- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 19, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska law enforcement officers have misused stun guns several times in recent years, with targets that included an elderly man, a mentally ill woman and a 9-year-old, according to a report released Tuesday.

The report by the ACLU of Nebraska criticizes officers for using the weapon against vulnerable people, who could suffer extreme physical and mental health problems as a result of the shock.

The report - “Dangerously Out of Bounds” - faults the departments for a lack of consistent training and reporting requirements, and for not adopting the U.S. Justice Department’s recommendations for using the device.

“The lack of oversight and guidance for law enforcement officers who may be using a Taser is beyond appalling,” said ACLU of Nebraska Legal Director Amy Miller.

The ACLU of Nebraska filed open-records requests with 11 departments for how and when stun guns were used in recent years.

The review uncovered instances when stun guns were used against an elderly man with dementia in Omaha, a man who “stared down” Grand Island police from a hospital bed, a Hastings man with hepatitis C who spat on officers, a woman in Grand Island with a mental illness, and a Kearney public school student who was 9 years old at the time.

According to police reports, an unidentified Grand Island man in a hospital bed was “very drunk” and not complying with officers who told him to sit back in his hospital bed. The report, dated 2009, says the man swore at the officer after he was warned and pulled away, at which point the officer used the weapon in his left pectoral area.

In another Grand Island case in 2013, police records say a woman ignored orders to stop walking away from police and continued to resist once she had sat down on the ground. An officer used the stun gun on her back for five seconds until she allowed herself to be handcuffed, records say.

The Kearney case took place in November, with a student who was 9 years old at the time. According to a police report, the student pushed an officer down and attacked the officer, who in turn used the stun gun on the child.

The report also cites a 2012 incident involving 79-year-old Rodell Cole in a nursing home. According to the report, Cole lived in the home because of dementia and weighed 106 pounds. He reportedly turned belligerent after an employee began cleaning his room while he was asleep, and threatened officers with safety pins. He also threw objects at officers, a reaction that’s typical for patients with dementia, the report said.

The ACLU of Nebraska examined 63 use-of-force reports from the Kearney, Scottsbluff and Grand Island police departments, as well as the Adams, Douglas and Sarpy county sheriff’s departments. Of those cases, subjects were actively aggressive and stun-gun use was justified in 23, according to the report.

The Plattsmouth and Seward police departments said there were no reported incidents between January 2013 and May of this year. The Bellevue and Hastings police departments did not supply use of force reports.

The group also sought information about each department’s written policies for the weapon, which releases 50,000 volts of electricity to jolt the body’s central nervous system. According to the report, the Omaha and Lincoln police departments did not provide any records despite cooperating in the past.

Miller said the denial of the record requests was “one of the most disturbing instances of police withholding public information that we have ever seen.

“When a device can kill or severely injure someone, people have a right to know how that device is being used in Nebraska,” she said.

Hastings and Grand Island police departments could not immediately be reached for comment about the report.

According to the ACLU, most department policies fail to comply with Justice Department guidelines, and officers are given a minimal amount of information that would help them decide when it’s appropriate to use a stun gun.

The Justice Department guidelines suggest that using a stun gun is only justified when subjects are actively resisting or showing “active aggression” that could hurt themselves or others.

They also warn that officers must avoid using the weapons in a coercive or punitive manner, and should steer clear of targeting sensitive areas of the body, including the chest, which can increase the odds of injury or death. Officers should also be aware that vulnerable populations may be more susceptible to serious health consequences, according to the report.

While often classified as a less lethal weapon, the report pointed to Amnesty International study that found more than 540 stun gun-related deaths in the United States in the last 13 years.

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