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Vista Police Look to Tasers Following Gun Death Controversy


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They've learned Spanish, re-opened a community sheriff's station, and began reading to kids in schools. They are all efforts made by the Vista Sheriff's Station to regain the trust of the community. A community that was suspicious of its own law enforcement after a series of deputy involved shootings. Deputies have even started using taser guns in an effort to minimize their use of force. Joanne Faryon is here with more.

The sheriff's station came under fire after six Latino men were shot and killed by deputies in a two year period. Then, two months ago, a seventh man died after officers shot him with their taser guns. But despite that, the Captain of the Vista Sheriff's Office says the tasers are working. He stands by the judgement calls his deputies have made.

Audio: Drop the shovel drop the shovel now or you'll be shot -- drop the shovel!

This is a video the county sheriff's department uses to train its deputies in its use of force policy. A computer generates different scenerios, the deputy decides when to shoot.

Audio: Get down stay down stay down, get down!

Training video : You arrive at this residence in response to a call from a franctic female officer, and a man is hitting someone with a shovel.

What would you do -- would you shoot? I'll tell you later what I did and what a long time officer did instead.

Deputies in Vista may be second-guessing what they would do these days. They've been under a lot of scrutiny lately.

This was where 27-year-old David Lopez was shot and killed by deputies last October. He was the sixth Latino man killed in a two year period.

Captain Ed Prenderghast took over the Vista station last year. He's made a lot of changes, including hiring more Spanish-speaking officers; now there are 11 out of 85. He's re-opened this community office in a high crime neighborhood.

Deputies in Vista are also now armed with tasers.

Prenderghast : It's been a very effective tool for us and it has prevented us from having to shoot people.

Prenderghast (firing taser): And if he becomes combative again , then I'll go ahead and turn it on for approxiamtely five seconds until he complies.

They fire a 50,000 volt jolt, enough to stun or subdue a suspect.

Prenderghast : They had a person who was running from them and reached quickly into his waistband and said I'm going to kill you and pulled out his hand and pointed his hand and went bang and the deputy, there was two deputies there, one had a gun and one had a taser drawn and when he said I'm going to kill you and reached , they shot him with a taser and that took him to the ground. And they realized he didn't have a gun. If they didn't have that option, and it was evolving so quickly, he most likely would have been shot.

But even tasers haven't escaped scrutiny in Vista. In February, a 43-year-old man died after being tasered by Vista deputies in the back of a patrol car.

The medical examiner concluded Martin Mendoza died from a lack of oxygen to the brain. Deputies had used their taser guns more than once. Mendoza also had drugs and alcohol in his system.

The taser manual does include a warning that “some subjects may be at risk of sudden death.”

Remember the guy with the shovel? I didn't do anything, I didn't shoot and eventually the computer program selected a scene that had him surrender. In another scenerio, I was stabbed.

That's not what Deputy Eddie Jackson would have done. He's a long time veteran with the sheriff's office.

Jackson : Nobody's happy to take someone's life. That's not a desired outcome ever. You never want to have to do that. But the reality is police work not risk-free. We train our deputies more than any other agency. We're pretty confident of that we put our deputies through training and continue training all the time, including decision-making and judgmental training. Our deputies do a very good job out there all the time.

The San Diego County Sheriff's Office had asked a Los Angeles Agency to review its Use of Force Policy. The preliminary results have been given to the Sheriff. They're expected to be made public in the next couple of weeks.

The seventh man who died after being shot with the taser is being investigated by the Sheriff's homicide unit. All deaths that occur in deputy custody are investigated by this unit.

There have been several taser deaths across the country. One ACLU study looked at 50 police forces in the U.S. and Canada, and recorded 148 deaths in a five-year period.

In San Diego, local police have used tasers for about three years. There was one death last year and another the year before. Although a study that was just released by the UC San Diego Medical center found stun guns had no lasting affects on healthy people, the study didn't look into what happens if you shock someone who's high on drugs or drunk.

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