More Police Turning to Tasers; Weapon Relied on for Nonlethal Force; Critics Warn of Overuse
Tanya Eiserer, The Dallas Morning News
The 32-year-old man had tackled his wife and was holding a knife to her throat as White Settlement police officers arrived.
The February 2001 domestic disturbance call could have ended in tragedy, police said, but for two Tasers used to zap the man and incapacitate him. He was taken into custody, and his wife was not seriously injured.
"She was grateful to be alive," said White Settlement police Capt. Kevin Gregory. "I think afterward the suspect was grateful."
Police looking to use nonlethal force have an arsenal from which to choose: pepper spray, batons, beanbag rounds, stun guns, pepper-gas pellets.
But law enforcement agencies these days are increasingly looking to Tasers to temporarily immobilize people who pose a threat to themselves or others.
Some critics worry that the shocking devices may be used overzealously and that the medical and health risks have not been adequately studied, but police swear by the devices.
Tasers are similar to stun guns in that they use electrical current to temporarily disable someone. But while stun guns must be held against a person to work, Tasers can shoot probes as far as 21 feet.
In Texas, at least 70 law enforcement agencies, including Fort Worth, Hurst, Irving, Plano and Denton County, have purchased Tasers. Several departments, including Richardson, Grand Prairie and Duncanville, are considering buying them. The Dallas Police Department has tested the technology but has not decided whether to use it.
Airlines have also looked to Tasers as a way to disable anyone attempting to take over a cockpit. United Airlines has purchased Tasers and trained its pilots and flight attendants but has not yet received approval from the federal government to use them, an airline spokesman said.
The weapon recently garnered public attention when Arlington police officers used it Dec. 31 in an unsuccessful effort to prevent a suicide on a highway overpass. Ronald Wright, 35, of Grand Prairie jumped to his death moments after the Taser was fired. The department is reviewing the incident.
Taser is an acronym for Thomas A. Swift''s Electric Rifle, a reference to inventor John Cover''s favorite book. The gun-shaped, battery-powered weapon shoots two wires attached to what resembles quarter-inch straightened fish hooks that are electrically charged - one positive, one negative, said Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for Taser International. The Scottsdale, Ariz., company is one of the weapon''s leading suppliers.
The probes, which can attach to clothing or skin, deliver a 26-watt, 50,000-volt charge for five seconds.
"We can interfere with communication between the brain and muscles and prevent any coordinated action," Mr. Tuttle said.
Irving police Sgt. David Blasingame described the experience as akin to being hit repeatedly with a sledgehammer.
"The second that the voltage stops, the discomfort is over," he said, noting that Irving officers have been using the weapons for about 15 years.
The device''s stopping power impressed El Paso Deputy Chief Greg Brickey.
"We haven''t found anyone in our training that it was unsuccessful in stopping in their tracks," he said. His department recently purchased 10 of the devices and plans to eventually buy more to put in patrol cars.
Police-grade Tasers cost about $ 400 each. Tasers are legal for public use in 43 states, including Texas.
Taser International''s research indicates the weapons are more than 90 percent effective. Failures usually result from bad batteries or from one or both probes missing the target, Mr. Tuttle said.
Police officials and Mr. Tuttle credit the shocking devices with reducing officers'' and suspects'' injuries.
"It ends the fight so much quicker," said Seattle police Officer Chris Myers, who coordinates his department''s Taser training.
About 600 Tasers have been issued to officers and supervisors in Sacramento, Calif.
"We seem to be using them less because the people have figured out what they are, and they don''t want anything to do with them," said Sacramento police Sgt. Rick Guilbault. "When the yellow guns come out, it''s time to stop messing around."
Mr. Tuttle said no deaths or serious injuries have been linked to the Tasers, whose low amperage keeps them from causing heart problems.
But Gerald Le Melle, deputy executive director for Amnesty International USA, said he didn''t think the company could make such claims. His organization is calling for a temporary moratorium on the sale of Tasers and stun guns until more testing is done on the devices'' effects on the body.
"We would like to see proper testing and strict guidelines," he said.
Law enforcement officials said they like the fact that information is recorded in a Taser''s data port each time it is fired.
"It keeps everybody honest," Mr. Tuttle said, noting at least six cases in which the data showed suspects had lied about being hit.
Mr. Le Melle said his organization fears the shocking device will be used gratuitously or as an instrument of torture.
"There have been a number of incidents where people who died in custody had more than a requisite number of stun-gun injuries inflicted upon them," he said. "Any incidents where it is not used in self-defense, not to subdue someone but rather to inflict severe pain as a result of anger or frustration, then yes, it is torture."
Ken Cooper, a Taser instructor and director of the Tactical Handgun Training academy in Kingston, N.Y., said, "Anything can be used as a torture device, including a cigarette. ... The more (Tasers) are being used, you''re going to find many more people surviving potentially lethal force encounters with law enforcement."
For further information contact Steve Tuttle, Director of Public Relations at Steve@TASER.com or call 800-978-2737 ext. 2006.
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