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November 11, 2004
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Subduing Suspects More Safely in Maryland

Newburg, Maryland -- As 911 calls go, this one was a bit unusual.

A 54-year-old Florida man had barricaded himself inside a bedroom in a house in Newburg and started throwing things out a window while "talking out of his mind," said Lt. Michael McGuigan of the Charles County, Md. Sheriff''s Office.

Deputies soon realized that trying to coax the man out of the house would be futile. The officers concluded the man was clearly irrational, perhaps mentally unstable -- he had placed the 911 call himself.

Ruling out lethal force as not warranted by the situation, the officers knew they had only a few options: They could squirt the man with pepper spray, whack him with a police stick or tackle him.

McGuigan, however, was equipped to try a new tactic. After sneaking onto an enclosed porch at the house on Budds Creek Road, McGuigan fired at the man with a Taser electric stun device, which delivered a 50,000-volt electrical current via two quarter-inch fishhook-like probes.

The man was, as expected, incapacitated long enough for officers to control him and place him in handcuffs before taking him to a local hospital for a mental evaluation. McGuigan said the Taser "worked fantastic" in what he called "a perfect scenario to deploy."

The Sept. 23 incident was the first time the Charles County Sheriff''s Office used the devices, which are new to the local law enforcement arsenal. The Sheriff''s Office has 12 Tasers, and officials hope to have 20 more by year''s end. McGuigan said that in three years, he hopes all 114 patrol officers in the department will have one.

It''s all part of an effort by the Sheriff''s Office to join surrounding police agencies that use the Tasers, including those in Calvert, St. Mary''s and Prince George''s counties. Officials say the devices will help reduce the number of hand-to-hand scuffles with suspects.

"We want to decrease the number of incidents in which an officer has to fight with a suspect," said McGuigan, who has trained nine officers to carry Tasers. "It''s going to prevent suspects and officers from getting seriously hurt."

Steve Tuttle, spokesman for Taser International, the Scottsdale, Ariz., company that makes the Taser X26 -- the newest model and the one used by the Sheriff''s Office -- said the weapons are used by more than 6,000 police agencies in the United States. More than 1,150 of those police agencies, including those in Phoenix, San Diego, Sacramento, Albuquerque and Reno, Nev., have purchased Tasers for every patrol officer, Tuttle said.

The devices are greatly reducing injuries to officers and suspects in addition to saving lives every day, Tuttle said. "We''re seeing a snowball effect," he said, citing an 80 percent drop in injuries to deputies at the Orange County Sheriff''s Office in Florida and a 67 percent drop in injuries to suspects at the Phoenix Police Department.

In Charles County, the Sheriff''s Office became interested about two years ago in a nonlethal alternative to make suspects comply with officers'' orders, McGuigan said.

He said pepper spray does not always work and, once used, can pollute an area and hinder the officer who used it. "It creates a mess," McGuigan said.

He said ASP batons -- retractable steel batons used like billy clubs -- are also not always effective in dealing with a suspect.

Lethal force is warranted only when a suspect threatens lethal force against an officer or someone else, including himself. That would prompt officers to use their service weapon, which they will still carry, McGuigan said.

"Basically, with the Taser, you reduce the number of times you have to go toe to toe with a suspect who is dead set on fighting with police," McGuigan said.

When fired, a nitrogen capsule propels the two probes, which are tethered to the weapon with insulated wire, toward a suspect at 180 feet per second. The Taser can reach targets up to 21 feet away.

The probes'' hooks do not have to pierce the skin to work. Even if they attach themselves to clothing, they''ll still deliver 50,000 volts of electric current to the body over five seconds, rendering the suspect immobile by disrupting sensory and motor nervous system functions, Tuttle said.

There are no lingering effects after the jolt; but with the probes still attached to the suspect, the officer need only hit the trigger again to deliver another blast, Tuttle said.

The Tasers, with the probe cartridge removed, can also double as a stun gun that delivers the same jolt upon direct contact or touch, an option the police welcome.

But the Taser devices, which cost the Sheriff''s Office $865 each, have not come without their share of controversy.

In August, after being sprayed repeatedly with pepper spray and zapped with a Taser that set his hair on fire, Robert C. Trouth, 29, of Hustle, Va., still managed to take away one Fredericksburg police officer''s service weapon before a second fired one shot into his back.

Tuttle said he''s not sure why Trouth''s hair caught fire but that if police used an alcohol-based pepper spray, a spark from the Taser could have ignited the fumes.

In April, Eric Wolle, 45, died after Montgomery County police tried to subdue him with a Taser -- with two blasts that had no effect -- near his Washington Grove home. An autopsy concluded that Wolle died of heart failure and that the Taser did not cause his death.

Tuttle said those were situations in which one or both of the probes probably didn''t take hold. "It''s not a magic bullet. Certain things have to happen for the probes to work," he said, explaining that both probes have to take hold to create a sufficient electrical circuit.

Tuttle said the weapons deliver about 1 percent of the power of heart defibrillators. As of several months ago, Tuttle said 44 people have died after being shot by the Tasers, but the weapons were not to blame.

"In every single case," Tuttle said, "the medical examiner has attributed the direct cause of death in the autopsy reports to causes other than the Taser device."

McGuigan said that while researching the Tasers, he learned that the greatest risk of injury for someone zapped with a Taser usually occurs while falling down.

"They can go down and hit their head," McGuigan said. "We''re trained to anticipate that."

He said that officers are trained to fire the Taser''s probes at a suspect''s torso and that an accidental shot in a suspect''s neck, eye, breast or groin requires a trip to the hospital, no matter how serious the wound.

McGuigan said that all officers trained to use the Tasers are zapped themselves to give them an idea of what it''s like. He said that in his case, it started with a pulsing sensation at his hip, where the probe was, and moved throughout his whole body.

"It wasn''t pleasant," McGuigan said. "All I could think of was, ''Please take it off!'' "

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