By Michelle Hunter, East Jefferson bureau The Times-Picayune
Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee reached into his department's deep pockets to equip all of the Sheriff's Office's 681 stun guns with tiny video cameras designed to roll tape whenever the guns are deployed.
Lee spent $400 each on the cameras -- $272,400 total -- to upgrade the Taser X26 stun guns used by deputies since April 2004.
While the cameras aren't likely to quell all of the controversy in recent years surrounding the use of Tasers, they'll definitely come in handy if and when the department must defend itself against excessive force lawsuits, the sheriff said. Also, the cameras will also serve as a deterrent against deputy abuse, Lee said.
"This is a good expenditure of money. It's good for us. It's good for the people of Jefferson Parish," he said.
Tasers are considered "nonlethal" force by the Sheriff's Office. They incapacitate defiant arrestees by delivering a 50,000-volt shock via two wire-attached probes that can be fired 21 feet.
The mini-cameras, which attach to the bottom of the Tasers, begin recording as soon as a deputy switches off the stun gun's safety switch, said Capt. Jeff Eddy, head of the Sheriff's Office firing range and armory.
The black and white camera can record up to 1 1/2 hours of footage with sound, and can record in daylight, low light and no light. That footage can be downloaded into a computer and burned onto a computer disc for viewing.
"With allegations of police brutality, we'll be able to show this to the jury," Lee said.
Lee also spent almost $500,000 to refit the department in terms of lethal force. The sheriff bought 1,400 Beretta PX-4 Storm handguns. The 9 mm weapon will replace the previous service weapons, also Berettas, which were about 18 to 20 years old, Eddy said. Officials were concerned about metal fatigue.
The newer models come with interchangeable grips to fit smaller hands and have flashlight and night scope attachments. The guns hold 18 rounds of ammunition as compared with the 15 rounds held by the older weapons. The older guns will be sold to other police departments, Lee said.
Including the cost of the video cameras, the total charge for one Taser is $1,200, easily outstripping the $355 price tag for one Beretta. But Lee said Tasers are worth every penny if they save a life.
Despite their "nonlethal" designation, Tasers have had a somewhat controversial history since their introduction at the Sheriff's Office. At least four people have died after being subdued by deputies with stun guns. The most recent was Murray Bush, 47, a man diagnosed as bipolar who died Jan. 25, 2006, hours after two deputies stunned him after he violently resisted their attempt to take him into custody for treatment.
In October, some in the community became alarmed after a Sheriff's Office deputy used a Taser to subdue a 16-year-old student at Grace King High School in Metairie. The student was not injured.
Lee said Wednesday that he hoped the video cameras would address some of the complaints about Taser abuse.
But Joe Cook, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, said the cameras aren't enough.
"I think that's better than not having them, but it still doesn't alleviate the problem," he said.
Specifically, Cook said the claims of Taser safety still haven't been independently tested by anyone other than the manufacturer. The exact effects of stun guns on people with medical conditions such as heart abnormalities are still unknown. And Cook said he's concerned that officers might be prone to use Tasers in situations where lesser force would be acceptable.
Still, Lee defended the use of Tasers, pointing out that no coroner's office has ever linked any deaths directly to stun guns. Tasers have also reduced the number of injuries to deputies and suspects, Sheriff's Office officials said.
"If someone has the capacity to hurt a deputy or kill someone else, the deputy has the choice to either shoot and kill him or stun him with a Taser. I would rather he shoot him with a Taser and take him into custody," Lee said.