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Deputies to Test 50,000-volt Weapon

Courtesy of the St. Petersburg Times (Florida)
March 17, 2003 Monday

TAMPA - The newest weapon in the Hillsborough sheriff''s arsenal looks like a gun. It is carried in a holster like a gun. It fires like a gun. Deputies will test 20 of the weapons, but other police agencies in the area have chosen to quell suspects with beanbag shotguns.

But the weapon - a Glock look-alike that is actually a Taser stun weapon - doesn''t kill.

Because of that, deputies are hoping the Taser will do everything from decreasing on-the-job injuries to reducing the number of officer-involved shootings.

"This is the best thing that has come along in years," said Hillsborough sheriff''s Lt. John Marsicano. "What better way to take a violent person into custody?"

Despite such praise, few law enforcement agencies in the Tampa Bay area use the Taser, which fires electrically charged darts at a suspect.

St. Petersburg police, the Pinellas Sheriff''s Office and Tampa police prefer to use other "intermediate force weapons" when confronted by people who are violent but not brandishing a gun. The most popular include a police baton and specially rigged shotguns that shoot beanbags.

"The amount of force officers are allowed to use is dictated by the amount of force that they''re encountering," said Leonard Territo, a professor of criminology at the University of South Florida.

Territo said inflicting pain is a common way to subdue a suspect. The Taser, he said, is not in that category.

"A Taser will shock you, and shocking passes," he said. "The Taser is a less-than-lethal weapon. It''s certainly better than shooting someone."

Over the next two months, Hillsborough deputies will field-test 20 Tasers. If they meet expectations, several hundred of the department''s deputies will carry the weapons on their belts, on the opposite hip from their service revolvers.

Hillsborough deputies will be using a new version of the Taser. It is battery-powered and uses compressed air to shoot the darts, which can travel up to 20 feet and sting with about 50,000 volts of electricity.

The darts, which are attached to the gun by thin wires, can pierce 2 inches of clothing. Previous versions of the weapon needed contact with a person''s skin to work.

The Taser instantly paralyzes its victim by attacking the central nervous system.

"It''s a jolt," said Sgt. Tony Kolka, a Hillsborough deputy who volunteered to get shot by the gun as part of the agency''s Taser training. "You just lose control of your muscles."

The most famous Taser incident happened in 1991, when more than a dozen Los Angeles police officers fired the stun gun at Rodney King. People who are shot with a Taser recover within minutes, although at least two people in Florida died last year after they were stung by police Tasers.

In both cases, investigators said the deaths were drug-related. Stimulant drugs that speed up the heartbeat, combined with such a huge jolt of electricity, can cause the heart to stop.

Orange County deputies praise the weapon.

Agency spokesman Deputy Carlos Torres said fewer deputies are getting into fights because they can incapacitate a suspect from 20 feet away. That has led to a large reduction in workers'' compensation claims.

"We have less deputies going hands-on," Torres said.

Criminals in Orange County have become aware - and afraid - of the tool. Just the sight of the Taser''s red laser scope has caused some suspects to surrender immediately, Torres said.

About 100 Citrus County sheriff''s deputies carry the Taser, and a few dozen bailiffs in Hernando also use it. Both agencies have used the Tasers for less than two years.

Pasco County only has two Taser guns, earmarked for the jail and the SWAT team.

Spokesman Jon Powers said deputies rely on batons, pepper spray and an air-charged gun that shoots "pepper balls" - a higher concentration of irritating pepper spray.

Many agencies, such as the St. Petersburg Police Department, Pinellas Sheriff''s Office and Tampa Police Department, use specially rigged shotguns that shoot beanbags when officers have to quell a violent person. St. Petersburg police eliminated the Taser in favor of the beanbag weapon.

"The impact is supposed to knock a person off of their feet," said George Kajtsa of the St. Petersburg police.

The beanbag shotgun - called the "Super Sock" by some in law enforcement - hasn''t always worked for Hillsborough deputies.

On a few occasions, the beanbags have merely bounced off the suspect. In one incident, deputies fired four beanbags at a man, and he still raged toward the officer.

"If you get someone who is really high on some potent drugs, they will just shake it off," Powers said.

- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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