TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Stun-gun death of Cincinnati college student invites questions to your local campus police

Campus police often are secretive with information, but there are times when public records are a matter of life and death. Almost literally.

The Aug. 6 death of an unarmed Ohio man, who suffered cardiac arrest after University of Cincinnati police used a stun-gun on him, is a reminder that interactions between students and campus police can at times turn deadly.

In this article following the death of 18-year-old Everette Howard, USA Today looks at a sampling of campus police policies about when, if ever, stun-gun weapons can be used. While there is some indication that high-profile run-ins with campus police — like the one at the University of Florida in 2007 that briefly turned “don’t Tase me, bro” into a late-show punchline — have led colleges to reexamine their stun-gun policies, the newspaper did not find any drastic changes in the way officers use the devices. (University of Cincinnati police suspended their Taser use pending an inquest into the confrontation with Howard, whose death was officially attributed to cardiac arrest.)

If police on your campus carry Tasers or other stun-gun weapons, there are several freedom-of-information paper trails to follow:

First, request a copy of your own campus police department’s policy as to when officers are authorized to use stun-guns — or, even more broadly, when they are permitted to use varying levels of force. Compare those with the policies published by USA Today, and/or those you can request from comparable-sized colleges, to see whether yours is atypical.

Second, find out how often these types of weapons have actually been used in recent history, how the police department keeps track of their use (again, maybe even more broadly, how the police document — and follow up on — any use-of-force incident), and whether any complaints have been filed by those on the receiving end.

(Of course, the dangerousness of stun-guns is a matter of debate — some proponents argue that, recent fatalities notwithstanding, it’s still safer for police to use stun weapons instead of firearms to defuse a confrontation. Careful reporters will avoid assuming that police use of force is excessive, or that the existence of citizen complaints necessarily proves your police are too aggressive.)

This is the kind of story that can open bigger doors. It’s often helpful to start with the “process story” explaining generically how often police receive citizen complaints and what they do with them, and then drill down more deeply into the specific type and frequency of complaints.