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What does an 'apology cake' say about Taser policy in America?

A Florida cop's attempt at an apology raises questions about how law enforcement officers use Tasers in the United States.

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    This photo of a cake released by Alistair McKenzie is the photo received by his client Stephanie Byron as a form of an apology from a deputy who shot her with a stun gun in Pensacola, Fla.
    Alistair McKenzie/AP/File
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For perhaps the first time ever, a former Florida cop's baking skills (or lack thereof) made national news, after he allegedly sent an apology cake to a woman he accidentally tased in 2015. Reports now say that the officer actually sent a photo of a cake that he found on the internet, decorated with the words "Sorry I Tased You" in blue frosting.  

Although sheriff’s deputy Michael Wohlers resigned after the incident took place, his confection apology did not appease the victim, Stephanie Byron, who is now suing him in federal court for battery and civil rights violations. The photo of the apology cake has been entered as an exhibit in the court file.

While the details around the Florida case seem fairly straight forward, it points to a larger, ongoing discussion about police and the use of force. Even as the national focus on police brutality has shifted more recently toward the use of guns, it hasn't fully eclipsed a topic that has long drawn debate: Should police officers carry stun guns at all?

"There has been an expansion in terms of law enforcement agencies outfitting their officers with Tasers," says Amnesty International USA researcher Justin Mazzola. "It has been branded as this alternative to using firearms, especially with all the instances of lethal force we see in the media."

As a result, Mr. Mazzola says, "You're definitely going to see an expansion of their use, but you're also going to see an expansion in the number of deaths caused by stun guns."

Around 15,000 American law enforcement and military agencies use stun guns, according to a 2011 report on police use of force by the National Institute of Justice. The weapons are often seen as an attractive alternative weapon for law enforcement officers.

The problem, critics say, is that Tasers are not necessarily less lethal.

Researchers at Wake Forest University researchers found that less than 1 percent of people shocked by Tasers experience a serious injury as a result. But in 2015, The Washington Post reported that between January and November that year, at least 48 people died in the United States as a result of Taser use. Amnesty International’s Mazzola tells the Monitor that the group is aware of at least 700 deaths since 2001.

The problem, he says, is that because Tasers are seen as a less harmful alternative to firearms, oftentimes they are used to enforce compliance, rather than to protect an officer from personal harm. In short, they are not treated as lethal weapons, although they often can be.

In the Florida incident, for example, Ms. Byron alleges that Officer Wohlers was harassing her about her personal life when he grabbed her beverage in "horseplay." But when she reached to get it back, he tased her, knocking her to the ground.

In her suit against Wohlers, Byron said that the incident caused her, "hardships, including physical injuries, monetary loss, medical expenses, humiliation and mental anguish," reports the Associated Press.

As fatal police shootings by guns have been triggering protests across the nation from Baltimore, Md., to Charlotte, N.C., Taser use in recent years has also shown to be more frequent. A 2012 study by the Chicago Tribune found that Tasers were used 197 times by Chicago police officers in 2009. Two years later, in 2011, law enforcement officers in the city reported using a Taser 857 times, or about 2.3 times a day. That trend was echoed in police departments from Illinois to Texas, reported The Christian Science Monitor in 2013.

Proponents of Taser use say that the stun guns are getting so much play because officers are increasingly under threat.

"The law enforcement community has experienced a rise in the assaults on officers. Offenders have become more violent and officer injuries have risen throughout the United States," said a police department newspaper in Norway, Maine, several years ago.

Because Taser policies are determined by individual departments, there is no nationwide standard of accountability, Mazzola says.

The Florida cake incident is a reminder of the nationwide conversation that once surrounded Taser use, after the phrase "don't tase me, bro” went viral following University of Florida student Andrew Meyer's tasering at a political event on campus.

Other incidents, including the 2010 tasering of a 17-year-old Phillies fan who ran onto the field during a game, contributed to the discussion.

Mazzola says that police departments must consider alternatives to Taser use.

"It comes down to training and understanding other alternatives," says Mazzola, "including de-escalation tactics before the use of force."

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