Two men have died this year after being tased by local law enforcement. (Photo: Axon, the company that makes Tasers) Credit: Photo: Axon, the company that makes Tasers

This story is part of an in-depth report by Jackie Rehwald on a taser-related death in Springfield that went unreported to the public.

So far this year, two men have died after being tased by law enforcement in Springfield.

Tymel Bowman died shortly after being tased by officers with the Springfield Police Department on Jan. 22. According to a police news release, Bowman twice attempted to pull a knife on officers. Bowman’s cause of death has not been made public yet because the incident is still under investigation.

Sean Winslow died a few days after he was tased by an officer with the Greene County Sheriff’s Office on Jan. 28. The Greene County Sheriff’s Office did not issue any kind of news release following the incident.

According to Winslow’s autopsy report provided by the family to the Daily Citizen, Winslow began to run away from officers and was tased on a parking lot. He fell and hit his head. His family said he never regained consciousness. Winslow’s death certificate says he died of “blunt force head trauma with epidural hematoma” and underlying cause was “fall secondary to discharge of a conducted-energy device.”

But what is a Taser, when should they be used and when should they not be used?

Story continues below.

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Taser use has no uniform policy

Turns out, there are plenty of recommendations and guidelines for law enforcement — but no uniform policy that must be followed.

Chris Johns is the director of Safety and Security for Drury University. He is retired from law enforcement with 25 years of service and is an adjunct instructor at Drury Law Enforcement Academy.

Johns knows a thing or two about Tasers and law enforcement’s use of force. He declined to speak about any specific cases or situations but shared some general information about law enforcement’s use of force practices.

According to Johns, there is no nationwide policy or regulations for law enforcement agencies to follow when it comes to using Tasers or other means of less-lethal force.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police published the National Consensus Policy and Discussion Paper on Use of Force, Johns said, and many departments use that as a model as they craft their own use of force policies.

Law enforcement departments also consider the Fourth Amendment, which protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government, and the U.S. Supreme Court case Graham v. Connor.

In Graham v. Connor, the Supreme Court held that all claims that law enforcement officials have used excessive force — deadly or not — in the course of an arrest, investigatory stop, or other “seizure” of a free citizen are properly analyzed under the Fourth Amendment’s “objective reasonableness” standard, rather than under a substantive due process standard.

Johns explained more about what that “objective reasonableness” test means:

“What the Supreme Court said in Graham versus Connor is we want to try to get away from the subjective nature of looking at these different situations because, of course, every situation is very unique,” Johns said. “It’s hard to have a standard that can apply to so many different types of situations and variables. So they wanted to find a way of looking at these cases that was very objective.”

To do that, Johns explained the Supreme Court says to apply the following test when deciding if an officer’s use of force was justified:

Consider the totality of the circumstances known to the officer — every circumstance, every variable perceived by the officer in the moment — and say, would another officer who has similar training and experience make the same decision.

“That’s kind of the big overriding principle about when to use any kind of force,” Johns said, “whether it be a Taser or any other tool.”

More about ‘electronic control weapons’ like Tasers

A Taser is a brand name for a gunlike device that uses propelled wires or direct contact to electrically stun and incapacitate a person temporarily.

Tasers were invented by a NASA rocket scientist named Jack Cover in the 1970s, around the time of the Civil Rights Movement.

“President Johnson put out a commission, asking for the engineers and scientists of the day to look at less lethal technology for police officers,” Johns said. “Cover came up with a device and he named it Taser. It was similar to what you see today, but there were several issues with it in its infancy.

“The biggest of which is simply it didn’t really control people who were very focused,” he continued. “The original Taser basically just kind of created the stimulus of pain, but it didn’t really physically control a person’s resistive movement.”

Axon, the company that makes Tasers, revamped the weapon around 2000 to the model that law enforcement uses today, Johns said.

“The thing that makes Tasers of today an effective tool for control is that they have the ability to make it difficult for a person to perform voluntary muscular movements in the area that’s affected by the Taser,” Johns said, adding that this effect is called “neuromuscular incapacitation.”

The modern Taser works by firing out electrodes that are attached to probes. The probes connect with a person’s body and electricity is delivered through wires to the probes. Electricity passes between the probes and incapacitates the person by disrupting the neuromuscular system.

With the original Tasers, which really only impacted the sensory nerves, people who were really focused to power through and continue to fight or run, Johns said.

“The newer Tasers have the ability to affect motor nerves,” he said. “When they interact with those motor nerves, they create uncontrollable kind of muscle contractions that are in the circuit. When those muscles contract, I can’t make those muscles do anything else right now.

“If I can take away their ability to successfully physically fight me or physically resist and I’m trying to arrest them,” Johns said, “almost always there is a significant reduction in injuries to everybody involved.”

Greene County Sheriff’s Office’s taser policy

The Daily Citizen asked the sheriff’s office public information officer if the department’s taser policy was available online or if she could provide a copy. The officer told the reporter to file a formal Sunshine Request for the documents.

The Daily Citizen filed that Sunshine Request, along with a request for other documents on May 25, 2022. GCSO responded that the Sunshine Request would be completed by mid-June. (Readers can expect a follow-up story if and when the Daily Citizen receives any of these documents.)

Sheriff Jim Arnott declined to be interviewed for this story.

Warnings from Axon, the maker of Taser products

In response to the Daily Citizen’s questions about the company’s warnings and recommendations it gives to law enforcement agencies that purchase its product, an Axon spokesperson sent the following in an email:

“(I)ndependent studies have concluded that the use of a TASER® energy weapon carries a risk as low as or lower than most use of force alternatives, and carries a significantly lower risk of injury than physical force. …

“However, like all use force tools, TASER energy weapons are not 100% risk free.

“Axon provides recommendations for the safe and effective use of TASER energy weapons, and warns against known material risks. Axon also offers recommended training materials that an agency can incorporate into its training curriculum, as well as online training through Axon Academy.

“Additionally, Axon provides the following warnings relating to the use of TASER energy weapons and the risk of injury from falling:

(Image provided by Axon)

What about Springfield Police Department’s taser policy?

Lt. Dustin Martin has been with the Springfield Police Department for 19 years. He is the lieutenant over SPD’s training unit and oversees all academy training, in-service training and any outside training officers receive.

In a recent interview with the Daily Citizen, Martin corrected the reporter’s use of the phrase “non-lethal force” when discussing Tasers. Instead, he said SPD uses the phrase “less lethal.”

“These weapons such as the Taser, there is an inherent risk at times of causing some type of issue,” he explained. “If it’s used appropriately, then it shouldn’t. But we don’t ever say anything is non-lethal.”

Martin explained SPD’s Taser training policy and when SPD officers are taught it’s appropriate and not appropriate to use a Taser.

Springfield Police Department’s Lt. Dustin Martin.

When deciding whether or not to use a Taser, the officer must consider the environment, as well as the offender’s condition and what level of resistance they are exhibiting.

For example, if the person is on an elevated platform, they could fall and hurt themselves. If they are in a flammable area, like near gas cans, or if the officer can smell natural gas, deploying a Taser could create a fire or explosion risk, Martin said.

If the subject is in water and is tased, the person could “lock up,” fall in the water and drown, Martin said.

“If somebody is running and they’re in a parking lot, depending on the risk of not apprehending that person, we try not to tase on concrete or a parking lot because that can create further injuries,” Martin said, speaking generally. “If we can wait till they’re in a grassy area, then that’s when the Taser would be deployed.”

Officers should avoid tasing people who are children, pregnant or sickly, Martin said.

“We’re trained not to shoot (those people) unless there’s some reason we need to create that,” he said. “But typically, we’re not going to use the Taser on those subjects.”

According to SPD’s Standard Operating Guideline for Resistance Response, provided to the Daily Citizen by SPD spokesperson Cris Swaters, an officer’s actions in response to resistance should be based upon their perception of the level of resistance.

SPD Guidelines

According to the SPD guidelines, officers are to be aware of six levels of resistance an offender may exhibit. Those levels are described below along with the officer’s appropriate response.

  1. Psychological intimidation: non-verbal actions, often called body language including clenching of fist, widening of foot stance or a blank expression that warns the officer of an individual’s emotional state.
    The “level of control” an officer should use in this situation is simply the officer’s presence. Examples of control: badge and uniform.
  2. Verbal non-compliance: dialogue in the form of threats of physical injury that can influence an officer’s opinion as to the amount of response needed to effect control. An offender may boast of their fighting skill and/or their intention to injure the officer. The level of control is verbal direction. Examples of control: advice, warning and/or persuasion.
  3. Passive resistance: the subject resists control through passive, physical actions. This is the lowest level of physical resistance. At this level, the offender never makes any attempt to defeat the physical contact of the officer. The level of control is soft empty hand techniques. Examples of control: physical control holds and/or pain compliance.
  4. Defensive resistance: occurs when the offender attempts to push or pull away in a manner that does not allow the officer to establish control, but the offender never attempts to strike the officer. The level of control is hard empty hand techniques. Examples of control: stun, strike, OC spray and/or Taser.
  5. Active aggression: physical actions of assault by the offender (punching, kicking). The level of control is intermediate weapons. Examples of control: impact weapons, less lethal and/or K9.
  6. Deadly force assaults: occurs when the subject is assaulting the officer with a weapon, and/or uses techniques or objects that could result in death or serious physical injury to the officer. At this level, officers may not only face resistance to an arrest, but also overt, physical actions against the officer. The level of control is deadly force. Examples of control: firearm, vehicle ramming, and/or roadblock.

Jackie Rehwald

Jackie Rehwald is a reporter at the Springfield Daily Citizen. She covers housing, homelessness, domestic violence and early childhood, among other public affairs issues. Her office line is 417-837-3659. More by Jackie Rehwald