June 21, 2005

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A jolt for those who object to TASERs

By Gordon Dillow, Orange County Register

The police use of TASER electric-shock guns to subdue dangerous suspects has become a controversial issue - in the news media at least. But if you’re worried about potential health risks from getting shot by a TASER, they’re actually pretty easy to avoid.

One excellent way to do that is to refrain from getting skied up on powerful drugs and smashing a window to burglarize a home and then trying to fight it out with the cops. What brings this up is the death late last month of a guy named Richard Alvarado, 38, a chronic criminal who reportedly was spending a Sunday evening cranked up on a “speedball” of heroin and cocaine. At about 7 p.m., Alvarado apparently decided to smash a bathroom window and crawl inside an apartment on Mitchell Street in Tustin to burglarize it. Fortunately, the elderly woman who lived there wasn’t home.

When Tustin police arrived on the scene they found Alvarado in the bathroom, bleeding profusely from cuts from the broken window glass, apparently under the influence of drugs and refusing to comply with orders to surrender. The officers tried to physically restrain him, but he resisted.

(Question: How much would they have to pay you or me to wrestle with a blood-covered drug addict on a carpet of broken glass?) So finally one of the officers broke out a TASER gun, which fires battery-powered electrodetipped wires that deliver a 50,000-volt jolt - which sounds like it would fry a guy, but doesn’t because the charge has extremely low amperage. The jolt which is only a tiny, tiny fraction of what you’d get from, say, a heart defibrillator - simply causes an instant five-second loss of the suspect’s neuromuscular control, which allows officers to slap the cuffs on him.Which is what happened to Alvarado. He was TASERed, handcuffed and then he was conscious and alert for several minutes - or at least as alert as you can be when you’re on heroin and cocaine. But as paramedics arrived he stopped breathing and was later pronounced dead at a hospital. But it almost certainly wasn’t the TASER that killed him. Preliminary indications are that Alvarado died of a drug overdose - and even if he hadn’t OD’d, he likely would have bled out from the cuts from the broken glass. “He basically killed himself,” Tustin police Lt. Jim Peery told me. Nevertheless, Alvarado’s death will provide more fodder for Amnesty International, the so-called humanrights group that says 103 people in the U.S. have died after being shot by police TASER guns since January 2001. The group is campaigning to ban police use of TASERs until the health effects have been further studied. Even for Amnesty International, that’s an incredibly dumb idea.

Think about it. Almost all of those people who died were high on alcohol or drugs - which is generally why a suspect needs a TASERing in the first place. That was also the case in the only other fatal TASER-related incident in Orange County, that one involving a guy who was TASERed by Brea police in 2003 while he was high on methamphetamine. And even Amnesty International says only that those 103 people died after being TASERed, not necessarily as a direct result of being TASERed. In the vast majority of those cases, autopsies have shown that the TASER shot was not the cause of death. Meanwhile, according to the manufacturer, TASER International, TASERs have been used on suspects in the field some 71,000 times in the past five years, along with 100,000 “demonstrations” in police training and elsewhere, with no lasting ill effects. Somehow, 100 deaths out of 71,000 field uses hardly seems like a wave of death-after-TASER.

And what would happen if TASERs were banned? Simple. A lot more cops would be injured in physical fights with suspects, and a lot more suspects would be injured by police batons or wind up getting legally shot by police. Consider, for example, what happened in Tustin last fall when a drug-crazed man who had attacked his wife also attacked two Tustin cops who responded to the call. The officers could have legally aced the guy - that is, shot him - but instead they used batons, pepper spray and a TASER to control him. That guy probably lived because of a TASER - whether he deserved to or not - and the officers were awarded department Medals of Merit for their skill and restraint in the use of force. Of course, no one is suggesting that cops use TASERs on jaywalkers or kids riding bikes without helmets. And I’m certainly not saying that getting TASERed is fun. “It’s not pleasant,” says TASER International spokesman Steve Tuttle, who has experienced it in demonstrations. “But if I had a choice between the TASER and getting shot or even hit with a baton, I’d take the TASER any day.” Exactly. So don’t let Amnesty International fool you. In almost every case, TASERs don’t take lives. They save them.

Gordon may be reached at (714) 796-7953 or by e-mail at gldillow@aol.com.
Source: Orange County Register on Wednesday, June 1, 2005

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