When Tasers Fail: New Devices Lead To Police Shootings In Texas
Police officers nationwide use Tasers as a less lethal alternative to guns. The idea is to be able to stop someone – usually an unarmed but violent person – without having to kill them.
Taser use is sometimes controversial. Lawsuits alleged that the electroshock weapons killed rather than subdued people.
But what happens when Tasers don’t effectively subdue the person? Police officers in both San Antonio and Houston experienced the consequences of the Taser's failure. Texas Public Radio and Houston Public Media partnered with Reveal and APM Reports to analyze data showing that officers rated newer-model Tasers as less effective than older ones.
On an evening patrol in March 2016, a Houston Police Department officer faced Peter Gaines, a man with a history of mental health issues.
The incident quickly intensified. The HPD officer first used his Taser to subdue the man. But then the officer had to use his gun. He shot and killed Gaines.
APM Reports found two other Houston cases since 2016 where officers shot and killed suspects after their Tasers failed to subdue them: Baltazar Ramos in February 2016 and David Campos in October 2017.
In all three of these three cases, a newer model of Tasers called the X2 was used.
The company Axon, formerly known as Taser International, has a monopoly on making these electroshock weapons.
Data obtained by APM Reports suggest that since Houston police upgraded to the newer Tasers, their effectiveness decreased from 75 percent to 69 percent.
Axon has over the years claimed much higher success rates, according to APM Reports.
“If as a taxpayer and citizen of Houston, we’re going to spend millions of dollars of Houston’s money equipping our police with weapons that are supposed to stop people, they ought to do it,” said Andy Vickery, who is representing former Houston police officer Karen Taylor in a lawsuit against Axon.
Taylor says in 2017 she tased a female shoplifting suspect multiple times, but only the first trigger squeeze successfully subdued the woman for five seconds.
The woman fought her and the lawsuit claims the officer had to retire due to the injuries sustained from the fight. It alleges the X2 has less stopping power than the previous version because the electric charge was lower.
In an emailed response to Houston Public Media, Axon questions the methodology to determine “effectiveness” of Tasers. The company argues that the power of the electrical charge is only one factor in causing what is called “neuro-muscular incapacitation” of a person.
Axon claims it has tests that prove the newer models are just as effective as the more powerful older ones, according to APM Reports.
One issue could be training, making sure officers understand the Taser’s limitations and how to use the device effectively.
Michael Cavanaugh teaches criminal justice at the University of Houston-Downtown. He said knowing that a Taser might not be effective could alter how an officer reacted in a critical situation.
“If you are an officer in the department and you have questions as to whether or not that Taser deployment is going to work, that is going to be a scary situation when you have to use that Taser,” he said. “It’s like playing Russian Roulette.”
HPM asked HPD and the mayor's office for comment. Representatives for both declined, citing the ongoing Karen Taylor lawsuit.
HPM brought the issue to the attention of Houston City Council member Brenda Stardig, who heads the city’s public safety committee.
“If the police department has identified that there’s an issue with any of the equipment that we have, we want to make sure that we have the proper equipment in their hands,” she said. “So that we can protect the public and protect the police officers.”
Stardig said she plans to address it at a future public safety committee meeting, which she chairs.
What Houston Police Officers Say
Recently retired HPD Captain Greg Fremin said the Tasers, both old and new, were effective.
“I thought both of them worked fine,” he said. “We upgraded because it was the newest model and gave the officers a little more usability.”
Harris County Sheriff’s deputies are using a Taser model with similar power to what HPD uses, the X26P. Sgt. Garrett DeMilia with the sheriff’s office training academy says he has no problem with them.
“When I started patrolling many years ago, we didn’t have Tasers, so your tactics were definitely limited,” he said. “You know, we had pepper spray. Some of us ... had expandable batons, but nothing worked as well as a Taser to incapacitate somebody without injury.”
Consequences Of Failure
On April 20, 2017, San Antonio Park Police Officer Cristobal Martinez was patrolling on the city’s West Side when he spotted what looked like a man assaulting a woman.
According to police reports and the officer's body camera, Martinez approached the pair. The man was Ray Valdez. He walked alongside his common-law wife. Martinez called out to Valdez, who ignored him and continued to walk away.
Martinez pulled out his Taser X26P and pointed it at Valdez. The device's red laser dot glowed in the middle of Valdez's chest. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a knife. Martinez ordered him over and over again to drop the weapon.
Valdez charged at the officer, and Martinez pulled the Taser trigger, launching probes at the man's body. The officer expected the probes to deliver enough voltage to incapacitate Valdez.
But Valdez was not incapacitated. Instead, he dropped to his knees, rolled on the ground, dislodged the probes and charged again at Martinez.
As he moved, Valdez reared back with his arm cocked back to throw his knife at Martinez, and so the officer opened fire, striking him once in the torso. Valdez was pronounced dead later that night.
The entire exchange lasted only 30 seconds.
Other SAPD units arrived to support Martinez and secure the scene. Police Chief William McManus stood before the TV news cameras and told the public what he knew.
“From what we are hearing, the officer did everything right. He tried to intervene," McManus said. "He went to use his Taser first. That was ineffective, and [so he] resorted to the use of his firearm.”
'Quality Is Crucial'
Why did the Taser fail? Had the Taser performed the way manufacturer Axon promised it would perform, Martinez would've pulled the Taser trigger, and the probes would've struck Valdez. He would've fallen to the ground, and his body would've stiffened as the voltage locked up his muscles. Valdez would not have been able to resist Martinez and certainly not been able to attack him a second time. Martinez would not have had to resort to gunfire. Valdez would not have died.
In a slick science fiction-styled promotional video for Taser model X2, Axon officials were not shy with their boasts about the quality and dependability of their star product.
“Everything we’ve learned about officer and suspect safety has come down to this," the video's narrator explained. "Meet the X2 – the next generation of Taser electronic control devices.”
“Quality is crucial in our devices," said Rick Guilbault, Axon's vice president of training, "because when an officer needs our device to work, it’s gotta work every time, or someone going to get injured or killed.”
A year-long investigation by APM Reports found that in some police departments, police rated Tasers as ineffective almost half the time. And the problem is happening with the newer Taser models, which were designed with a reduction in power.
The models X2 and X26P emit about half of the electrical charge of the older models.
'That Shock Factor'
SAPD training officer Juan Mandujuno stands by the Taser.
"It's the most-used weapon in this department," he said. "We tend to use it about 230 times a year."
Mandujuno told Texas Public Radio the Taser worked even when officers didn't pull the trigger. "People don't want to get tased," he said. "So when you tell somebody to 'settle down or you're going to get tased,' they tend to comply."
But Mandujuno admitted that when an officer does need to pull that trigger, the Taser doesn’t always deliver enough stun.
"I do get some that had told me, 'hey, I tried to take this individual that was coming at me, and this person we hit, we put both probes in his chest. And he took the charge and pulled out the probes, and we were in a fight.'" he recalled. "Now, has that been a lot? No. I think I've had four people telling me that in a year, compared to 230 Taser applications."
Mandujuno said a lot that can go wrong when an officer Tasers someone. The officer can be too close or too far away. If the suspect wears baggy clothes, that can dampen the shock. Or, he explained, the suspect could be so enraged that they fight off the stun.
"People think that the Taser alone is enough to take you down," he said. "But I'd be honest with you — a lot of times, it's that shock factor. People don't know how to react when they're locked up. They go into that panic mode. So if the more you're exposed [to it], you know how it feels, the more you're able to fight through it."
Mandujuno said a Taser jolt may not stop a determined suspect, and at least two recent incidents in San Antonio and near Houston underlined the consequences of that vulnerability.
In mid-May, a San Antonio police officer tried to apprehend a suspected burglar in a South Side neighborhood.
Witnesses who saw the incident said the officer fired the Taser. The suspect collapsed but then quickly recovered. He attacked the officer and badly beat her. The suspect fled, and other officers apprehended him.
SAPD spokesperson Michelle Ramos explained the incident: "There was an altercation. The officer did try to tase the suspect. [The suspect] did assault the officer.” Ramos also detailed the officer's condition: “She did sustain a concussion — facial fractures — and that’s why the charges were upgraded to aggravated assault on a police officer.”
In Baytown, a city near Houston, a police officer tried to arrest a woman on outstanding warrants. The incident escalated, and the officer used his Taser. The woman dropped to the ground but then she grabbed the Taser and actually used it on the officer. The officer fired five shots, and the woman was pronounced dead at the scene. A bystander filmed the confrontation with a cellphone.
Had the Taser worked as promised, these encounters might've ended very differently.
In a statement, Axon said more information was needed on why the Tasers failed.
Despite the controversy, the company continued to promote the Taser as a state of the art device that saves lives because it gives a law enforcement officers a non-lethal means of subduing a suspect.
To learn more about what Reveal and APM Reports found about Tasers in Houston, San Antonio and other cities, read the special report.
UPDATED (May 20, 2019): This article has been updated to clarify the details surrounding the incident with former Houston police officer Karen Taylor. It has also been updated to clarify one of the findings from APM Reports’ year-long investigation.