Fort Worth

When Using a Taser, All Police Don't Play by the Same Rules

Families of victims push for policy changes regarding the use of Tasers

Police departments in Fort Worth and Garland may both consider changes in their use-of-force policies following an NBC 5 investigation into the risk of deadly fires when an officer deploys a Taser.

The company that makes the weapon, Axon, clearly warns that, "when possible," a Taser should not be used on or near flammable liquids.

Axon told NBC 5 Investigates in a statement it was "aware of eight deaths, and four instances of non-fatal burns resulting from fume ignition by a CEW," meaning conducted electrical weapon.

One such death occurred in Arlington in 2017, another in neighboring Oklahoma, both involving police who used a Taser in an effort to subdue suicidal subjects who had poured gasoline on themselves.

Law enforcement officer instructor Jerry Staton set up a demonstration to show how fast he says a person could ignite when doused with gasoline and shot with a Taser. The aluminum under the shirt is used to help conduct the electricity in the same way blood would conduct electricity after the Taser's projectiles penetrate the skin.

However, despite the fire risks, NBC 5 Investigates found that at least nine law enforcement agencies in Texas, including the Department of Public Safety, do not include in their use-of-force policies a warning that using a Taser near flammables can cause a fire.

Instead, those departments said they addressed the risks in the training of their officers but do not carry that over to their use-of-force policies.

But a former police officer and master Taser expert, along with the families of the two men who lost their lives after being hit by a CEW, said the dangers should also be spelled out in each department’s use-of-force guidelines to ensure consistency on how to avoid an accident.

The Fort Worth Police Department does not mention the fire risks in its use-of-force policy. But that may change, said Buddy Calzada, a Fort Worth police spokesman.

Fort Worth police officer Buddy Calzada shares a personal story where he had to consider using a Taser on a suicidal woman threatening to jump off a highway overpass into traffic below.

"I can tell you that we're always updating our policy, and this may be something that you see added shortly," Calzada said in an interview with NBC 5 Investigates.

He added, "What I can tell you is that … our officers are educated on this … I went through the training myself. It was made extremely clear."

Freda and Donald Carrothers believe Taser fire warnings should be in the use-of-force orders for police.

"It's just hard to believe they don't put that in their policy," Freda Carrothers said.

Their son, Dana Carrothers, burned to death in a fire that began after he was struck by a police Taser.

He had doused himself with gasoline and was reported to be suicidal when confronted by police alongside a rural road in Oklahoma.

His parents said their son suffered from bipolar disorder.

Freda and Donald Carrothers, the parents of a man killed when he was engulfed in flames after being struck by a Taser, are pushing for stricter guidelines and more training on the use, and risks associated with, the devices. The Carrothers' son, Dana, was suicidal and had doused himself in gasoline before being hit with the Taser.

"You can't even believe it. Still, it's just too awful," Freda Carrothers said of the way her son died.

Both parents said they don't want to criticize police officers, including the one who pulled the Taser trigger on their son, but do want greater awareness of what could happen around gasoline.

"We're not trying to bash them at all. That's a tough job," Freda Carrothers said.

Her husband added, "We just don't want it to happen to somebody else."

Carrothers was one of two men who burned to death in 2017 after a police Taser was deployed.

NBC 5 News
Gabriel Olivas, left, and Dana Carrothers, right, were both engulfed in flames after dousing themselves in gasoline and being shot by police using Taser devices.

The first was Gabriel Olivas, whose family called for police and firefighters in Arlington after Olivas, behaving suicidal, drenched himself in gasoline.

Initially, only police answered the call for help. Firefighters were later dispatched, but only after Olivas was Tasered and his body engulfed in flames.

In both the Carrothers and the Olivas case, no official ruling was made on what caused the fires that killed them. And in each incident, police reported the men may have been holding a lighter.

But those same reports said the fires started right after police Tasers were deployed.

NBC 5 Investigates found that the Dallas Police Department has one of the most restrictive policies when it comes to the risks of using a Taser.

Referring to it as an "electronic control weapon," the department says in its use-of-force guidelines that "ECWs WILL NOT" be used "when the subject has come in contact with flammable liquids or is in a flammable atmosphere."

Jose Sanchez, NBC 5 Investigates
Freda and Donald Carrothers said they want all police use-of-force policies to include the fire risks of using a Taser.

Other departments, however, said Taser fire risks don't need to be included in official policy because they are covered in training.

That is the feeling in Irving, where police said, "We do address this in Taser class," and in Garland, where the department said, "the risks associated with the use of a Taser is extensively covered, including its use around flammable liquids."

Police from multiple departments said it's impossible to apply written policy to every possible scenario in which an officer must decide whether to use a Taser, and risk a fire, or take the more deadly course of shooting a gun.

"Sometimes you're going to face things that you didn't want to face, or you're going to see things that you didn't want to see, or you're going to have to do things that you didn't want to do," said Calzada, the Fort Worth police spokesman.

Jerry Staton, a former policeman and an expert in the use of Tasers, agreed.

But, to better avoid confusion for officers in the field, training and policy should match, with each spelling out the dangers of deploying a Taser near combustibles, Staton said.

Otherwise, he said, "if you are training one thing and your policy says something else, then that's a recipe for disaster."

Following NBC 5 Investigates' report Thursday night on the risk of fire associated with Taser devices, the Garland Police Department told NBC 5 Friday that they would be revisiting their policy regarding use of the devices near flammable liquids.

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