Tasers Saving Lives; Departments Equipping More Officers, But Some Still Worry
By Ron Nissimov, The Houston Chronicle
While he served as Phoenix''s police chief, Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt bought more Taser guns than any department in the country, equipping all of his 1,600 patrol officers.
Now he wants to make the Houston Police Department the nation''s largest buyer with a proposed purchase of 3,600 Tasers - again, equipping every patrol officer with the devices, which fire two tiny darts that deliver a debilitating electric shock. Tasers are promoted as a nonlethal alternative to firearms.
"I do not own any stock in Tasers," Hurtt quipped to City Council last week while pushing his plan to spend $ 3.2 million for the devices.
But he certainly puts stock in a new generation of Tasers developed in 1999. They have become popular around the country because they are much more efficient at immobilizing suspects than earlier models.
While Hurtt was in Phoenix, his department was rocked by statistics showing police were more likely to shoot and kill civilians there than in any other of the nation''s 10 largest cities. After Hurtt bought Tasers for his officers in early 2003, fatal shootings decreased by 31 percent.
Other cities also reported similar results. Miami had no police shootings last year, for the first time in 14 years. Seattle had none for the first time in 15 years.
The company that makes the new devices, Taser International of Scottsdale, Ariz., estimates that 1,900 lives have been saved since 1999 because police used the Tasers instead of guns. The publicly held company is projecting a 150 percent sales increase for the second straight year.
Mayor Bill White, who supports buying the Tasers, said the council will consider them as part of the his capital improvements package, but he has not set a date for the vote.
Hurtt, who took over HPD in March after a year in which the department''s image was tarnished by the fatal shootings of two unarmed teenagers, believes Tasers can save lives and help the city avoid expensive lawsuits.
But Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union are raising concerns that Tasers have contributed to some deaths and that they are being used unnecessarily to control suspects, even when officers'' lives are not in danger.
Claiming that 51 people have died in custody in the United States since 1999 after being stunned by Tasers, Amnesty International is asking police departments to stop using them until their safety is assessed by independent researchers. Presumably because of the sharp increase in the number of police departments using Tasers, 24 of those deaths have occurred in the last eight months, said Ed Jackson, spokesman for Amnesty International''s office in Washington.
Last week, a coroner in Las Vegas ruled for the first time in the United States that a new-model Taser played a role in an in-custody death. A 26-year-old man on PCP who was stunned seven times in 10 minutes while struggling with police in February died of a heart attack. Clark County Medical Examiner Ronald Knoblock said the Taser contributed to the death.
"I can''t say the Taser in itself caused his death," Knoblock told the Las Vegas Sun newspaper. "If you took the Taser away I couldn''t say he wouldn''t have died."
Jackson said Tasers also were used in numerous other incidents where in-custody deaths officially were ruled as caused by heart attacks, drug overdoses or asphyxiation.
"Because this pattern continues to emerge, we''re saying, ''Let''s slow down and look at this thing,'' " Jackson said.
Earlier this year, two law enforcement agencies in Georgia stopped using Tasers after the state recorded five deaths of people who had been stunned by the devices. But other law agencies in the state said they would continue to use Tasers.
Closer to home, a Harris County jury in January acquitted a Baytown police officer accused of assaulting a 59-year-old woman by zapping her with a Taser in July 2003. The woman has filed a lawsuit in Galveston federal court alleging she required 17 stitches after she was stunned unnecessarily and then thrown against a pole.
Taser International officials insist that their products have been proven to be safe by researchers around the world.
"In just the last 60 days there have been 19 in-custody deaths where no Taser was used at all," said Mark Johnson, government affairs manager for the company. "In-custody deaths are nothing new; they continue to happen, unfortunately."
Johnson said there is no evidence that the Tasers - which transmit 50,000 volts of electricity - have caused any deaths.
The shock lasts for five seconds, unless the user prolongs it by continuing to hold the trigger.
Johnson discounted the significance of the coroner''s ruling in Las Vegas. He pointed out that the coroner said the suspect''s PCP overdose and early stages of pneumonia were secondary causes of death, and only mentioned the Taser because he could not rule it out.
He said Tasers are well suited for subduing people who are on drugs or who are struggling with police, and that people with drug addictions often have heart problems that can become acute during physical exertion.
Johnson said any device can be abused by police, but pointed out that his company''s Tasers record all firings on a microchip so officers can be held accountable.
Johnson said that based on the assumption that police report one out of five Taser firings, there have been 17,000 Taser firings since 1999. The company has received reports of 398 lives saved, and has estimated the actual number to be 1,990.
HPD officials have told City Council members that the department will not allow use of Tasers against suspects with guns, because the shock might cause the suspect to fire the gun. Otherwise, HPD officers will be allowed to use their discretion in deciding when to fire Tasers, but they will not be allowed to use them during interrogations.
HPD will provide officers with four hours of training and will investigate all Taser firings.
Councilwoman Ada Edwards has said she is concerned about the safety of Tasers and whether they would be abused. She has asked Hurtt to provide her with statistics on how Tasers can save lives so she can discuss the matter with her constituents.
HPD bought 15 new Tasers last month for training purposes, and has 150 Tasers that were manufactured in 1974. HPD first purchased Tasers in 1982, after police shot a 22-year-old former mental patient who lunged at them with a knife. HPD never had more than a few hundred of the older Tasers at one time, and reported mixed results with them because they were sometimes ineffective.
The older and bulkier Tasers fire up to 15 feet, whereas the new Tasers are more than 90 percent accurate up to 21 feet.
LATEST GENERATION OF TASERS:
Darts propelled by nitrogen cartridge are accurate up to 21 feet and deliver a debilitating 50,000-volt shock.
Used by 4,500 police agencies nationwide.