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Tasers Spark Terror In Crime Suspects, Police Find

By Patricia Bigg, The Arizona Republic

The growing weapon of choice in Arizona law enforcement is yellow and black and stings like 50,000 bees.

In Arizona, 74 law-enforcement agencies are testing or using Tasers, less-than-lethal weapons that take down suspects with a 50,000-volt, pulsating electrical charge but leave no permanent damage. Tasers are being tested even in London, where the Bobbies historically have not carried firearms.

This month, Chandler Police Department added them to every officer''s arsenal, something Phoenix did last month and Yuma is in the process of doing.

Phoenix decided to go to full deployment after testing the weapons with special squads like SWAT.

"We''re seeing that the injuries to suspects were dropping, injuries to officers were dropping," Sgt. Bret Draughn said.

Other agencies around the state have Tasers assigned to each squad or available to check out. Even Arizona State University Department of Public Safety has purchased four, enough to equip each shift, and plans to purchase more.

The trend-setter in the state is Salt River Tribal Police Department, which put Tasers on every officer nearly three years ago.

"I think we have a very progressive chief and progressive tribal council," said Lt. Kim Pound, a spokesman for the Salt River Tribal police. The less-than-lethal weapons have been used about 40 times and have replaced baton use, Pound said.

"The officers carry the expandable batons but I can''t remember the last time an officer used one," Pound said.

He said the only problem they''ve had is when the weapon was used on a large suspect. The electricity acts on muscles, and can reach about three inches beyond the darts.

"In obese people, you don''t have the muscle right there, there''s this layer of protection," Pound said. Their solution has been to have two officers fire simultaneously.

Earlier less-than-lethal options, such as stun guns, pepper spray and batons, use pain to coerce surrender. Tasers give suspects no choice, stopping them in their tracks with muscle contractions.

"Whether you want to or not, you''re going to comply," said Glendale police Sgt. Steve Hadley. "The electricity and the wavelengths going through your body take over your central nervous system."

Officials say the investment of about $600 per Taser, plus the ongoing cost of cartridges, is worth it to reduce the risk of injury to officers and suspects.

"We''ve had times when we needed them and didn''t have them," said Chandler Officer Doug Scholz.

A detail still being worked out by agencies is whether to require that officers carry their Tasers at all times or just keep them accessible in their cars.

Many of the Salt River police carry them in the cargo pockets of their uniforms. Chandler officers carry them either on their belt or on a thigh holster.

"The biggest downside is it''s one more thing they have to carry," Draughn said. Phoenix has not yet set a policy.

Since April 1, Chandler police have used Tasers five times. They also discovered that merely the threat of the weapon is enough to stop criminals.

Field Training Officer Phil Besse pulled out his service weapon last month while trying to arrest a suspected burglar and car thief. The suspect ignored Besse''s commands, and undaunted by the weapon aimed at him, rammed through a police-car blockade and drove off. When his car got stuck in a field, he took off running.

"I chased him down in a borrowed golf cart," Besse recalled. "He looked at the bright yellow gun, immediately lay down on the ground and begged not to be tased."

Steve Tuttle, director of government affairs for Scottsdale-based Taser International, said he has heard many stories like that.

"Everybody''s programmed to fear electricity since the cave man days," Tuttle said. "When you start saying 50,000 volts, everybody''s eyes go bug-eyed."

Although the large voltage frightens people, electrical danger is tied more to the wattage and amperage, Tuttle said. Voltage is a measurement of how far a spark can jump through the air, rather than how strong the current is.

"Our amperage is so low that the cardiac tissue literally ignores it," he said.

Tasers of one form or another have been in existence since the 1960s. Although civilians can buy Tasers, they are not quite as powerful as the version sold to police.

"It''s like a stun gun on steroids," Tuttle said.

The yellow-and-black weapon fires two barbed darts, connected by copper wires. It fires a five-second burst of electricity that interrupts communication between the brain and muscles. The muscles contract, usually causing the person to fall down. And though there have been in-custody deaths of suspects after a Taser was used, the weapon has never been determined as the cause of death.

The weapon is fully trackable. A computer chip date stamps every time the trigger is pulled. The cartridges have serial numbers, and when fired they release confetti with the serial numbers on them. Investigators at a scene invovliving several officers can determine who fired how many times.

Officers do not expect the weapon to end lethal force situations.

"It''s not the answer to all our prayers," Draughn said. "But it''s another option."


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