In the weeks since an off-duty Cincinnati police officer used a Taser on an 11-year old black girl, the Cincinnati Police Department has been under intense scrutiny, facing allegations of excessive force and heightened concerns about how the department uses Tasers.
The incident happened at a local grocery store on August 6. According to local reports, off-duty police officer Kevin Brown was working as a security guard at the store and suspected 11-year-old Donesha Gowdy of shoplifting. The police department noted that she was seen placing food into a backpack and did not stop when Brown approached her as she left the store. Brown then fired his Taser, striking the girl in the back.
The girl was arrested for “theft and obstructing official business” and was taken to a local hospital for evaluation. On August 8, Cincinnati Mayor John Cranely announced that charges against the girl had been dropped.
Earlier this week, body camera footage showing the aftermath of the incident was released. The video does not show Brown using the Taser.
“The last thing I want to do is tase you like that,” Brown tells Gowdy in the video. “When I say stop, you stop. You know [you’re] caught, just stop.”
“It hurt my heart to do that to you,” he adds.
But shortly after, Brown defends his decision to use the Taser on the child. “I got to listen to all these idiots out here in the parking lot telling me how I was wrong for tasing you,” he says. “You broke the law and fled as I tried to apprehend you.”
In one part of the video, Gowdy can be seen wincing in pain and crying as the Taser barbs are removed from her back. In an earlier part of the video, she asks to call her mother.
“You know what, sweetheart, this is why there’s no grocery stores in the black community, because of all this going on,” Brown adds.
In interviews with news outlets last month, Gowdy and her mother acknowledged that the girl had taken items from the store, but explained that using a Taser was an inappropriate response to the situation. “If you can’t run, then you need to get off the police force. If you can’t handle an 11-year-old child, then you really need to get off the police force. You here to protect these kids,” Donna Gowdy, the girl’s mother, told local ABC affiliate WCPO.
“It hit my back real fast and then I stopped, then I fell and I was shaking and I couldn’t really breathe,” Donesha Gowdy told NBC News when recounting the incident. “It’s just like you’re passing out but you’re shaking.”
The incident has garnered national attention and fueled outrage and concern from Cincinnati politicians and community members, who question why a stun gun was used on the child. “It’s hard to understand why an 11-year-old would be tased,” Cincinnati Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman, chair of the city council’s Law and Public Safety Committee, said last month.
The officer involved in the Cincinnati incident violated several department policies
The police department launched an investigation into the matter, and the officer involved in the incident was placed on restricted duty. In addition to releasing the body camera footage this week, the department announced that Brown’s use of force was unjustified, and that he violated department policy when he failed to warn Gowdy about the Taser before using it. He also violated policy when he failed to turn on his body camera during the actual encounter.
Additionally, the department noted that Brown, who is black, made prejudiced comments during the encounter. The Cincinnati Enquirer notes that this is the second time Brown has been reprimanded for his remarks; he previously used a homophobic slur to refer to a woman alleging domestic violence.
Brown will need to go through a disciplinary hearing before a final punishment is determined.
According to the Cincinnati Police Department’s official policy, officers are cautioned to “avoid using the Taser on obviously pregnant females and those individuals under the age of 7 or over the age of 70 due to the potential for these individuals to fall when incapacitated by a taser, unless the encounter rises to the level of a deadly force situation.”
The policy also notes that “an individual simply fleeing from an officer, absent additional justification, does not warrant the use of the TASER.” Smitherman has said that he will move to have the minimum age for Taser use raised to 12 in the wake of the incident. The department has also said that it is open to updating the use of force policy.
“We are extremely concerned when force is used by one of our officers on a child of this age,” Police Chief Eliot Isaac said in a statement at the time. “As a result, we will be taking a very thorough review of our policies as it relates to using force on juveniles as well as the propriety of the officer’s actions.”
The Cincinnati incident, which followed other recent high-profile cases where police officers were criticized for using Tasers, calls attention to the ways that police use of force can be dangerous even in nonlethal incidents. But the latest Taser incident in Cincinnati also called renewed attention to the way this particular police department uses the devices, something it has received considerable scrutiny for in recent years.
This isn’t the first time Cincinnati police have been criticized for using Tasers on children
As national attention to fatal police shootings of black men and women has increased in recent years, Tasers were regularly discussed as a safer, nonlethal alternative for police officers. But that isn’t exactly how they’ve been used, with some police departments deploying Tasers to force compliance in incidents where they aren’t needed.
”It’s what we call the ‘lazy cop syndrome,’” Geoffrey Alpert, an expert on police training at the University of South Carolina, told Vox’s German Lopez in 2015. “Sometimes cops go to Tasers too early and too often.”
The Cincinnati Police Department in particular has been criticized for this. Last year, the department was criticized by local politicians and accused of displaying “horrible judgment” after officers used Tasers on two unarmed black men, one of whom had recently undergone spinal surgery, as they stood in their mother’s living room. The officers had been called to resolve a dispute at the residence.
Cases involving black children and teenagers have been particularly problematic for the department. In April, the department faced protests following an incident where police fired a Taser at a black teen. The department initially justified the Taser use by saying that the boy, part of a group of teens blocking a store entrance, “became disorderly and fled on foot.”
Taser use, like other incidents of police use of force, disproportionately affects black people. And it’s likely that perceptions of black boys and girls as less innocent and more adult-like than they actually are play a role in this type of force being used against them.
Tasers “are being used far more frequently than policymakers and police administrators originally envisioned,” Thomas Nolan, a criminologist at the Merrimack College of Massachusetts, told Vox in 2015. “If the same level of scrutiny was used in these use-of-force incidents as was applied to deadly use-of-force incidents, I think that would be a disincentive to using these Tasers as default self-defense weapons.”