Miami Taser death: Are police relying too much on stun guns?

A young graffiti artist in Miami Beach, Fla., died last week after police shot him with a Taser, reigniting a debate about whether police are using Tasers more than they need to.

Gaston De Cardenas/Reuters
A protester holds up a poster during a vigil Saturday for graffiti artist Israel Hernandez-Llach, who died after being shocked by a police officer's Taser in Miami Beach, Fla., Tuesday

What to Israel Hernandez-Bandera was "an act of barbarism" and an "assassination of a young artist and photographer" was, to many police departments nationwide, a common response to a mounting threat.

On Tuesday, Mr. Hernandez-Bandera's son, Israel Hernandez-Llach, died after being shot by Taser stun gun. According to police accounts, Mr. Hernandez-Llach was spray-painting an abandoned McDonald's and ran away when confronted, failing to heed officers' commands.

At a time when police departments say offenders are becoming more violent and officer injuries are on the rise, Tasers have become an invaluable tool, allowing officers to subdue suspects without deadly force. But critics say police have become too enamored of them, and they point to the incident in Miami Beach, Fla., as evidence that the use of electroshock weapons is too often replacing caution and common sense.

Most police departments do not publish data on Taser incidents, as they do on incidents that involve firearms. But statistics and police statements suggest Taser use is on the rise. A 2012 study by The Chicago Tribune found that Chicago police were involved in 197 Taser incidents in 2009. By 2011, the department was on a pace to hit 857 incidents.

In eight other cities across Illinois, the story was similar, with Taser use doubling overt the same time period. In Austin, Texas, police Taser use also doubled between 2009 and 2011, according to a 2012 Austin American-Statesman report.

The trend is "societal," Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo told the paper. "Lots of economic frustrations, lack of respect for authority. It's a byproduct of what is happening in our country."

In laying out its policy on Tasers, police in the small town of Norway, Maine, laid out the argument made by departments nationwide: "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," the police department paper said.

But Tasers are not always safe, critics say. A 2012 study by Amnesty International found that 500 people had died from being shot by police with Tasers since 2001.

For the most part, the debate is not primarily about using Tasers to subdue violent offenders. Rather, Amnesty targets the practice of using Tasers on nonviolent suspects, too.

"Of the hundreds who have died following police use of Tasers in the USA, dozens and possibly scores of deaths can be traced to unnecessary force being used," said Susan Lee, Americas program director at Amnesty International, in the study. "This is unacceptable, and stricter guidelines for their use are now imperative."

In Miami Beach, police are conducting an investigation into the death of 18-year-old Hernandez-Llach. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, an independent state agency, will review the report, though it can only make recommendations.

But the family has questioned why Tasers were needed to subdue a graffiti artist.

A police spokesman told The New York Times Friday that "no crime has been committed here" and that there was "definitely no gross negligence" on the part of the officer who fired the Taser. The officer, Jorge Mercado, has been put on paid administrative leave, but could be restored any time the police chief decides, according to the Times. 

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