Longform

Sonia Sotomayor could declare martial law on Kevin Orcutt's nunchaku

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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.

An autopsy showed that DuBose had alcohol, cocaine and ecstasy in his system and that he was killed by the gunshots, not the OPNs. But a federal civil-rights lawsuit filed by the family questioned the amount of training the officers had been given in the use of the OPNs and claimed that poor training had increased the chances of the confrontation turning deadly. A jury cleared the officers and the department of wrongdoing in 2003, but in San Diego, once Orcutt's biggest market, the weapon took another blow from all the publicity.

The Denver Sheriff Department made the OPN standard-issue in 1990, and it's proved invaluable ever since, according to Bill Lovingier, director of corrections. "It puts a handle on a bag of cement," he says. "It's very difficult and awkward, but this really closes that gap. It's an effective tool for pain compliance without causing significant injury, really no matter where it's applied."

Once a captain at the county jail, Lovingier remembers a time when two inmates were fighting. "They were really bear-hugging at some point, but they're trying to strike each other laying on the floor," he says. "I applied it to an individual's leg and pulled back, and he couldn't get away quick enough from the other guy."

The Denver Police Department finally adopted the OPN in 2000 after several years of lobbying by Captain Eric Rubin, who runs the city's police academy. "It has the ability to put a very quick end to an altercation," he says. "We don't want to have a prolonged fight with someone." He estimates that more than 150 officers have opted to go through the training required to carry the tool, though not all of them ultimately chose to use the nunchaku, since it comes with continuous training requirements. Over the last seven years, Denver sheriff and police officers have filled out 262 use-of-force reports for incidents involving an OPN. But Richard Rosenthal, director of the Office of Independent Monitor, who oversees any complaints filed by citizens, says he's not aware of "single sustained complaint against an officer or deputy for use of that instrument."

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Jared Jacang Maher