HOUSTON – Houston police officers have used Tasers more on black suspects than any other group of individuals, according to a city study released Monday.
Of 1,417 Taser deployments by officers between December 2004 and June 2007, nearly 67 percent were used on black suspects, according to an audit put together for the city by a team of criminology, statistics and mathematics experts. About 25 percent of Houston's population is black.
But Houston police quickly pointed out that their use of Tasers has nothing to do with race, only a person's behavior.
"It's not a racial issue. A Taser device is no different from a radar gun. It's race neutral," Executive Assistant Police Chief Charles McClelland said after the Houston City Council meeting where the report was released.
The independent audit was requested by Houston Mayor Bill White in 2006, after several high-profile incidents. That year, Houston Texans offensive lineman Fred Weary was shocked during a traffic stop, and an officer called to quiet a noisy music club shocked musicians and concertgoers. The latter incident was videotaped and later shown on YouTube.
The study found that black officers were less likely than white or Latino officers to use Tasers on a black suspect.
"We have to spend more time in determining why these racial and ethnic differences exist," said City Controller Annise Parker, whose office put the audit together. "Simply ignoring them or saying they are not significant is not going to make them go away."
McClelland said Houston police arrest more than 100,000 people each year, and less than one-half of 1 percent of those individuals are ever involved in a Taser event.
"It is so rare," he said.
The report did not give a breakdown of arrests by minorities.
Minister Robert Muhammad, with the southwest regional headquarters for The Nation of Islam, disputed McClelland's claim that race is not a factor in the use of Tasers.
"Can we say it's racism? Yes, and some people would argue no," said Muhammad, who is based in Houston. "The greater argument is abuse of authority. We give them authority to protect us. But instead of using that authority to protect us, they abuse us with it."
The 175-page report has a section that summarizes answers officers gave when asked why Tasers were being used more on black suspects. Their responses included: "Racist officers are doing the tasing," "The crime rate is higher in the African American race," and "The African American culture is more aggressive. The suspects have more attitude and are more combative."
Some critics have called for tighter restrictions or even an end on officers' use of Tasers, but Parker said Tasers are not going away.
"We need to figure out the best way to use them," she said.
The city spent $4.7 million on Tasers in 2004. The Tasers were introduced a year after the shootings of two unarmed teens. But the audit found that Tasers, which were touted as an alternative to the use of deadly force, did not reduce the number of officer-involved shootings.
Parker said she believes there might be a disconnect between what citizens think is the appropriate use of Tasers and how Houston police should use them.
"We have to have a common understanding on when and how Tasers should be used. We encourage the department to have a dialogue with the community," she said.
McClelland said police and the media need to do a better job of educating the public about how Tasers are used. He disputed that Tasers were promoted as being a way to reduce the use of deadly force, and said his expectation was that they wouldn't increase the number of officer-involved shootings.
"I don't think any of you would expect a Houston police officer to use a less lethal device when someone is exhibiting deadly force. That's just nonsense," he said.
Muhammad said with the millions spent on buying Tasers, up to $1 million should be allocated for community intervention projects "so our young black males are not victims of Taser use, deadly force."
The audit also found that no policy exists as to how many times a Taser may be used on an individual.
About 11,500 law enforcement agencies across the country use Tasers, according to the National Institute of Justice.
Tasers, which deliver a 50,000-volt jolt through two barbed darts that can penetrate clothing, are manufactured by Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Taser International.
The audit did not look at whether Tasers are safe to use.
According to a June interim report by the National Institute of Justice, findings indicate there is no conclusive medical evidence that show a high risk of serious injury or death from being hit by a Taser.