A year ago, the Inquirer's Jennifer Lin reported that the Philadelphia Police Department was set to purchase 1,000 new Tasers to be used, an advisor to Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey later said, only by police who had received special Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training in dealing with the mentally ill.
The news came on the heels of an ugly incident on July 3, 2009, detailed by Lin herself, in which a mentally ill, unnamed homeless man was shot dead by Philadelphia police, who said he had threatened them with a box-cutter. It was, as I reported in this column, not the first such incident: At least four people showing signs of mental imbalance had been shot (three killed) before the unknown homeless man that year; at least three more have been killed since.
The new Tasers were supposed to help stop that pattern, to represent not a weaponing-up of the police force, but the opposite: an effort to reduce the number of instances in which a gun was fired. The goal was a good one, but we wondered: Would having more Tasers at their disposal just make police officers more eager to use them? Would Taser use really replace gunshots?
The only evidence (until seven sentences from now) has been anecdotal. There was the teen Tasered by police after running onto the field at a Phillies game. In February, an apparently mentally ill woman was Tasered, and then shot (but not killed), after stabbing an officer. In July, a North Philly man was also Tasered, and then shot, and killed by police. A few weeks ago, mentally ill 18-year-old Patrick Johnson died after being Tasered by police. Last week, another teen was Tasered by police, who say he was throwing punches (he says he wasn't).
But enough stories — what about the numbers? Brace yourself, gentle reader, for some breaking-ass news.
According to Police Department statistics obtained by your dear Man Overboard!, the number of Taser "discharges" since Ramsey became commissioner in 2008 has increased more than two-and-a-half times the number of shots fired by police officers, meanwhile, has not only not decreased, but has gone up by nearly 50 percent.
In other words, the spike in Taser use has not been accompanied by a decline in gun use: Both are up.
More statistics? OK, more statistics!
In 2008, Ramsey's first year as commissioner, police had recorded by October 126 incidents of Taser-use. Over the same period in 2009, they had recorded 290 (130 percent more); this year, the number jumped to 426, a 238 percent increase from 2008.
Incidents involving gunfire, on the other hand, have not decreased over this period. What has increased is the average number of shots fired per incident: from 4.8 shots per incident in 2008 to 6.6 in 2010. When our police shoot, they fire almost two extra shots than they did two years ago. Comparing the number of Taser discharges over the years with the number of Tasers issued to officers, police argued in an e-mail that "the rate of discharges per Taser has dropped."
True ... but you would kind of hope so, given that the number of Tasers issued to police officers has increased by 700 percent.
To be fair, the statistics I got from Philadelphia police tell another surprising story: Overall gun use by police is way down from the pre-Ramsey days of 2006 and 2007, when officers fired about 500 times — close to double the number of shots fired through October of this year. The number of separate incidents in which cops opened fire has dropped by about half since then. Cops, it seems, are shooting less often and with fewer shots than they used to.
But as the number of instances in which they use Tasers climbs, there's no evidence that more Tasers on the streets means much more than, well, more Tasings.
Meanwhile, the cases in which mentally ill people were Tased, and then shot anyway, suggest a re-examination might be in order for CIT training — which is supposed to avert the need for guns. And the recent death-by-Taser of Patrick Johnson raises more questions, specifically about how "non-lethal" these weapons really are — and whether they really are always the best solution to dealing with the mentally ill.
Don't Tase Isaiah Thompson, bro. E-mail him at email@example.com. Check The Clog for colorful charts and graphs.