The Utah branches of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People this week have called for reviews in the death of a Salt Lake City man after he was repeatedly shocked by police with a Taser.
The FBI, which investigates civil-rights cases and complaints of excessive force by police, is also looking into the matter.
Alvin Itula, 35, died Saturday night after a struggle with police in which the officers used pepper spray, a baton and a Taser to subdue him. The NAACP wants to know whether officers used too much force, and the ACLU wants the Salt Lake police department to re-evaluate its policy on using Tasers, which send an electrical shock through a person's body.
Jeanetta Williams, president of the Utah chapter of the NAACP, wants to know whether the police officers used the Taser differently on Itula than they have on other people.
"If they used it with more force, and excessively, on this individual who died, more so than they did with white men, then there is a problem," Williams said Wednesday.
Itula, who was Samoan, died after leading police on a foot chase. Police had tried to stop him and question him about a felony warrant that at the time, they didn't know had been recalled. When Itula saw officers, he ran, police said. Officers caught up with him near 300 South and 1300 West. Police said he then fought with the officers and was tased. Witnesses said the Tasers were used multiple times.
Officers also used pepper spray and a baton during the struggle. After police subdued and handcuffed Itula, he stopped breathing. The officers performed CPR and called for medical help. Itula was transported to a hospital, where he died.
Itula had a history of violence with police. In June 2005 he was arrested and later charged in 3rd District Court with drug possession, possession of drug paraphernalia and interfering with an arrest, according to court records. He received additional charges of assault by a prisoner, interfering with an arrest and drug possession for an incident on May 17, 2005.
The four officers involved in the incident Saturday have been on routine, paid administrative leave pending an internal investigation and an investigation from the Salt Lake District Attorney's Office. A final autopsy report to determine the exact cause of death could take a couple of weeks.
The ACLU sent a letter Wednesday to Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson, asking him to reconsider modifications he made to the city's Taser policies for the police department earlier this year. Dani Eyer, executive director of Utah's ACLU chapter, said that the group isn't opposed to using Tasers. Instead, the ACLU wants to make sure that police are using the stun guns only in cases when they otherwise would use bullets.
"The point of this standard is that Tasers could be used to save lives, not to take lives, in lieu of a bullet," Eyer said. "It would give officers a less-lethal force option to use in lieu of their guns."
Anderson gave his approval for Salt Lake City police officers to carry Tasers in January.
"Proper Taser use, with clear written policies governing such use, will significantly increase both the safety of the public and Salt Lake City police officers," Anderson said in a statement in January.
Under Salt Lake City's Taser policy, the devices can be used "in intermediate force situations when a dangerous or violent subject aggressively resists or attempts to flee." The policy also said that "officers should use reasonable caution when delivering multiple cycles to a subject."
Like all departments in Utah, Salt Lake City police are required to be certified before they can use a Taser. Police Officer Standards and Training does not offer Taser training, so each department sets its own certification requirements.
At the Weber County Sheriff's Office, Lt. Donny Archuletta said deputies must under go eight hours of training before being certified. That training is a basic course provided by the manufacturer of the Taser, TASER International, combined with study of the department's own policy on use of deadly force. Some of that training includes teaching officers to only use a Taser on certain parts of the body and not on others, such as the head and neck.
All police officers from every department are taught "force continuum," or steps used to try to resolve a situation. The first stage is just an officer's presence, followed by verbal commands, less than lethal force such as pepper spray, a baton or Taser, and then deadly force. Some officers note, however, that going from point A to use of deadly force can happen in a matter of seconds.
Last month, Amnesty International called on all law enforcement agencies to suspend the use of Conducted Energy Devices, or CEDs, pending more study. The organization cited more than 150 people who have died in the United States since 2001 after being tased.
"While in most cases deaths have continued to be attributed to factors other than the Taser, such as 'excited delirium' associated with drug intoxication or violent struggle, in 23 cases coroners have listed the use of the Taser as a cause or a contributory factor in death," according to Amnesty International.Salt Lake police refused to comment Wednesday, referring any inquiries to the Salt Lake District Attorney's Office, which is investigating the incident.