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July 09, 2003
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Police Test Nonlethal Weapons

Police test nonlethal weapons; Officers first must get taste of what they might dish out

Copyright 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Police in Gwinnett are evaluating a high-tech weapon to subdue violent suspects. But before officers can carry their new electric-shock pistol onto the streets, they have to learn what it feels like --- firsthand.

"They hit me with it in both of my legs," Duluth police Maj. Don Woodruff said. "In a few seconds it hit me, and I almost fell out. If there wasn't two guys there to catch me, I would have hit the ground."

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Like most police agencies across the country, departments in Gwinnett require officers to use the nonlethal weapons on themselves in training so that they'll know the type of pain or sensation the suspect is feeling. For example, before they can use the gas commonly known as pepper spray, they get sprayed in the face to feel the effects.

The county police department is trying out four tazers, which can disable a suspect from a distance of up to 21 feet.

The Sheriff's Department has about a half-dozen tazer guns. And Duluth police said supervisors have had the weapon for about year.

The weapon can subdue a suspect with a probe that sends a 50,000-volt electrical shock, even through clothing. Many of the weapons are programmed to give a 30-second jolt.

Though the prospect of being shot with the tazer is daunting, many officers say they understand the need to feel the pain that they may have to apply to a suspect.

Some officers, however, object to this type of training, saying they do not have to be shot with bullets to be certified to carry a gun, said Gwinnett police Cpl. Bobby Walker, who works in the police training academy.

"But you know when you pull a trigger of a gun death is the result," Walker said. "The [pepper-based oleoresin capsicum gas] and the tazer cause a level of pain, and it is makes sense for an officer to know about the pain so they won't use it when it is not necessary."

Also, certain forms of OC gas can blow back toward the person who sprays it. The training allows an officer to experience the weapon in a safe environment, police say.

Sheriff's Department Lt. Nick Neal remembers the searing heat on his face during his OC training.

"It was one of the coldest days of the year, and I spent a half an hour with my face under a water hose after they sprayed me with that," Neal said. "I was sitting under the water hose in freezing weather, and it felt like my face was on fire. I wish that they would've cut me with a knife. It would've felt better."

Neal said the training dramatically affected the way he'll use the weapon on the streets.

"I have never even used the OC yet," Neal said. "I've pulled it out a couple times, and for the [suspects] who have already been sprayed with it, the effect is like racking a shotgun."

Gwinnett police are evaluating the tazers and soon will decide whether to purchase more, Walker said. The weapons cost about $500 each.

Sheriff Butch Conway said the tazer has many uses for his department, especially within the jail.

But the last three times police used lethal force were not tazer situations, authorities said:

* Undercover Gwinnett police officers shot and killed a man at a Home Depot parking lot in Doraville in March after the man fired at them, police say.

* A Gwinnett police SWAT team tried tear gas to subdue a Hamilton Mill man during a six-hour stand-off on New Year's Eve. They shot and killed him after he aimed a shotgun at officers, police say.

* Duluth police had planned to use the tazer guns during a dramatic shootout with a suspect at a subdivision last year, said Woodruff. They had to bring out firearms after the suspect began firing at them, Woodruff said.

"When you're dealing with real-life bullets, it makes no sense to come back with the nonlethal weapons," Woodruff said.



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