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2016 Explanatory Reporting, Medium Newsroom finalist

Shocking Force

About the Project

With the nation focused on police use of force, The Baltimore Sun turned its attention this year to how officers across the state were using Tasers. While the number of deaths from Tasers mounted nationwide, a unique system required police in Maryland to report data on each time an officer discharged the weapon. That allowed The Sun to delve more deeply into the issue.

Sun reporters spent months creating a database of every Taser use by police from 2012 to 2014 with information obtained through the Maryland Public Information Act. The Sun’s first-ever data analysis of these incidents revealed that police predominantly used Tasers against suspects who, by their own assessment, didn’t pose an immediate threat.

The Sun also found that police failed to follow widely accepted safety recommendations in hundreds of cases over the three year-period, shocking people for longer than what’s safely recommended and firing at the chest despite warnings that it could cause cardiac arrest.

Meanwhile, reporters sought to tell the stories of those who were shocked or even killed after encounters with police who used Tasers. They obtained video footage of a 2013 incident in which police used a Taser on a man, who later died, from a witness who kept the recording for years on an old iPad with a cracked screen. While the video had been turned over to police, it had not been shared with the family of the victim. The Sun produced an in-depth video package to accompany our investigative story, and utilized the recovered footage.

Our video opens with the image of Anthony Howard jumping and dancing on a car in a residential parking lot. Audio plays of a woman telling a 911 operator how scared she is for the man – who was high on cocaine – and for others in the community. Then a police car pulls up to the scene and a graphic is displayed, stating that from 2012-2014, police in Maryland used stun guns 2,973 times. The video then cuts to Howard’s family, which is huddled around a laptop and for the first time sees video of the Montgomery County police approaching and then using two Tasers on Howard nine times for 37 seconds.

The pained looks on the faces of Howard’s family as they watch the scene unfold and hear bystanders in the background yell at police to “Get him again!” is a particularly powerful piece of digital storytelling. What follows is footage of police training with Tasers as well as interviews with key sources, including lawyers, families of those who died after being hit with Tasers, and law enforcement representatives. The nearly 10-minute video ends with a return to the Howard home and poignant reflection from the family.

Reporters also worked with digital designers to create interactive graphics on Taser-related deaths and the longest Taser strikes. They created a simulation so that readers could experience, in a sense, what it was like for Travis Smith to be hit by a Taser 22 times for a total of 68 seconds. Baltimore police suspected Smith was trying to break into a home. He was taken to the hospital and later released without being charged with a crime.

The simulation opens with Taser’s warning to not activate the device longer than 15 seconds to reduce the risk of serious injury or death. Readers click or tap “start” and are brought to a second screen that provides background information on Smith’s case, and click/tap “next” two more times to begin the simulation. What appears next is a presentation that counts down each of the 22 stuns, demonstrating the duration of each shock and the amount of time between shocks, showing readers almost exactly what Smith experienced.

Other digital highlights include a graphic showing that Baltimore Police Taser use is highest in poor, black areas, and an embedded interactive that offers snapshots of the 11 people killed after Taser incidents in Maryland since 2009. Each mini-profile includes a link off page to a PDF of that person’s autopsy opinion.