By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
The San Diego case went all the way to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. While perceived by the legal community to be the most liberal federal circuit, in 1994 the Ninth Circuit upheld a lower court ruling that police had not used unreasonable force in the anti-abortion protests: The pain caused by the OPN was justified because it amounted to a "controlled force" that could be adjusted as the subject began to comply. The landmark ruling set a precedent that pain-compliance techniques could be used to effect control of non-violent suspects.
But for Orcutt, it was a vindication that came too late.
In 1992, Los Angeles had settled its Operation Rescue lawsuit by agreeing to no longer use the OPN on anti-abortion protesters. The "political climate" in the wake of the Rodney King riots helped convince L.A. to settle, a city attorney said, even though no OPNs were involved in that beating. "The department is concerned about the public perception of their using a tool some people feel is a tool of excessive force," he told the Los Angeles Times.
"Even if you think Operation Rescue is the worst group in the world, you'd have to agree that, if this is allowed against them, it will be used against the Rodney Kings of the world," pronounced one of Operation Rescue's lawyers.
The Operation Rescue lawsuits and Rodney King controversy cooled California on trying innovative police tactics. And for years, police departments across the country were unwilling to even consider adopting new tools, particularly seemingly exotic ones like the nunchaku.
"It wasn't so much about OPNs, because they weren't involved, but everybody just shut down — every department," Orcutt says. "They wouldn't look at anything, they wouldn't do anything, they wouldn't change anything, because they were afraid. For years after Rodney King, I couldn't get anyone to even look at this thing: 'Maybe in a few years we'll take a look, but for right now the chief isn't going to do anything.' Just when this device was starting to take off."
In the late '90s, though, the law-enforcement industry was suddenly electrified by a new "non-lethal" weapon. This updated Taser model required less training than the OPN and was effective at subduing more violent suspects; it was also less lethal than a gun. Many police departments that wouldn't look at the OPN decided to try the Taser. And soon the retractable baton was introduced, too. Part of the OPN's appeal had been its size, but the retractable baton is even smaller than the nunchaku, even though it can extend to several feet. The retractable baton, too, requires less training, which is appealing to cash-strapped departments that want a tool every officer from rookies to veterans can pick up and use.
Orcutt himself is one of the Thornton PD's Taser trainers. The Taser is a useful weapon in some circumstances, he says, but high-profile deaths and lawsuits have caused many departments to review their use-of-force guidelines regarding the shock device. When deciding to tase a suspect, officers have no way of knowing if that person has a heart condition, for example. Often people getting into fights with police have consumed drugs or other intoxicants; they're sometimes flush with adrenaline. And then their body gets hit by 50,000 volts. "The problem for us as law-enforcement officers is we don't know how much drugs you've got in your system," Orcutt explains. "When we contact you, we've got to get control of you, but when a death occurs, we're put under scrutiny for how we used it."
There are also times when a Taser simply isn't appropriate, such as in tight quarters, or when other officers might get electrocuted. "I don't consider it physical control," Orcutt explains. "I consider it a stunning effect for a brief period, now under extreme scrutiny and limitation. For most people, that's enough and they'll cooperate. But there are some who'll take one after another. They're drunk enough, dumb enough, stubborn enough, whatever. Now when you get into multiple cycles with that Taser, the risk factor starts to get higher and higher that something bad could happen."
In June, Larimer County agreed to pay $225,000 to the family of a 35-year-old man who died after being tasered by officers in 2005; the coroner's office found that his death had been caused by the electrical shock combined with drugs in his system. Another Taser suit is pending against Lafayette, filed by the parents of a 22-year-old man who was tasered while running from police. In this case, the coroner's office cited a mix of physical exertion, electrical shock and an irregular heartbeat caused by a pre-existing heart condition as the cause of death.
Although no death or even serious injury has been directly attributed to the OPN, there have been several instances where an OPN was involved in the death of suspect. The most controversial was in 1999, when former pro football player Demetrius DuBose was shot dead by police in San Diego. Police had been called after the former Buccaneers linebacker entered a neighbor's house and fell asleep. Questioned by the cops, DuBose refused to be handcuffed and tried to flee. Officers used pepper spray and nunchaku in an attempt to restrain him, but during a scuffle, DuBose managed to take both officers' nunchaku away. Then, as he appeared to be advancing toward them with the weapons, the officers shot him twelve times.