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From the Trust Perspective: Fourth Circuit decision on tasers 

by Bob Haynes, NCLM Associate Director, Risk Management Services

A U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals case related to the use of Tasers by law enforcement was recently published. This case will likely have an impact on how our courts perceive the use of Tasers and how police use of force policies should be constructed.

Given the significance of the case and the impact on law enforcement, the
North Carolina League of Municipalities Risk Management Services immediately prepared a communication for all police chiefs in our insurance pools. Chiefs were provided a summary of the Fourth Circuit case, recommendations for use of force policy language to comply with the court’s decision, and a video review of the case to share with officers.

The case responsible for all of this discussion is Armstrong v. The Village of Pinehurst, and involves the use of Taser devices on a man who was passively resisting officers executing an involuntary commitment order. The doctor indicated in the order that the man was a threat to himself but did not describe him as being a threat to others.

As officers were trying to gain control of the man, he reacted by sitting down and wrapping himself around a sign post. A total of six people, including three officers, struggled to remove him from the post while he continued to resist their efforts. He was drive-stunned five separate times within a two-minute period, resulting in his increased resistance. After the unsuccessful Taser use, he was eventually taken under control by the officers and hospital staff. He was handcuffed and placed face down in the grass. A short time later, the man was found to be unresponsive. Life-saving efforts were attempted and he was transported to a hospital where he was later pronounced dead.

As a result of these events, the Appellant sued the officers involved pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 1983, claiming excessive force. As a result, summary judgement was granted to the officer defendants which lead to the recent Fourth Circuit appeal.

Upon appeal, the Fourth Circuit upheld the finding of summary judgement based on qualified immunity. However, the Fourth Circuit was very clear in their findings that the officers used “unreasonably excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment”.

Although this case involved a use of force on a person that was being taken into custody for a mental commitment, and not a criminal matter, it will likely have an impact on criminal cases involving the use of Tasers. Based on the case brief and detailed analysis on Taser usage, the court is clearly looking for the use of Tasers to be proportional to the situation encountered and the level of threat to the officers or third parties.

Given that all future Taser use is subject to the Fourth Circuit’s review, Risk Management Services is recommending that departments immediately review their use of force policies to verify that they address the issues raised by the court.

In addition to communications provided to chiefs, Risk Management Services is offering use of force training that includes a review of the Fourth Circuit’s decision. The training was developed prior to the Armstrong decision and is available to members of our property and liability insurance pool.

For additional information, contact Tom Anderson, public safety risk management consultant, at tanderson@nclm.org or 919-715-2573.

(Public Safety Risk Management Consultant Tom Anderson and Director
of Field Services Bryan Leaird were the primary contributors for this edition’s column.)