accused foreign governments, including the United States and Britain, of stirring up anti-China sentiment.

As speculation of an emergency law swirled, riot police moved into districts across Hong Kong that have seen violent clashes between demonstrators and security forces in recent weeks, according to Telegram groups, a popular encrypted messaging app popular with protesters.

LIVE ROUNDS

Local media Now TV and Cable TV reported the changes to the police procedures manual took effect on Sept. 30, the day before Tuesday’s violence at widespread protests on China’s National Day, during which the student was shot.

Reuters could not confirm when the changes were made, but has seen police documents that showed changes to some guidelines on how officers could act when considering force.

The updated guidelines also removed a line that said “officers will be accountable for their own actions”, stating only that “officers on the ground should exercise their own discretion to determine what level of force is justified in a given situation”.

Police declined to comment when asked if amendments had been made to the manual.

“The guidelines on the use of force involve details of operation. It may affect the normal and effective operation of the police force and work of police on crime prevention if details are made public,” police said in a statement to Reuters.

Hong Kong’s police have long been admired for their professionalism compared with some forces elsewhere in Asia.

But the public has become increasingly hostile towards the force over past weeks amid accusations of heavy-handed tactics. Police say they have shown restraint.

The unrest, which began over opposition to a now-withdrawn extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial, shows no sign of letting up.

Protesters, fired up over the shooting of the young man this week, are planning more demonstrations at shopping malls across 11 districts on Thursday night and throughout the weekend.

“HEINOUS CRIMES”

Elizabeth Quat, a lawmaker for a pro-Beijing political party, told a news conference the looming ban on face masks under a law giving police broad emergency powers was aimed at stopping “illegal assemblies”.

“This law is not targeting peaceful protesters. It is focused on targeting those rioters who have committed heinous crimes,” she said.

But pro-democracy lawmakers fear the emergency powers could be used to further curtail freedoms.

“To impose an anti-mask law in the current social condition is to further infuriate the people and will definitely be met with escalating violence,” lawmaker Fernando Cheung told Reuters. “This is no different than adding fuel to fire. The result will be riots.”

Goldman Sachs estimated this week that the city might have lost as much as $4 billion in deposits to rival banking center Singapore between June and August.

On Thursday, Lam Chi-wai, chairman of the Junior Police Officers Association, urged the city’s leader to impose a curfew to maintain public order.

“We cannot work alone – clapping only with one hand – without appropriate measures and support from top level,” Lam said.

TEENAGER CHARGED

Tony Tsang, the 18-year-old who was shot at close range as he fought an officer with what appeared to be a white pole on Tuesday, has since been charged with rioting, which carries a maximum 10-year sentence, and assaulting a police officer.

Tsang is in hospital in a stable condition and was not able to attend a court session on Thursday, but his lawyer appeared on his behalf. About 200 supporters turned up to watch the proceedings.

Separately, the lawyer for an Indonesian journalist injured when police fired a projectile during protests on Sunday said she had been blinded in one eye.

The European Union said in a statement it was deeply troubled by the escalation of violence and the only way forward was through “restraint, de-escalation and dialogue”.

(Additional reporting by Donny Kwok, James Pomfret and Anne Marie Roantree; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and Poppy McPherson; Editing by Stephen Coates, Robert Birsel and Alex Richardson)

Protesters scuffle with Hong Kong police, government offices shut

Pro-democracy legislators speak to the media demanding the Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam withdraw a controversial extradition bill outside Government House, following a day of violence over an extradition bill that would allow people to be sent to mainland China for trial, in Hong Kong, China June 13, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

By Clare Jim and Sumeet Chatterjee

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Scuffles broke out between demonstrators and police in Hong Kong on Thursday as hundreds of people kept up a protest against a planned extradition law with mainland China, a day after police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to break up big crowds.

Protests around the city’s legislature on Wednesday forced the postponement of debate on the extradition bill, which many people in Hong Kong fear will undermine freedoms and confidence in the commercial hub.

Hong Kong’s China-backed Chief Executive Carrie Lam condemned the violence and urged a swift restoration of order but has vowed to press ahead with the legislation despite the reservations about it, including within the business community.

The number of protesters milling about outside the legislature in the financial district fell overnight but rose again through the day on Thursday to about 1,000 at one stage.

They expect the legislature, which has a majority of pro-Beijing members, will try to hold the debate at some stage, though it issued a notice saying there would be no session on Thursday.

“We will be back when, and if, it comes back for discussion again,” said protester Stephen Chan, a 20-year old university student.

“We just want to preserve our energy now.”

Earlier, some protesters tried to stop police from removing their supplies of face masks and food and scuffles broke out.

Police with helmets and shields blocked overhead walkways and plainclothes officers checked commuters’ identity cards.

A clean-up got underway to clear debris like broken umbrellas, helmets, plastic water bottles and barricades from the streets after the previous day’s clashes. Police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray on Wednesday in a series of skirmishes to clear demonstrators from the legislature.

Officials said 72 people were admitted to hospital.

Hong Kong Police Commissioner Stephen Lo said what began as a peaceful gathering on Wednesday had degenerated into a riot with protesters “acting violently in an organized manner”.

Police arrested 11 people and fired about 150 tear gas canisters at the crowd. The city’s hospital authority said a total of 81 people were injured in the protests. 22 police were injured according to Lo.

Police also later arrested two students at the University of Hong Kong after a raid on a student hall of residence, according to an official at the university. The police gave no immediate response to Reuters inquiries on what charges the students face.

In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the Chinese government “strongly condemns the violent behavior and we support the (Hong Kong) government in dealing with it according to law”.

‘LAWLESSNESS’

Authorities shut government offices in the financial district, which is overlooked by the towers of some of Asia’s biggest firms and hotel chains, for the rest of the week after some of the worst violence in Hong Kong in decades.

Hong Kong’s benchmark stock exchange slid as much as 1.5% on Thursday before closing down 0.1%, extending losses from the previous day.

Most roads in the business district were open on Thursday but some shops and offices were closed and banks, including Standard Chartered, Bank of China and DBS, said they had suspended branch services in the area.

Wednesday saw the third night of violence since a protest on Sunday drew what organizers said was more than a million people in the biggest street demonstration since the 1997 handover of the former British colony back to Chinese rule.

The handover included a deal to preserve special autonomy, but many Hong Kong people accuse China of extensive meddling since then, including obstruction of democratic reforms and interference in local elections.

The extradition bill, which will cover Hong Kong residents and foreign and Chinese nationals living or traveling through the city, has sparked concern it may threaten the rule of law that underpins Hong Kong’s international financial status.

Beijing rejects accusations of meddling and Chinese state media said this week “foreign forces” were trying to damage China by creating chaos over the bill.

The English-language China Daily said the “lawlessness” would hurt Hong Kong, not the proposed amendments to its law.

Lam and her officials say the law is necessary to plug loopholes that allow criminals wanted on the mainland to use the city as a haven. She has said the courts would provide human rights safeguards.

The Civil Human Rights Front, which organized Sunday’s huge march, said it was planning another demonstration for Sunday.

INTERNATIONAL CONCERN

Opponents of the bill, including lawyers and rights groups, say China’s justice system is marked by torture and forced confessions and arbitrary detention.

Democratic city legislators condemned Lam and what they said was heavy-handed police action.

“We are not a haven for criminals, but we have become a haven of violent police. Firing at our children? None of the former chief executives dared to do that,” said legislator Fernando Cheung.

“But ‘mother Carrie Lam’ did it. What kind of mother is she?”

Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen said Taiwan would not accept any extradition requests from Hong Kong under the proposed law. The self-ruled island also issued a travel alert.

Hong Kong’s Tourism Board called off a dragon boat carnival this weekend while the city’s Bar Association expressed concern over video footage of police using force against largely unarmed protesters.

Amnesty International and domestic rights groups condemned what they said was excessive force by the police, while a spokeswoman for the U.N. Human Rights Office in Geneva said it was following the situation closely.

Diplomatic pressure was also building after leaders such as British Prime Minister Theresa May and U.S. President Donald Trump commented on the protests.

The European Union said it shared many concerns over the proposed extradition reform and urged public consultation.

(Reporting by Joyce Zhou, Julie Zhu, Sumeet Chatterjee, Clare Jim, Jennifer Hughes, Anne Marie Roantree, James Pomfret, Alun John, Vimvang Tong, Jessie Pang and Felix Tam; Additional reporting by Yimou Lee in TAIPEI, Ben Blanchard and Cate Cadell in BEIJING, and David Stanway in SHANGHAI; Writing by Farah Master and Greg Torode in HONG KONG; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel and Frances Kerry)

 

Nearly 50 Palestinians wounded in ‘Catastrophe’ anniversary protests on Gaza-Israel border

Demonstrators hold Palestinian flags during a protest marking the 71st anniversary of the 'Nakba', or catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands fled or were forced from their homes in the war surrounding Israel's independence in 1948, near the Israel-Gaza border fence, in the southern Gaza Strip May 15, 2019. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli troops wounded nearly 50 Palestinians at the Gaza border on Wednesday during protests to mark the 71st anniversary of the “Nakba”, or catastrophe, when many Palestinians lost their homes in the fighting around Israel’s creation, Gaza officials said.

Thousands had gathered at the coastal enclave’s frontier with Israel, the scene of bloodshed over the past year that has raised international concern.

Groups approached the border fence, planting Palestinian flags and throwing stones toward Israeli soldiers on the other side despite the efforts of marshalls in orange vests to keep protesters away from the barrier, witnesses said.

Israeli troops fired tear gas and rubber bullets to repel them, but also live ammunition, the witnesses said.

The Gaza Health Ministry said at least 47 people were wounded, though it was not clear how many of those were hit by live ammunition or were hurt by rubber bullets or by inhaling tear gas.

The Israeli military said about 10,000 rioters and demonstrators gathered in several places along the Gaza Strip fence.

“The rioters are setting tyres on fire and hurling rocks. A number of explosive devices have been hurled within the Gaza Strip, as well, and a number of attempts have been made to approach the security fence. IDF troops are responding with riot dispersal means.”

Wednesday’s rallies were called to mark Nakba Day, what Palestinians term the catastrophe that befell them at Israel’s creation in 1948, when hundreds of thousands fled or were expelled from lands in what is now Israel.

“Our people rise today to announce their rejection to this crime and to assert their right in Palestine, all of Palestine,” Islamic Jihad leader Khader Habib said at one demonstration, referring to Israel and the territories it captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

“Palestine is ours, the sea is ours, the sky is ours and the land is ours, and those strangers must be removed,” he said.

Another protester, Jamila Mahmoud, 50, said her family had originally come from Asqlan, now the Israeli city of Ashkelon, near Gaza.

“If we don’t return, maybe our children and grandchildren will do, one day we will get our rights back,” Mahmoud said at the border protest site.

Palestinians also held rallies in the occupied West Bank but no major clashes with Israeli forces were immediately reported.

This year’s Nakba protests were preceded by a surge in deadly cross-border fighting between Gaza militants and Israel which ended in a ceasefire on May 6.

Israeli troops have killed more than 200 Palestinians and wounded thousands in regular border protests since March 2018, according to human rights groups. U.N. investigators have said the Israeli military might be guilty of war crimes for using excessive force.

Israel has said it is defending its border against attacks against its troops and infiltration attempts by gunmen.

Israel has rejected a Palestinian right of return as a threat to maintaining a Jewish majority in a country it describes as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

Frustration is growing among Palestinians as hopes fade for a two-state solution to the conflict which would give them an independent country. President Donald Trump’s announcement in December 2017 of U.S. recognition of disputed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital also fueled Palestinian anger.

(Editing by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem and Angus MacSwan)